An Equal Chance in the Battle of Life: The Navy’s Camp Robert Smalls

by Samantha Belles, NMAS Collection Manager

During the early hours of May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls, slave and the pilot of the Confederate Army armed transport CSS Planter, secretly commandeered the ship with the assistance of other crewmembers and delivered it to Union forces after sailing the vessel out of Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Not only did he slip past the guns of five Confederate forts undetected, but he also delivered to the stunned Union forces blockading Charleston the Planter’s captain’s codebook containing Confederate signals and a map of mine locations in Charleston’s harbor. While Smalls’ voyage obviously served as an unexpected victory for the Union, it also brought freedom to the Planter’s other Black enslaved crewmembers and their families. With the latter stowed away on the potential journey to freedom that evening, all who sailed on the vessel risked certain death if captured. Now a war hero, the United States Navy lauded Smalls’ actions, with Rear Admiral Samuel DuPont writing “He is superior to any who have come into our lines…his information has been most interesting, and portions of it of the utmost importance.” 

In the years after the Planter’s daring escape, Smalls continued to fight for Black equality, aiding the United States Navy by continuing his service as the ship’s pilot during the Civil War. During Reconstruction, Smalls served as an elected representative to South Carolina’s House and Senate and the United States House of Representatives. A staunch advocate for the rights of Black Americans during the dawn of Jim Crow, Smalls declared, “My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.” Eighty years later, the Navy linked both Smalls’ name and sentiments to another breakthrough for Black sailors, the creation of the enlisted training facility Camp Robert Smalls. 

Sailors working their way through an obstacle course, during their training at Camp Robert Smalls, 24 August 1943. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

While Black Americans played a role in the Navy’s enlisted forces since 1775, Black sailors typically served only in select occupational ratings. Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, most served as cooks, stewards, and landsmen, while a smaller number worked as firemen, storekeepers, carpenters, water tenders, or other specialized positions. Although limited from officer positions and higher enlisted ranks, the Navy was racially integrated and Black sailors physically worked alongside their white shipmates. Paralleling the country’s descent into the nadir of race relations with the onset of the Jim Crow, in the years after the Civil War the Navy reduced its recruitment of Black sailors. Under the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, in 1913 Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels followed the Wilson administration’s efforts to re-segregate the federal government and advocated for complete physical racial segregation of the United States Navy. By 1919, the Navy suspended the first enlistments of Black sailors, allowing only those who enlisted before that year to serve until their retirement while utilizing Filipinos recruits to fill servant-related rate gaps. By 1932, only a scant 441 Black sailors served in the Navy, just half of one percent of the force. While the Navy did resume enlisted Black sailors in the early 1930s, it limited them to messmen roles only.

By the early 1940s, the Navy faced increased pressure for greater roles for Black sailors in the fleet. Equal rights organization such as the NAACP decried the hypocrisy of the United States’ entrance into World War II, a battle against fascism, when democracy was not equal for all on the homefront. Additionally, World War II’s need for increased military manpower required additional numbers of soldiers and sailors. Following instruction from President Franklin Roosevelt, in June 1942 Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox ordered the Navy to devise a plan for the recruitment of an additional 5,000 Black sailors and a wider variety of duties beyond non-service rates. Despite misgivings from Navy leadership and only after ordered by Roosevelt, on April 7, 1942 the Navy enacted its plan and announced that beginning that June Black sailors would be enlisted not only as messmen, but in general service as well. Despite the Navy reluctantly granting Black sailors what Smalls would call “a chance in the battle of life,” its policy of physical segregation by race remained in place. The question of in what separate facilities to train newly enlisted Black sailors became an important priority.  

