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This Heroic Slave Stole a Confederate Ship to Sail Himself and Others to Freedom

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By Tom Konecny

Thrilling tales of heroics abound in our Civil War history, but few compare to that of Robert Smalls. He was an enslaved African-American who boldly escaped to freedom by stealing a Confederate ship, disguising himself as the captain, using a secret code book and hand signals to thwart guard ships and rescuing other slaves in the process. Before his life was over, he won election to his state’s legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives while founding the Republican Party of South Carolina. He even influenced President Abraham Lincoln by convincing him to accept African-American soldiers into the Union Army and Navy.

Born and raised in South Carolina, Smalls’ master sent him to Charleston to work various jobs at age 12. During his teens, he found work on Charleston’s docks and developed a great love and knowledge of the harbor. Smalls married at age 17 to a woman who already had two daughters. Two years later, they had their own first child.

By 1861, the Civil War began with the Battle of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. That fall, Smalls was assigned to steer the CSS Planter to deliver dispatches, troops and supplies used to survey waterways and lay mines. Throughout his duties, he learned the rivers, coasts and could see the Federal blockade ships a few miles away.

By April, Smalls began planning an escape and shared his dangerous idea with other slaves in the crew. While docked in the early morning hours of May 13 and its three white officers spending the night ashore, Smalls put on the captain’s uniform and wore a straw hat similar to the captain’s. He and seven slave crewmen guided the ship – already loaded with ammunition – to another wharf to pick up his wife, children and families of other crewmen. Along the way he gave correct signals at each checkpoint, copying the captain’s manners and fooling onlookers.

By the time Confederates had realized what happened, the ship was out of gun range. Smalls and his team replaced rebel flags with a white bed sheet, which was barely seen at sunrise. As the ship approached the Union Navy fleet, Smalls took off his hat and shouted, “Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!”

Smalls’ escape plan was a success. As soon as a Union captain boarded the Planter, Smalls asked for a United States flag to display. Smalls instantly became a hero and was described as one Navy admiral as “superior to any who have come into our lines – intelligent as many of them have been.”

After his service to the Union, Smalls became a successful businessman and politician, winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives during the Reconstruction era. He authored state legislature that provided for South Carolina to offer the first free and compulsory public school system in America. Today there are several monuments, ships and parkways named in his honor.

“My race needs no special defense,” Smalls once said, “for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”

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