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Robert Smalls, American Civil War Hero


Just before dawn on May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls and a crew composed of fellow slaves, in the absence of the white captain and his two mates, slipped a cotton steamer off the dock, picked up family members at a rendezvous point, then slowly navigated their way through the harbor. Smalls, doubling as the captain, even donning the captain’s wide-brimmed straw hat to help to hide his face, responded with the proper coded signals at two Confederate checkpoints, including at Fort Sumter itself, and other defense positions. Cleared, Smalls sailed into the open seas. Once outside of Confederate waters, he had his crew raise a white flag and surrendered his ship to the blockading Union fleet.

In fewer than four hours, Robert Smalls had done something unimaginable: In the midst of the Civil War, this black male slave had commandeered a heavily armed Confederate ship and delivered its 17 black passengers (nine men, five women and three children) from slavery to freedom.

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Fighting for the Union
After Smalls surrendered the Planter to the Union, it was decided that he and his crew should be awarded the prize money for the ship’s capture. He was given a position with the Union Navy as the pilot of a ship called Crusader, which scoured the Carolina coast finding mines that Smalls had helped place when aboard the Planter.

In addition to his work for the Navy, Smalls traveled periodically to Washington, D.C., where he met with a Methodist minister who was trying to persuade Abraham Lincoln to allow black men to join the Union Army. Eventually, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton signed an order creating a pair of black regiments, with five thousand African American men enlisting to fight in the Carolinas. Many of them had been recruited by Smalls himself.

In addition to piloting Crusader, Smalls was sometimes behind the wheel of the Planter, his former ship. Over the course of the Civil War, he was involved in seventeen major engagements. Perhaps the most significant of these was when he piloted the ironclad Keokuk in the April 1863 attack on Fort Sumter, just off Charleston’s shore. The Keokuk sustained heavy damage and sank the next morning, but not before Smalls and the crew had escaped to the nearby Ironside.

Later that year, Smalls was aboard the Planter near Secessionville when Confederate batteries opened fire upon the ship. Captain James Nickerson fled the wheelhouse and hid in the coal bunker, so Smalls took command of the wheel. Fearing that the black crew members would be treated as prisoners of war if captured, he refused to surrender, and instead managed to steer the ship to safety. As a result of his heroism, he was promoted to the rank of Captain by Department of the South Commander Quincy Adams Gillmore, and given the role of Acting Captain of the Planter.

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Smalls went on to have a political career, serving in the South Carolina House of Representatives, as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, and was elected to the United States House of Representatives. Remarkable career, especially in light of the fact he started out in life as a slave.

The more you know, etc.