Sailors in the Chemical Warfare Division present a demonstration, including use of gas masks, 9 September 1943. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

The Navy established separate training facilities for black recruits with the larger installation of Naval Training Station Great Lakes, already the home of a large boot camp for white sailors. Secretary Knox approved plans to convert what was then Camp Barry into the new training facility for incoming Black sailors. Named after the heroic pilot of the Planter, Camp Robert Smalls consisted of the Administration & Drill Hall, a Recreation building, a Dispensary & Dental Clinic, a Mess Hall, and barracks to house the newly enlisted recruits. For the camp’s leadership, the Navy specially selected Lieutenant Commander Daniel Armstrong, the son of Army Brigadier General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, as Camp Robert Smalls’ first Commanding Officer. The son of Christian missionaries who both proselytized the faith and established Christian schools in the south Pacific, the Hawaii-born and raised Chapman Armstrong was imbued with the belief that the path to equal rights for people of color lay in education with a focus on manual labor and the physical trades. During the Civil War, he served as a Union general and led regiments of regiment of Black soldiers. Influenced by both his upbringing and his experiences with Black soldiers, in his post-war years the senior Armstrong founded the Hampton Institute (later to be Hampton University) in 1868. Patterning the school after the missionary schools established by his parents, Chapman Armstrong and the Hampton Institute focused on educating former slaves in various manual trades and crafts as way to achieve both racial and economic equality. The school’s most famous student and a mentee of Chapman Armstrong, Booker T. Washington, would further espouse these ideal through his later leadership of the Tuskegee Institute. Chapman Armstrong’s son Daniel, who was both a United States Navy Academy graduate and well-versed in the education of Black Americans due to his upbringing, seemed the perfect candidate for leading the Navy’s newest training camp.

Graduation ceremonies for the third class to graduate from the Camp’s Service School, 3 March 1943. The officer congratulating the men is Lieutenant Commander Daniel W. Armstrong. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Armstrong prepped the new camp to receive its first recruits in June of 1942. Despite the camp representing Smalls’ “chance at the battle of life”, the training experience of Black recruits was not equal to that of their white counterparts and remained a secondary focus of Great Lakes. Class sizes remained small, with only four or five students and instructors often treated the students as an afterthought. Most graduates went on to non-combat roles within the Navy and depending upon their rate either joined the fleet or received specialized training there or at other bases in the United States. The first graduating company out of Camp Robert Smalls graduated in September 1942 and consisted of 277 men, including one Edward Estes Davidson, the great-great-grandson of Robert Smalls. Other notable Black sailors trained at Camp Robert Smalls’ segregated facilities include future Major League Baseball Player Larry Doby and trumpeter Clark Terry. In 1944, the camp also served as the site for the training of the sixteen Black sailors selected for an officer training course. Of the sixteen enrolled, thirteen would receive the first officer commissions in the United States Navy and later be known as the “Golden Thirteen.” 

Company 833, made up of African-American recruits, in formation on 20 August 1943. The company was entered in the station’s Hall of Fame, established by the Great Lakes weekly newspaper to honor crack recruits. Company Honor Man was Robert F. Gervin, Company Clerk. William H. Walker was Apprentice Chief Petty Officer. Simon Fouse was Master-at-Arms. Note flags. Left one features a rooster. Right flag is the Navy Battalion Flag, with N.T.S. Great Lakes written across its top. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Starting in 1944, some sailors at Camp Robert Smalls integrated with the rest of the sailors training at Great Lakes, albeit on an experimental basis. This experiment in integration proved successful and by the middle of 1945, the Bureau of Naval Personnel ordered all Recruit Training Commands to integrate. With this integration beginning in 1945, combined with the end of World War II and the discharge of thousands of sailors, and then 1948’s Executive Order 9981 which formally desegregated all of the United States Armed Services, Naval Training Station Great Lakes scaled down and closed many buildings to condense training facilities. This consolidation included Camp Robert Smalls. While no longer used for rigorous training at Naval Station Great Lakes, the Camp’s physical footprint is an important reminder of the challenges black sailors have faced while continuing Robert Small’s “equal chance in the battle of life.” 

Works Cited

Akers, Regina. “African Americans in General Service, 1942.” Naval History and Heritage Command, March 23, 2017,–1942.html.

Billingsley, Andrew. Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.

“Daniel Williams Armstrong.” Naval History and Heritage Command, September 24, 2020,

DuPont, Samuel. Samuel DuPont to Gideon Wells, Washington, D.C., May 14, 1862.

Floyd, Samuel. “The Great Lakes Experience: 1942-45.” The Black Perspective in Music (1975): 17-24.

“Historical Highlights: Representative Robert Smalls of South Carolina,” United States House of Representatives, accessed January 15, 2022,

MacGregor, Morris J. Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965. Washington, D.C.: United States Army Center of Military History, 1981.

Stilwell, Paul. The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers. Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2003.


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