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Robert Smalls: The man who sailed his way to freedom

Editor’s Note:

During the next few weeks, the Minden Press-Herald will be honoring Black History Month by spotlighting black historical figures who have impacted countless lives throughout the years.

Staff Report

Minden Press-Herald

Robert Smalls is an American politician and businessman, but he is perhaps most well known for his story of taking over a Confederate supply boat and sailing it upriver towards freedom, right near the outbreak of the Civil War.

Smalls was born to a house slave, and while the identity of the father remains officially unknown, it is believed to be that of the plantation owner’s son Henry McKee. 

The family ended up moving down to Charleston and Robert along with them. He would do a variety of labor, but would eventually start laboring as a sailor.

“In 1856, he married Hannah Jones, a slave hotel maid who worked in Charleston. Jones already had one daughter, and together she and Smalls had a daughter and a son. Smalls’s attempts to buy his wife and family out of slavery failed,” according to his biography from biography.com.

“At the outbreak of the Civil War, in March 1861, Robert Smalls was hired as a deckhand on the Confederate supply ship the Planter, a converted cotton steamer that carried supplies between forts in Charleston Harbor.”

During his time working there, Smalls learned what he could about the ship, how it navigated, how it got through checkpoints, everything he could while he waited for his opportunity to escape. 

That opportunity came in the early hours of May 12, 1862, when Smalls and a crew of eight men, five women, and three children, including his own wife and kids, slipped the Planter out of the harbor while the officers and crew were sleeping.

“Smalls successfully navigated the ship through five checkpoints, offering the correct signal to pass each, and then headed out to open waters and the Union blockade. It was daring and dangerous, and if caught, the crew was prepared to blow up the vessel,” read his biography. 

“The startled crew of the USS Onward, the first ship in the blockade to spot the Planter, almost fired on it before Smalls had the Confederate flag struck and raised a white bed sheet, signaling surrender.”

The Union couldn’t have been happier to get this ship, seeing as it contained guns, ammunition, and a wealth of information pertaining to shipping routes and the times the Confederate ships docked and departed.

After his daring escape, the tale became well known. So much so in fact that it, “was one of the factors encouraging President Abraham Lincoln to authorize free African Americans to serve in the Union military,” according to the biography.

He went on to be a spokesperson for the Union Army and encouraged African American men to enlist. He also achieved the rank of Navy Captain and commanded the very Planter that he had escaped to freedom on and the ironclad USS Keokuk, conducting a total of seventeen missions.

“After the war, Smalls returned down south, and in a poetic gesture of showing how far he had come, purchased his former owner’s house in Beaufort, South Carolina. He even generously took in some of the McKee family, who were not in the best of shape after the war. Smalls started a general store, a school for African American children and a newspaper.

In his later years, he had a career in politics, serving on the South Carolina House of Representatives, State Senate, and the United States House of Representatives. He later died on Feb. 23, 1915  due to natural causes at the age of 75.