Robert Smalls' Journey to Freedom

Born into slavery, Robert Smalls catapulted to fame in both North and South when he stole a Confederate boat, sailed it past Charleston's forts, and turned it over to Union blockading ships.  After the Civil War, Smalls was elected to a variety of public offices and fought for equal rights for African Americans.

Colored engraving of Robert Smalls
Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls was born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina. At age twelve, Smalls' master sent him to Charleston to find work. Sending slaves to the city to "hire themselves out" was a common practice in the 19th century. Slaves were required to send any money they made home to their masters. Working at a variety of jobs aboard boats, Smalls learned to navigate the tricky waterways of Charleston harbor. At the beginning of the Civil War, Smalls worked onboard the "Planter," a civilian boat contracted by the Confederate navy as a transport. One day, while he and a fellow slave crewmember were joking around, the other man placed the captain's hat on Smalls' head. This gave Smalls an idea, and he began planning.

On May 12, 1862 he and other members of the crew were detailed to load some heavy guns on to the "Plante"r to be taken to forts around Charleston. They dallied, stretching out the work so that the guns would have to remain aboard overnight. When the white captain, engineer, and mate went into town for the evening Smalls put on the captain's hat and sailed the Planter to another wharf where his family and friends were waiting. They boarded the boat, and he sailed out of Charleston Harbor, making the proper whistle blows for safe passage by Forts Sumter and Moultrie. Then, just out of range of their guns, Smalls raised the white flag of surrender and turned over the Planter and all the guns and military supplies aboard to the Union blockading fleet. Through his daring act, Smalls had liberated himself, his family and friends to freedom and instantly became a Union war hero.

After Union leaders recognized his bravery and skill, Smalls became one of the first African American pilots in the United States Navy. He was wounded April 7, 1863 while piloting the USS Keokuk during the ironclad attack on Fort Sumter. He also served as a captain for the US Navy during the siege of Fort Sumter, 1863-1865.

After the Civil War, Smalls served in a variety of public offices, including the United States House of Representatives. Throughout his political career and his life, Smalls continued his fight for freedom, education, and equal rights for African Americans.

Last updated: August 11, 2017