May 13, 1862 – The Slave Robert Smalls Makes A Daring Break For Freedom

Robert Smalls was an enslaved African American who, during the American Civil War, was used by Confederates in Charleston, South Carolina to pilot the steamship Planter. On this day in history, Smalls committed an amazingly daring and brave act to win freedom for himself and his family.

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In the early morning hours of May 13, the white captain and crew of Planter were ashore for the night contrary to orders. The ship was loaded with arms for rebel forts. At around 3 a.m., Smalls collected his wife, children, and twelve other slaves, and commandeered the vessel. He disguised himself as the captain (even assuming the captain’s stance), guided the ship out of the harbor, and surrendered to Union forces.

Rendering of the Gunboat Planter, artist unknown - Harper's Weekly, June 14, 1862, p. 372

Rendering of the Gunboat Planter, artist unknown – Harper’s Weekly, June 14, 1862, p. 372

The Union press hailed Smalls as a national hero, calling the ship “the first trophy from Fort Sumter.” A Congressional bill signed by President Lincoln awarded prize money to Smalls, which he used to purchase land near his birthplace in South Carolina. During Reconstruction, he became one of the most powerful political leaders of the state. He served five terms in Congress, and held the position of collector of customs at Beaufort until President Wilson dismissed most black employees of the federal government.

You can learn more about this man and his incredible courage at websites dedicated to his memory, such as this one.

Photo of Robert Smalls by Matthew Brady, created between 1870 and 1880; image from Library of Congress

Photo of Robert Smalls by Matthew Brady, created between 1870 and 1880; image from Library of Congress

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