CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Descendants of Civil War hero Robert Smalls are celebrating the ex-slave who 150 years ago this weekend commandeered a Confederate steamship and evaded batteries overlooking Charleston harbor to reach a Union blockade and freedom.
Calling themselves the "family of cousins" and ranging in age from 3 months to 94 years old, Smalls' descendants came to the Charleston Museum on Saturday for weekend events that included dedicating historical markers at harborside and retracing the route of the steamship "Planter" through the harbor.
They have known the story since childhood, Smalls' great-granddaugher Helen Moore said.
"My grandmother was on the Planter. She was Robert Smalls' oldest daughter. She was 2 years old at the time," Moore, a psychologist who lives in Sarasota, Florida, said at the museum.
Smalls was born a slave in 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina - a town where his name now adorns schools, parkways and military facilities.
When he was 12, his owner sent him 60 miles up the coast to Charleston to enter the "hired slave" system. He trained as a boat deckhand and earned a small wage. In 1861, the year the Civil War began, he was hired aboard the Planter, a cotton transport.
On May 12, 1862, while the captain and crew were off the ship, Smalls sailed from a Charleston wharf and picked up his wife and children and other African-American slaves and their families.
Early the next morning, he donned the captain's broad straw hat as a disguise and turned his face away from Confederate soldiers manning forts overlooking the harbor as he made his escape.
Once outside the harbor, Smalls lowered the ship's Confederate flag, hoisted a white bedsheet to signal surrender, and delivered the boat to the Union blockade at sea.
"This is a day that I have always noted as our personal independence day," Smalls' great-great-grandson, Michael Moore, chairman of Glory Foods Inc, told an audience at the museum.
"It's 150 years that our family has been free."
The man known as "Grampa" by his family would have been put to death, along with everyone on board, had he been captured, Moore said.
"He made the decision to stick his neck out," Moore said. "He was going to be free or he was going to be dead."
The exhibit that Moore helped put together at the South Carolina State Museum has traveled to a dozen East Coast cities and will be on tour through 2017, said program manager Jeff Powley.
"History is as much a tool of culture as it is an articulation of events," Moore said. "Stories like Robert Smalls' can be so valuable to the African-American community because he achieved enormous things at astronomical odds."
After his exploit, Smalls went to Philadelphia, hired tutors to teach him to read and write, and joined the Union navy. Before the Civil War was over, he fought in 17 sea battles, piloted a Union ironclad warship, and was named captain of the Planter.
Smalls lobbied President Abraham Lincoln to allow African-Americans to fight for the Union. After the war, he bought his former owner's house in Beaufort and served as a state lawmaker and one of a handful of black delegates to the state's constitutional conventions.
He was elected to Congress five times from South Carolina and wrote the legislation that created the Parris Island Marine base near Beaufort. In 1900, he was awarded $5,000 by Congress for the capture of the Planter. Smalls died in 1915 at age 75.
Charleston, where the Civil War began with the 1861 Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter, is in the second year of Civil War sesquicentennial events.
"The tragedy that was the Civil War was the crucible that really made our country," Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley said at the museum. "The history of African-Americans is the history of America. It helps us understand who we are as a people and who built this country."
Fundraising will start this year to build an International Museum of African-American History in Charleston, the port that received a large percentage of slaves imported during the 18th and 19th century Atlantic slave trade, Riley said.
Editing by Andrew Stern and Peter Cooney