Robert Smalls (April 5, 1839 – February 23, 1915) was an enslaved African American who, during and after the American Civil War, became a ship’s pilot, sea captain, and politician. He freed himself, his crew and their families from slavery on May 13, 1862, by commandeering a Confederate transport ship, CSS Planter, in Charleston harbor, and sailing it from Confederate controlled waters to the U.S. blockade. His example and persuasion helped convince President Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the U.S. Army.
Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina. After the American Civil War, he became a politician, winning election to the South Carolina State legislature and the United States House of Representatives. As a politician, Smalls authored state legislation providing for South Carolina to have the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States, and founded the Republican Party of South Carolina. He was the last Republican to represent South Carolina’s 5th congressional district until 2010.
Smalls’ master sent him to Charleston at the age of 12 to be hired out, with the money to be paid to his master. He began in a hotel, then became a lamplighter on Charleston’s streets. In his teen years, his love of the sea led him to work on the docks and wharves of Charleston.
Smalls became a stevedore (dockworker), a rigger, a sail maker, and eventually worked his way up to being a wheelman (more or less a pilot, though slaves would not be called by that title). He became very knowledgeable about Charleston harbor.
In the fall of 1861, Smalls was assigned to steer the CSS Planter, a lightly armed Confederate military transport. On May 12, 1862, the Planter′s three white officers decided to spend the night ashore. About 3:00 a.m. the following morning, Smalls and seven of the eight enslaved crewmen decided to make a run for the Union blockading ships, as they had previously planned. Smalls dressed in the captain’s uniform and had a straw hat similar to that worn by the captain. He sailed the Planter out of what was then known as Southern Wharf, then stopped at a nearby wharf to pick up his own family and the families of other crewmen, who were hiding there.
Smalls’s daring escape succeeded. Besides her two small cannons, the Planter had four valuable artillery pieces aboard as cargo as well as their ammunition, intended for a Confederate fort. Even more valuable, however, were the code book containing the Confederates’ secret signals, and a map of the mines and torpedoes laid around Charleston harbor.