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Mathew Brady via Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Robert Smalls: The Slave Who Stole a Confederate Warship and Became a Congressman

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Mathew Brady via Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

It was the spring of 1862, and Robert Smalls—a 23-year-old enslaved man living in Charleston, South Carolina—was desperate to buy the freedom of his wife and children. The asking price was $800.

He had money saved up. Since the age of 12, Smalls had worked odd jobs in Charleston: lamplighter, rigger, waiter, stevedore foreman. At around age 15, he had found work on the city’s docks and joined the crew of the ship CSS Planter. For every $15 he earned, Smalls was allowed to keep $1. The rest of the money went to his owner.

Smalls tried earning extra cash on the side, buying candy and tobacco and reselling it at a higher price. But it was hardly enough. When he asked to buy the freedom of his wife and children, he barely had $100 to his name. He knew, at that rate, the task could take him decades. Smalls had to think of something new—something drastic.

The Planter. Image credit: New York Public Library Digital Collections // Public Domain

An unwitting bystander might have mistaken Robert Smalls and his wife Hannah Jones for freed slaves. The couple had met when Robert was 16, working at a hotel where Hannah was employed as a maid. They married, had two children, and lived in a private apartment above a horse stable in Charleston. Each day, Robert walked alone to the docks and wharves of Charleston, eventually finding himself work on the CSS Planter.

But appearances of freedom were an illusion. Smalls and Jones had to give nearly all of their income to his owner. Worse yet, the couple was constantly burdened with worry. Smalls knew that his wife and children could be stripped from his life on his owner’s whim. He knew the only way to keep his family together was to buy them.

Born in 1839 behind John McKee’s house, Smalls had grown up as the family’s household favorite (potentially because McKee, or McKee’s son, was his secret father). Whatever the reason, Smalls did relatively limited housework, was allowed inside his owner’s house, and was permitted to play with the local white children.

Smalls’s mother watched her son being coddled and was afraid he’d grow up without knowing about the horrors of slavery, so when Smalls was 10, she dragged her son into the fields. He picked cotton, rice, and tobacco. He slept on dirt floors. He watched slaves in town be tied to a whipping post and lashed. The experience changed him.

Smalls began to rebel. He protested slavery and started appearing more frequently in jail. Eventually, his mother grew concerned for his safety and asked McKee if Smalls could be sent to Charleston to work. Their owner agreed. It was in Charleston that Smalls would discover the woman who became his wife, as well as a talent for sailing.

By the spring of 1862, Smalls was working aboard the CSS Planter, an old cotton steamer-turned-warship. It was the midst of the Civil War, and Smalls helped steer the boat, plant sea mines, and deliver ammunition and supplies to Confederate outposts along the coast. Whenever Smalls looked out toward sea, he saw a blockade of Union ships bobbing on the horizon.

The captain of the CSS Planter, C.J. Relyea—known for wearing a trademark wide-brimmed straw hat—had a crew comprised of multiple slaves. One day, another enslaved crew member grabbed the captain's hat while he was away and planted it on Smalls’s head. “Boy, you look just like the captain,” he said.

Smalls looked out at the ocean, past Fort Sumter and toward the fleet of Union ships in the distance.

He had an idea.

Smalls knew he could steal the Planter. He knew the shipping routes. He knew the checkpoints. He knew the codes and signals to get past the forts. And, of course, he knew how to pilot the boat. As the Planter’s wheelman, Smalls was basically the boat’s unofficial captain.

Late on May 13, 1862, the Planter returned to Charleston from a two-week trip. The white crewmembers were supposed to stay aboard after docking, but the Planter was scheduled to begin another long mission the next morning, and the white crew supposedly missed carousing and sleeping on land. They left the boat for a night out on the town, trusting the enslaved crew would take care of the ship.

It was exactly what Smalls had hoped for.

Around midnight, Robert slipped the skipper’s jacket over his shoulders and ordered the other enslaved crewmembers to light the boilers. At 2 a.m., the CSS Planter eased into Charleston Harbor.

Smalls quietly directed the boat to a rendezvous point where he picked up Hannah, his children, and eight other enslaved people (Smalls had warned his family in advance of the possibility that May 13 could be the fateful night). Hannah later told a reporter that, in his words, “The whole party had solemnly agreed in advance that if pursued, and without hope of escape, the ship would be scuttled and sunk; and … they should all take hands, husband and wife, brother and sister, and jump overboard and perish together.” Her husband was more terse. When she asked what would happen if they were caught, Smalls said, “I shall be shot.”

The crew intended to fight to the death. The boat was loaded with 200 rounds of ammunition and five large guns, including a howitzer and a giant pivot gun. If cornered, they’d dynamite the boiler.

