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Who Was Congressman Robert Smalls?

Robert’s Daring Voyage to Freedom

CSS PlanterOn the early morning of May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls put his plan into action. By this time the Civil War had broken out, and the Confederates had commandeered the Planter into service.  Robert still worked as an enslaved man on the CSS Planter in Charleston along with three other enslaved men. The Union Navy had blockaded Ft. Sumter, and Smalls and the three other enslaved men could see the Union ships from the Charleston Harbor. Sumter. They knew that freedom was not far away. That night all of the white crew had gone ashore for the evening, and Smalls and the other three enslaved men gathered their families on the Planter for a daring voyage. Robert Smalls eased the ship into the current and headed out of Charleston harbor. He was familiar with the waters and rebel routines and steamed the Planter past five Confederate gun batteries, giving the correct signals for safe passage at each. By dawn on May 13, 1862, 23-year-old Robert Smalls surrendered the CSS Planter to the Union forces, and freedom was theirs!

Smalls During the Civil War

Smalls' exploits both won freedom for himself and for his family.  As a result of the fame that came from his daring deed, he was awarded an audience with President Abraham Lincoln where he led the effort to enlist Black men to fight for the Union forces in the Civil War.  He helped recruit nearly 5,000 African-American men for the Union army, and these former enslaved men fought valiantly during the Civil War. Smalls fought as a pilot on both the CSS Planter, the ship that he had commandeered to freedom, and the ironclad gunship, the USS Keokuk. He led the Union ships to deactivate mines that he had helped plant while enslaved by the Confederacy and guided the Union forces to Confederate outposts.  He also assisted in the destruction of railroad bridges in the harbor area.

Robert Smalls was the first African-American hero of the Civil War.  He was later appointed to the rank of Major General in the South Carolina Militia during the Reconstruction period.

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© The Robert Smalls Collection
Helen Boulware Moore, Ph. D. and W. Marvin Dulaney, Ph. D.