Clio Logo

Robert Smalls was an African American slave who became a hero to the Union war effort when he commandeered a Confederate ship and delivered it to the Union navy. Smalls later became a U.S. Congressman and represented South Carolina during Reconstruction.

Robert Smalls was born a slave on April 5th 1839 in South Carolina. His slave mother asked their owner to allow Robert to be sent to Charleston S.C. to be rented out for work, so that he need not toil in the fields. The owner allowed this arrangement, which eventually led to Smalls working on the ship known as the Planter during the Civil War. Smalls would meet his wife Hannah while in Charleston. She too was a slave. With permission from her owner, they were able to move into a small apartment together, they also had two children. Her owner asked for $800 in order for Smalls to purchase her, to ensure their union would be permanent. This was money Smalls simply did not have.

Smalls, with help from fellow slaves on board, hijacked the Planter once its white Confederate officers left for shore. Smalls disguised himself as the ship’s captain, Captain Rylea. Because of a combination of knowing Rylea’s body language, the cover of darkness, and knowledge of naval hand-signals, Smalls is able to navigate the ship from Confederate waters to Union controlled areas. Robert was able to gain freedom for himself, his family, and the other slaves on the ship once the Planter was turned over to the Union.

Once unable to pay $800 for the freedom of his family, he was given $1500 for the ship by the Union (later being reveled in records he should have be paid more). After the war’s end he is able to buy his former owner’s home (Gates).

In the North, Smalls was hailed as a hero, and enlisted by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to recruit black soldiers for the Union. After the war’s end Smalls went into politics. He served in South Carolina’s state assembly and senate. Between 1874-1886 Smalls served 5 nonconsecutive terms in Congress. He died on Feburary 22nd 1915. In the house he was born behind in Beaumont (Gates). 

Gates, H Jr. "Which Slave Sailed Himself to Freedom?"