The life of escaped slave, ship captain, and Republican congressman Robert Smalls (pictured) is an amazing story worthy of the Hollywood treatment. Born in to slavery, Smalls rose from his meager beginnings as a dock worker to planning a daring escape using a Confederate boat he piloted. On this day in 1862, Smalls, 23-years-old at the time, liberated himself and his family in the wee hours of the night.
Smalls was born April 5, 1839, in the small town of Beaufort in South Carolina. His mother was held as a slave by Henry McKee, and she was a descendant of the Lowcountry Gullah people of the coastal Sea Islands. As a preteen, Smalls was leased out in the town of Charleston as a street worker and hotel employee. His desire to be near the sea, however, led him to working on the docks. As a dockworker, Smalls learned the trade swiftly and eventually became a wheelman (another name for pilot, although the White sailors were reluctant to give Blacks the title) for the “CSS Planter” ship.
Smalls knew the Charleston Harbor region well, and he eventually married hotel maid Hannah Jones. A proud man who desired freedom, he asked their owners to allow them to live with each other in Charleston.
Although he would receive his wish to live in the same house as his wife and children, Smalls contended with the fact that he was still a slave.
Smalls attempted to buy his family’s freedom, but it would cost him $800 to do so and he only had $100 to his name.
It was then when he began to plot the grand escape.
Watch Robert Smalls’ story here:
In the early morning hours of May 13th and with the Civil War taking place around them, Smalls and a crew of fellow enslaved ship workers decided to make a run for the Union’s blockade in hopes of securing freedom from Confederate rule. After the ship’s White crew members stayed ashore to rest, Smalls assumed the guise of the ship’s captain by wearing a similar outfit as to not alert Confederate troops.
Smalls commanded the “Planter” past Confederate gun batteries and gave proper signals for safe passage, riding the current of the Charleston Harbor out toward Union ships. The Union ships formed a blockade as forces moved in for attack, with Smalls stopping at one point at a wharf to pick up his family and members of the crew members’ families as well.
Wisely, Smalls flew a White flag for the Union forces, who had begun drills to fire on the ship, to see. Smalls encountered the Union and handed over the ship and its weapons to the United States Navy and requested to fly the Union’s flag.
Because of his knowledge of Confederate war tactics, the Union Navy put Smalls in their employ.
News of his escape reached papers in the North, making him a famous name. His actions led him to have an audience with President Abraham Lincoln who signed a Congress bill that gave Smalls a $1,500 reward for the capture of the “USS Planter.”
Smalls’ feat led to discussions with President Lincoln to allow African Americans to fight in the armed forces.
In December of 1863, Smalls would become the first Black captain of a vessel in service of the United States.
After the Civil War, Smalls returned to Beaufort and purchased his former master’s home. In a moment of grace, he allowed his former master’s wife to live in the home as well. Smalls went in to business in the town, opening a store for fellow freedmen. Later, as a Republican Party member, he was elected in both the House of Representatives and Senate on separate occasions.
Smalls has been honored time and again in Beaufort, where his home is now a national landmark. In 2004, the Army named one of its ships after him, making it the first vessel to bear an African-American’s name in that branch of the Armed Forces.
Smalls and his escape to freedom and rise to relevancy in the political landscape is an enthralling moment of Black history that deserves to be retold for generations to come.