Moonlight glinted off the water. Smalls raised the Confederate and Palmetto flags and pointed the boat at the open ocean. As the Planter approached the first checkpoint, Fort Johnson, Smalls began to pray, “Oh Lord, we entrust ourselves into thy hands.” He sounded a signal on the steam whistle and was waved through. The boat slipped deeper into the harbor.

As the boat approached Fort Sumter, Smalls adjusted the captain’s straw hat and leaned out the pilot-house window. He had watched Captain Relyea pass the fort dozens of times before. He had studied his body language. So Smalls stood on the deck, arms crossed, his face obscured by the hat’s brim and the night’s darkness.

At 4:15 a.m., the Planter sounded the steam whistle again. According to a report filed by the Committee on Naval Affairs, “The signal ... was blown as coolly as if General Ripley [the commander of Charleston’s defense] was on board.”

The guards at Fort Sumter sounded their signal in return: “All right.”

The Planter successfully passed five Confederate gun batteries. Once outside of Fort Sumter’s cannon range, Smalls lowered the rebel flag and raised a white bed sheet. The Planter aimed for the Union blockade.

Seeing a Confederate ship hurtle in their direction, sailors aboard the union USS Onward panicked. It was dusky, and they couldn’t see the surrender flag.

“Open her ports!” Acting Volunteer Lt. J Frederick Nickels ordered. The crew pointed the No. 3 port gun in the direction of the Planter and was ready to fire when somebody aboard cried, “I see something that looks like a white flag!”

The command to fire was dropped. The group aboard the Planter began to dance and sing. As the Planter reached the blockade, Smalls stepped forward and removed his hat. “Good morning, sir!” he yelled. “I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!”

Within minutes, the stars and stripes were flapping high from the Planter’s mast.

Wikimedia // Public Domain

Smalls quickly became a folk hero. “If each one of the Generals in our army had displayed as much coolness and courage as [Smalls] did when he saluted the Rebel flag and steamed past the Rebel fort, by this time the Rebellion would have been among the things that were [past],” The New York Daily Tribune wrote. Navy Admiral S.F. Dupont would call Smalls “superior to any who have come into our lines.”

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, a $4000 bounty was placed on Smalls’s head and Captain Relyea was court-martialed, sentenced to three months in prison for negligence (although this was later overturned). The Confederate brass was dumbstruck. They couldn’t fathom that a crew of slaves was clever enough to outfox their navy. (Unable to give the credit, F.G. Ravenel, a Confederate Aide-de-Camp, believed that “two white men and a white woman” must have conspired to make it happen.)

Smalls didn’t care. He was too busy enjoying the freedom and money that he had long been denied. A few weeks after surrendering the ship, the U.S. Congress awarded Smalls and his crew half of the Planter’s value. Smalls received $1500 and an audience with President Lincoln.

At one meeting with Lincoln, Smalls was joined by Frederick Douglass. The famed abolitionist implored the president to allow African-Americans to join the military—and convinced him that Smalls should lead the cause.

Smalls did. He joined the U.S. Navy, revealing the location of enemy mines, and personally recruited about 5000 African-American soldiers. He joined the USS Planter on missions to the south, including an attack on Fort Sumter. During a battle at Folly Island Creek, South Carolina, the Planter’s white captain abandoned his post in despair. Smalls stepped into the pilot-house and led the ship to safety. For his bravery, he was awarded the rank of Navy Captain.

When he wasn’t fighting battles at sea, Smalls was fighting civil rights battles on land. In December 1864, Smalls was tossed out of an all-white streetcar in Philadelphia. Enraged, he used his budding fame to protest the segregation of public transit. Three years later, the streetcars of Philadelphia were integrated.

After the war, Smalls returned to South Carolina with the money he earned and bought his former owner's house.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Smalls helped establish a local school board in Beaufort County and one of the first schools for black children in the region. Then he opened a store. In 1868, he ran for—and won—a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives, then two years later in the state Senate. In 1872, he started a newspaper called The Southern Standard. And in 1874, he ran to become a representative in the U.S. Congress.

He won 80 percent of the vote.

During five nonconsecutive terms, Congressman Smalls pushed for legislation to desegregate the military and restaurants in Washington D.C. His work successfully led to the opening of the famous South Carolina marine base at Parris Island.

All that time, Smalls kept his mind and heart open. Legend has it that when his former owner’s wife was stricken with dementia, she’d often wander into his house, believing it was still hers. Rather than send her packing, Smalls invited her inside.

In 1915, Robert Smalls died in the same house. Today, it’s a National Historic Landmark.

