Robert Smalls first made history by escaping slavery by pretending to be a white ship’s captain, and sailing a boat to freedom during the American Civil War.
Smalls was born April 5, 1839 to his white slave owner father, Henry McKee, and his mother Lydia Polite, a slave McKee owned who was also a member of the “Gullah” people. In 1861, Smalls was hired as a deckhand for the USS Planter. Unknown to many of his white superiors, Smalls was intelligent and had an intimate knowledge of the waters of the South Carolina coast.
Smalls had been planning for some time to take over the Planter to take his family and several other enslaved families to freedom. On May 12, 1862, officers of the ship stayed on land and Smalls hatched his plan. Smalls used the cover of darkness and his knowledge of the ship captain’s command to slip undetected past the Confederate ships in Charleston Harbor. When Smalls reached Union waters, he surrendered.
Smalls was considered the captain of the Planter and helped the Union Army with inside information that helped them take the Harbor. Smalls then met with President Abraham Lincoln, who some historians said influenced his decision to let Black soldiers into the Union Army.
In 1863, Smalls commandeered the Planter while the ship’s white captain cowered in fear when Confederate forces attacked it. For his efforts, Smalls was made the official captain of the ship, making history once more by becoming the first Black captain to sail for the United States.
Smalls went on to serve five terms in Congress during the Reconstruction period. In 2007, the U.S. Army named a support vessel after Smalls during a ceremony held in Baltimore, Md.