The efforts of Robert Smalls, an enslaved Black man who became a ship’s captain during the American Civil War and later a politician, were recognized by the U.S. Army a decade ago. Smalls and a crew of fellow slaves took over a Confederate ship, where he sailed to freedom by surrendering to Union Army forces in the free North.
Born April 5, 1939 in Beaufort, S.C., Smalls was a descendant of the “low-country Gullah” people. In 1861, Smalls was hired as a deckhand for the USS Planter. On May 12, 1862, the Planter’s officers spent the night on land. Smalls used this as an opportunity to escape with his family, and the families of the other slaves that accompanied him on the journey.
Smalls had been planning to take the Planter to several rendezvous points, pick up the families, and steer into the Union Army’s blockade in the North in the dark of night. Amazingly, Smalls was able to slip by undetected, and even used the necessary signals at checkpoints.
One especially tense moment was the checkpoint of Fort Sumter, which was one of the Confederacy’s nerve centers for their war operations. Smalls floated the ship past all the forts that guarded Charleston Harbor, and when cleared he raised a White flag in surrender to the Union. Smalls was able to sail himself and 12 other slaves to freedom in his escape.
During the Civil War, Smalls became an invaluable asset because of his knowledge of the Confederate fleet. He was able to supply the Union with inside information to help them exploit weaknesses. Smalls’ defection and assistance became known, awith newspapers detailing his grand plan. Congress gave Smalls and his crew prize money for the surrender of the Planter.
Smalls was given $1,500, a significant amount for the times. In May 1862, Smalls met with President Abraham Lincoln, with whom he shared details about the escape. His deeds are said to have influenced Lincoln to allow Black soldiers into the Union Army.
Smalls served as a pilot in the Union Navy until 1862, although some accounts say 1863, then he was transferred to the Army. He was never officially in the military, serving in both posts as a civilian, according to accounts. Later that year, Smalls became the first Black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States, once more piloting the Planter for the Union.
Though under attack by Confederate ships, Smalls defied the ship’s captain desire to surrender, fearing that if the Black crewmen were taken captive, that they would certainly face death. Smalls took over, and piloted out of range. For his efforts, Smalls was named the official captain of the ship.
After the war, Smalls became a businessman and politician, serving in both the South Carolina House of Representatives and the Senate during Reconstruction.
He was then elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and continued to work on behalf of Blacks in his home state into the 20th Century.
In 2007, Smalls became the first African-American to have an Army vessel named after him.
Smalls died in 1915 at the age of 75.
(Photo: U.S. Army)