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Paramount Pictures
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11 Delicious Facts About Good Burger
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Paramount Pictures

It takes just 14 words—“Welcome to Good Burger, home of the Good Burger, can I take your order?”—to make a ‘90s kid swoon with nostalgia. Good Burger, the beloved Nickelodeon comedy about a couple of daft teens who try to save their fast food joint from corporate greed, was born out of a Kenan Thompson/Kel Mitchell sketch on All That in the mid-'90s. A year later, due to its popularity, it found itself being turned into its own live-action movie, with Brian Robbins at the helm. Today—20 years after its original release—it’s a silly cult hit that’s indelibly a part of Generation Y. Revisit the classic with these facts about Good Burger.

1. KEL MITCHELL AUDITIONED FOR ALL THAT WITH HIS CHARACTER FROM GOOD BURGER.

In an interview with The A.V. Club, Kel Mitchell explained how he came up with Ed. “I did a ‘dude’ voice, and that’s where Ed [from Good Burger] was kind of born,” he said. “I did that there at the audition. They were just cracking up.”

2. ED’S FIRST APPEARANCE WAS IN THE JOSH SERVER SKETCH, “DREAM REMOTE.”

Essentially, Good Burger was born out of a random character decision made during one little sketch. “It was where [Josh] could have a remote control that could control his entire life,” Mitchell told The A.V. Club. “So, he could fast-forward through his sister nagging, he could make pizza come really quickly. I was the pizza guy. I came to the door, and the pizza guy didn’t really have a voice, so I was like, ‘Mleh, here’s your pizza! That was the first time we saw Ed, and so they created Good Burger.”

3. ED’S LOOK WAS INSPIRED BY MILLI VANILLI.

When prepping for Ed’s debut on All That, Kel Mitchell spotted what would become the character’s signature look. “I remember I went to the hair room, and I saw these braids. It was like these early Brandy ’90s Milli Vanilli braids. I put those on, and it came to life,” he told The A.V. Club.

4. THOUSANDS OF POUNDS OF MEAT STUNK UP THE SET.

Nickelodeon

For a movie all about burgers, you better believe the production had a ton of them sitting around on set. "At one point, there was over 1750 pounds of meat on the set," Kenan Thompson told The Morning Call. "Some of it was old meat. It was so nasty. Some of the burgers would stay out there for a long time. I felt sorry for the extras who had to eat them with cold, clammy fries. But on screen, those burgers look good."

5. ELMER’S GLUE WAS USED TO KEEP THE FOOD LOOKING FRESH.

In order to keep the food looking good on screen, the production resorted to old, albeit inedible, tricks. "It was so gross, because when I scoop out ice cream in the movie, it was really vegetable shortening with food coloring,” Mitchell told The Morning Call. “When I poured milk on cereal, we used Elmer's Glue so the flakes wouldn't get soggy."

6. KENAN AND KEL CONTRIBUTED TO THE GOOD BURGER SOUNDTRACK.

Good Burger was their baby, so of course Kenan and Kel took the reins on more than just the creation of the characters, according to a 1997 interview with The Morning Call. Specifically, Kel partnered up with Less Than Jake on the hit song, “We’re All Dudes.” Because of this, the soundtrack actually charted at 101 on the Billboard 200.

7. GOOD BURGER WAS LINDA CARDELLINI’S FEATURE FILM DEBUT.

YouTube

In an interview with The A.V. Club, the Freaks and Geeks star reminisced about her breakout role in the Nickelodeon movie. “That’s my sister’s favorite role that I’ve ever played! It was so much fun. It was my first film, and it was a fantastic part,” Cardellini said. “I got to play crazy! Nobody knew who I was, and I got the part from the table read.”

8. WRITER DAN SCHNEIDER INTENDED TO GIVE UP ACTING WHEN HE WROTE GOOD BURGER, BUT HE PLAYED MR. BAILY IN THE FILM.

On creating Good Burger, writer/producer/actor Dan Schneider explained to The A.V. Club: “I’ve always wanted to write, and after I was doing All That and Kenan & Kel, I got the opportunity to do another TV show—I was still going on auditions. I realized that if I took that show, I was going to have to give up All That and Kenan & Kel. I really didn’t want to do [that] ... I passed on the acting role, and that was really the turning point, I guess, in 1996, when I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to put my acting career on the back burner, and I’m going to be a writer-producer.’ Then I wrote the movie Good Burger.” However, if you watch the movie, you’ll notice Schneider starring as Mr. Baily.

