Robert Smalls was born enslaved in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1839.
Smalls was trained as a steamer pilot, and in May 1862, along with twelve other rebellious freedom seekers, seized the opportunity to escape from slavery.
With his wife and three children, Smalls stole the Confederate steamship Planter, assumed command, and single-handedly guided the vessel northward to Union forces. This daring deed helped secure complete liberation for Smalls, his family, and those onboard.
Shortly thereafter, President Abraham Lincoln named Smalls a pilot in the Union Navy. In 1863, Smalls earned the rank of Captain and commanded the Planter that now sailed under the Union flag.
Following the Civil War, Smalls returned to South Carolina and became active in politics. He was eventually elected to the United States House of Representatives.