The Former Slave Who Sailed His Way to Freedom

Robert Smalls helped convince President Lincoln that black soldiers could help win the Civil War.

Robert Smalls. St Martin Press

Robert Smalls was born into slavery in 1839. He was growing up on a plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina; he was raised in the house of his enslavers. This was partly due to his mother, Lydia Polite, being a house enslaved person. It may also have to do with the suspected father was the plantation owner’s son, Henry McKee. This allowed him a small level of acceptance and freedom while playing with the white children in the community.

At 12, Robert moved to Charleston with the McKee family, becoming a day laborer and skilled sailor. In 1856 he married Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel worker. They had one daughter and one son. Smalls saved money and tried several times to buy his family’s freedom but could not.

In March of 1861, the American Civil War began. Like many enslaved people, Smalls was hired to work on a Confederate naval ship. He became a deckhand on the Planter; a Confederate supply ship converted from a cotton steamer. The ship transported supplies between forts in Charleston Harbor.

By this point, Smalls was familiar with sailing and navigating the waterway. He paid attention to the routes the Planter followed and the call signs the ships used to identify themselves. Smalls had begun to hatch an escape plan. He, like many enslaved people, lived in constant fear that their families could be sold and separated. He and several men joined together and planned their escape. Now all he needed was an opportunity.

That opportunity came in the pre-dawn hours of May 13, 1862. While the officers and crew of the ship slept, Smalls put his plan into action. His crew of eight men, five women (including his wife), and three children (including his son and daughter) quietly slipped the Planter out of Charleston Harbor. Donning the captain’s straw hat and depending on the darkness to hide their identities, Smalls headed for freedom.

The risks of this mission were huge. With small children, a crying baby could be all that was needed to expose them to slave catchers. If caught, they faced the harsh punishment of possibly being whipped, shackled, or sold. But the chance at freedom was worth the risk to Smalls and his crew. There was no turning back.

Over the next several hours, Smalls navigated the ship through five checkpoints. After giving the correct signals, the Planter safely made it to open water. Smalls steered the ship towards the Union blockade at the mouth of the harbor. This was the most dangerous part of the mission, as Confederate vessels could fire upon them or alter the still sleeping crew. Smalls was prepared to blow up the ship over being taken captive in such an event.

The Planter was almost fired upon the USS Onward, the first ship to spot the approaching vessel. Luckily, the Confederate flag had been lowered and replaced with a white bedsheet to signal their surrender. Smalls and his crew provided a wealth of ammunition, weapons, as well as valuable documents. The documents offered Confederate shipping routes, mine locations, and when Confederate ships left and arrived at the docks.

The daring escape of the Planter made Smalls a national hero in the United States. His actions helped convince President Lincoln to authorize the recruitment of African Americans into the Union army. Smalls went on speaking tours, recounting his adventures and helping to recruit men to join the military. He also was a Union Navy Captain and ran seventeen missions with the Planter and USS Keokuk. Smalls was awarded a $1,500 cash prize for his heroics.

After the war, Smalls went on to have an exciting life. He was a commissioned brigadier general in the South Carolina militia and bought the McKee estate in Beaufort. In a sign of his generosity and forgiving nature, many of the impoverished McKee family were taken in by Smalls.

Smalls operated several businesses, including a general store, newspaper, and school for African American children. His business success opened up political opportunities, and he was appointed a member of the South Carolina constitutional convention. Smalls was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives and later a State Senator. Between 1874 and 1879, he served in the United States House of Representatives.

Small’s tenure in the US House of Representatives was marred by controversy. Political opponents accused him of taking a $5,000 bribe in the State House. He was convicted of the offense in 1877 and sentenced to three years in prison. However, he avoided prison while he appealed the conviction, and the governor of South Carolina gave him a pardon in 1879.

In later life, Smalls remained active in politics. He became a US customs agent in 1889, a post he kept until 1911. He died of natural causes in 1915 at the age of 75.

Smalls in one of the unsung heroes of Civil War history. His work in politics helped guarantee equal rights for formerly enslaved people, at least for a while. His daring act paved the way for African Americans to serve and fight for their country.

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