9. THE ORIGINAL TRAILER FEATURED A SCENE THAT DIDN’T MAKE THE MOVIE.

For reasons that remain a mystery, a scene where a Good Burger customer orders “a good shake” from Ed (Mitchell), only to receive an actual bodily shaking from the Good Burger employee, didn’t make the final cut. It did, however, feature for a few seconds in the theatrical trailer.

10. KENAN AND KEL REUNITED FOR A GOOD BURGER SKETCH ON THE TONIGHT SHOW.

In 2015, Kenan and Kel reunited for a Good Burger sketch with Jimmy Fallon. This time, however, Fallon played Ed’s co-worker, while Kenan came in as a construction worker as a surprise. "We've been wanting to get back together," Mitchell told E! News. "It was just about the right project ... it felt like home."

11. THE FIRST LINE IN THE FILM IS THE SAME AS THE LAST LINE.

Appropriately, the line is, “Welcome to Good Burger, home of the Good Burger, can I take your order?”—just watch the movie.

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Amazon
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Smart Shopping
Get Tuesday's Best Amazon Deals Now
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Amazon

As a recurring feature, our team combs the Web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, July 25.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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Dash Go Rapid Egg Cooker, Black for $14.99 (list price $25.79)

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Rubbermaid FreshWorks Produce Saver Food Storage Container, Medium, 6.3 Cup, Green for $7.98 (list price $10.92)

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Sunbeam Steam Master 1400 Watt Mid-size Anti-Drip Non-Stick Soleplate Iron with Variable Steam control and 8' Retractable Cord, Black/Blue, GCSBCL-202-000 for $17.24 (list price $29.89)

BISSELL ReadyClean Full Sized Carpet Cleaner, 40N7 - Corded for $70.13 (list price $89.55)

BISSELL PowerEdge Pet Hard Floor Corded Vacuum, 81L2A (Same as 81L2T) for $55.99 (list price $69.99)

Clara Clark Premier 1800 Collection 4pc Bed Sheet Set - Full (Double) Size, White, for $26.63 (list price $31.13)

Whitmor Mesh Laundry Bag w/ID Tag for $4.80 (list price $10.00)

Nine Stars 13.2 & 2.1-Gallon Touchless Automatic Motion Sensor Trash Can, Set of 2 for $64.98 (list price $79.67)

Sunbeam Hand Held Garment Steamer W/10' 360 Degree Swivel Cord for Tangle-Free Steaming, GCSBHS-100-000 for $39.99 (list price $54.99)

Homz Contour Steel Top Ironing Board, Extra Stable Legs, Grey & White Filigree Cover for $28.40 (list price $34.97)

Zenna Home E7803STBB, Over-the-Shower Door Caddy, Stainless Steel for $35.00 (list price $69.99)

AmazonBasics Mid-Back Mesh Chair for $51.92 (list price $64.99)

InnoGear Aromatherapy Essential Oil Diffuser Ultrasonic Cool Mist Diffusers with 7 Color LED Lights Waterless Auto Shut-off, Wood Grain, 200 mL for $23.99 (list price $79.99)

AMIR 10 LED Motion Sensing Closet Lights, 3 Pack DIY Stick-on Anywhere Portable 10-LED Wireless Cabinet Night/ Stairs/ Step Light Bar with Magnetic Strip (Battery Operated) for $19.99 (list price $66.65)

HEALTH AND BEAUTY

Gillette Fusion Manual Men’s Razor Blade Refills, 12 Count, Mens Razors / Blades for $33.97 (list price $47.99)

FHI Heat Limited Addition Mermaid Platform Tourmaline Ceramic Professional Hair Styling Iron for $99.99 (list price $139.99)

FHI Brands Technique Nano Weight Pro 1850 Tech Hair Dryer for $69.99 (list price $79.99)

Philips Sonicare Essence Sonic Electric Rechargeable Toothbrush, White for $19.95 (list price $49.99)

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen, Broad Spectrum Spf 45, 3 Fl. Oz., Pack Of 2 for $12.74 (list price $14.99)

Spenco Polysorb Heavy Duty Maximum All Day Comfort and Support Shoe Insole, Women's 11-12 / Men's 10-11 for $10.95 (list price $14.95)

Pampers Baby Wipes Sensitive 9X Refill, 576 Diaper Wipes for $14.39 (list price $19.99)

Aveeno Baby Wash & Shampoo For Hair & Body, Tear-Free, 18 Oz. for $8.97 (list price $8.97)

Advil Pain Reliever / Fever Reducer Coated Tablet, 200mg Ibuprofen, Temporary Pain Relief (300 Count) for $14.43 (list price $23.51)

Band-Aid Brand Flexible Fabric Adhesive Bandages For Minor Wound Care, 100 Count for $5.47 (list price $6.81)

