Robert Smalls (1839 – 1915) was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, on April 5th, 1839, in a slave cabin behind his mother’s master’s house on 511 Prince Street. In 1862 he escaped from Charleston harbor aboard a steamer called the Planter with his family and several friends too. The boat had to pass by five Confederate check-points and then surrender its contents to the northern Naval fleet out in the harbor where it was blockading the important southern port.
His escape succeeded and Robert would meet Abraham Lincoln personally a couple weeks later. Lincoln was quite impressed with a black man, also a slave, who had learned how to pilot and navigate the coastal waterways around Charleston. Smalls was eventually handsomely rewarded with bounty-money. Lincoln also allowed Admiral DuPont to offer Smalls the position of Captain of the Planter, though an official commission was not permitted at the time. Nonetheless, Robert Smalls became the first black Captain of a U.S. Naval vessel.
Three months later Smalls would visit Abraham Lincoln in the White House to plead the opportunity for blacks to fight for the Union. Just days afterwards Lincoln approved the raising of the first black troops in the Blue uniform and Robert Smalls was instrumental in helping to start the 1st South Carolina Infantry of U.S. Colored Troops.
Smalls would go on to pilot the Planter for the Union cause and take place in several important engagements around Charleston and the Sea Islands. After the Civil War he was elected among a few other blacks as they became the freshman class of blacks to serve as U.S. Congressmen.
Robert Smalls’ story is an amazing one of courage, determination, sacrifice, risk and reward – from slavery to Congressman!
Charleston celebrated the amazing feat on the 150th anniversary with several community engagements. Read these articles:
- Robert Smalls’ legacy will be remembered this weekend
- Smalls important to Civil War, and Civil rights
- Little-known Civil War escape remembered
- South Carolina mark ex-slave’s daring sail to freedom
- Robert Smalls’s Great Escape
- Charleston begins to address Black history with Robert Smalls memorial
See my visual guide to Robert Smalls and Beaufort
25+ pages of news coverage of the 150th Anniversary weekend in one PDF here.
A new book has just been published on Robert Smalls titled, Be Free or Die: The amazing story of Robert Smalls’ escape from slavery to Union hero, by Cate Lineberry. Order from Amazon.
Facing death rather than enslavement—a story of one man’s triumphant choice and ultimate rise to national hero
It was a mild May morning in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1862, the second year of the Civil War, when a twenty-three-year-old slave named Robert Smalls did the unthinkable and boldly seized a Confederate steamer. With his wife and two young children hidden on board, Smalls and a small crew ran a gauntlet of heavily armed fortifications in Charleston Harbor and delivered the valuable vessel and the massive guns it carried to nearby Union forces. To be unsuccessful was a death sentence for all. Smalls’ courageous and ingenious act freed him and his family from slavery and immediately made him a Union hero while simultaneously challenging much of the country’s view of what African Americans were willing to do to gain their freedom.
After his escape, Smalls served in numerous naval campaigns off Charleston as a civilian boat pilot and eventually became the first black captain of an Army ship. In a particularly poignant moment Smalls even bought the home that he and his mother had once served in as house slaves.
Be Free or Die is a compelling narrative that illuminates Robert Smalls’ amazing journey from slave to Union hero and ultimately United States Congressman. This captivating tale of a valuable figure in American history gives fascinating insight into the country’s first efforts to help newly freed slaves while also illustrating the many struggles and achievements of African Americans during the Civil War.