Before Beaufort native Robert Smalls became a Civil War hero, a U.S. congressman and a South Carolina Hall of Fame inductee, he was a slave working aboard the Confederate ship the CSS Planter.
Under the laws of the time, a slave was a piece of property, not a person. So when Smalls commandeered the ship on the night of May 12, 1862 and escaped with his entire crew and family, he was stealing more than just a boat.
"The Man Who Stole Himself," is the title of a new book about Smalls written by Savannah author Thomas Thibeault.
"In the act of stealing himself, he became a person," Thibeault said.
Born in Canada and raised in Ireland, Thibeault first heard of Smalls as an 11-year-old Catholic school student. After a 30-year teaching career, he began writing seriously in 2010.
Thibeault will discuss and sign copies of "The Man Who Stole Himself" on July 20 at the Heritage Library on Hilton Head Island.
"Smalls is a slave in Charleston and steals a gunboat. That's usually where the story ends, but what happens to him afterward is what interested me," he said.
Small sailed the Planter into a Union blockade and surrendered to Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont. Because of Smalls' extensive knowledge of the shipyards and Confederate defenses, he was able to provide Du Pont with invaluable information.
Thibeault's historical fiction novel focuses on the relationship between Smalls and Du Pont, a man of wealth and political connection.
"These two men had an extraordinary relationship. Here is the perfect example of someone hated for being so rich and another disregarded for being a poor slave," Thibeault said.
While researching for the book, which is his second, Thibeault said he read about 300 books on the Civil War and pored over letters, newspaper archives and Navy reports from the time.
The information in the book is "as accurate as can be," but not overly academic, he said. "A historical novel writer is looking for the humanity," which he found in Smalls and Du Pont.
After receiving Smalls' helpful tips, Thibeault writes, Du Pont secured the former slave accommodations in Beaufort and ensured that Smalls and his crew received a reward for delivering the Planter to Union hands. Smalls' own share was $1,500, a huge sum for the time.
In May, archaeologists believed they found remains of the Planter north of Charleston, near where the ship wrecked during a storm in 1876.
"I was literally pressing the 'publish' button on the novel when that news came out," Thibeault said.
The most remarkable part of Smalls' story, he said, is that what he did 150 years ago has repercussions today. Thibeault had the pleasure of meeting one of Smalls' descendants at a talk he gave a few weeks ago, he said.
"That person wouldn't be alive had he not stolen that boat."
Follow reporter Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.