Crest 3D White Radiant Mint Whitening Toothpaste, 3.5 oz Twinpack for $5.71 (list price $7.49)

Wahl Color Pro Complete Hair Clipper Kit with Extended Accessories & cape (# 79300-1001) for $30.45 (list price $30.45)

OFFICE, SCHOOL, AND CRAFTS

EXPO Low-Odor Dry Erase Markers, Chisel Tip, Black, 12-Count for $7.99 (list price $9.36)

EXPO Low-Odor Dry Erase Markers, Chisel Tip, Assorted Colors, 12-Count for $8.76 (list price $17.99)

Gelmushta Gel Pens 120 Unique Colors (No Duplicates) Set for Adult Coloring Books Drawing with Case for $18.00 (list price $129.99)

Rubbermaid Regeneration Plastic Letter Tray 6 Pack (86028) for $12.79 (list price $15.99)

Ohuhu 80 Colors Dual Tips Art Sketch Twin Marker Pens Highlighters with Carrying Case for Painting Coloring Highlighting and Underlining for $34.99 (list price $80.00)

Rolodex Mesh Collection Drawer Organizer, Black (22131) for $8.84 (list price $13.74)

Paper Mate InkJoy 300RT Retractable Ballpoint Pens, Medium Point, Black, 24 Count for $7.96 (list price $14.31)

Westcott iPoint Orbit Battery Pencil Sharpener, Black (16244-003) for $9.34 (list price $14.89)

eBoot 2 Sets Page Marker Page Index Tabs Fluorescent Sticky Note for Page Markers, 250 Pieces for $5.57 (list price $10.57)

Samsill Fashion Color 3 Ring Presentation Binder, 1 Inch Round Rings, Customizable, Clear View Binder, 6 Pack Assorted - Electric Pink, Deep Purple, Fern Green for $14.49 (list price $18.29)

Paper Mate Clearpoint Color Lead Mechanical Pencils, 0.7mm, Assorted Colors, 6 Count for $12.70 (list price $23.23)

eBoot 6 Inches Clear Plastic Ruler Straight Ruler Plastic Measuring Tool for Student School Office, 2 Pack for $5.69 (list price $8.99)

OUTDOORS, GARDEN, AND SPORTS

Fitness Tracker, Ronten R2 Smart Bluetooth Wristband Pedometer Smart Bracelet Sleep Monitor, Waterproof Activity Tracker Watch with Replacement Band for Android & IOS (Black+blue(band)) for $23.79 (list price $75.00)

G4Free 12x25 Waterproof Binoculars(BAK4,Green Lens),Large Eyepiece Super High-Powered Field Surveillance Binoculars for $25.98 (list price $39.99)

Ironman Gravity 1000 Inversion Table for $99.00 (list price $199.00)

Natural Chemistry Pool Perfect Plus Phos-Free - 3 Liter Bottle for $34.20 (list price $58.68)

MalloMe Marshmallow Roasting Sticks Set of 10 Telescoping Rotating Smores Skewers & Hot Dog Fork 30 Inch Kids Camping Campfire Fire Pit Accessories | FREE Pouch, 10 Bamboo & Marshmallow Sticks Ebook for $14.49 (list price $49.99)

Suncast HSE10 10ft. Extension Hose for All Suncast Hose Reels for $10.87 (list price $14.99)

G4Free Portable Ultralight Outdoor Picnic Fishing Folding Camping Chairs Sports Backpacking Chairs Ground Chair(Adjustable Red) for $29.99 (list price $65.99)

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Razor A Kick Scooter, Blue for $24.94 (list price $44.99)

TOOLS

SHINE HAI Professional Hand Pruner Bypass Pruning Shears with Safety Lock, Tree Trimmers Secateurs, Garden Shears, Clippers for the Garden for $6.99 (list price $39.99)

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Kershaw 1730SS Stainless Steel Zing Knife with SpeedSafe for $22.75 (list price $22.75)

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Magic Hue Bluetooth Smart Light Bulb - Dimmable Multicolored Disco Light - Wake Up LED Lights & Sleeping Night Light - Dimmable Multicolored Color Changing Seasonal Celebration Lighting for $12.74 (list price $35.95)

Tensun Travel Plug Adapter International Travel Charger Power AC Socket with Worldwide UK/US/AU/EU/JP Plugs + Detachable Dual USB Ports Max 3.2A for Business Trip for $15.99 (list price $42.99)

MVPOWER 95-piece Home Mechanics Repair Tool Kit - General Household Hand Tool Set with Plastic Toolbox Storage Case for $44.99 (list price $105.99)

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