Born into bondage, Robert Smalls rose from slavery to the Halls of Congress. In between, he helped the Union win the Civil War by doing what no black American had ever done before -he commanded a naval vessel.
AT HOME ON THE WATER
Robert Smalls was born a slave on April 5, 1839, in the coastal town of Beaufort, South Carolina. His first taste of a sailor's life came at 12 years old when his master hired him out to work at a shipyard in Charleston Harbor. Smalls took to it, displaying a natural talent for seamanship. By 19, he had risen to the highest sea rank available to a slave: a ship's pilot. Although Smalls could neither read nor write, his photographic memory recalled every bar, shoal, and current in Charleston Harbor.
In 1858 Smalls married another slave, Hannah Jones, and two years later they had a son, Robert, Jr. Being a respected sea pilot, Smalls life was better than that of most slaves ...but he was still a slave. Longing to be his own master, he set out to buy his family's freedom. And he almost did it -Smalls had saved $700 of the $800 purchasing price when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Then everybody's life was put on hold.
STEALING A SHIP
The Confederate army immediately put the 22-year-old Smalls to work doing what he did best: piloting a vessel. He was given the wheel of the CSS Planter (formerly the USS Planter), a 147-foot-long steamboat. With Smalls at the helm taking order from Captain Charles Relyea, the ship hauled ordnance and supplies to the rebel forts guarding Charleston. A few miles offshore lay a fleet of blockading Union ships, and Smalls knew that freedom awaited him in that blockade. He formed a plan.
First, he studied the voice and speech patterns of Captain Relyea. Smalls was raised speaking "gullah," a creole dialect of English indigenous to the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Captain Relyea, on the other hand, spoke in the "propuh Suthuhn" dialect. After spending weeks secretly mimicking his captain, Smalls was ready.
On May 12, 1862, Captain Relyea attended a party and decided to spend the night ashore. With the captain and white crew landlocked, the black crew was left in charge of the ship, which was not uncommon -they were well within Southern strongholds, protected by the guns of Fort Sumter. Smalls had counted on this; he smuggled his wife, his son, and 13 other slaves aboard. On May 13 at 3AM, the ship slowly pulled away from the dock, supposedly to take its place as a picket ship guarding the harbor. Smalls put on the captain's uniform -including the broad-brimmed hat, which shadowed his dark face- and sounded the proper whistle signals when the Planter passed Confederate forts. At 4AM, as the ship passed under the guns of Fort Sumter, he was ordered to halt and state his destination. Smalls mimicked Relyea's voice, said all the right things, and was allowed to continue. When they were out of range of the rebel batteries, Smalls lowered the Confederate flag.
As the sun came up, the CSS Planter was sailing right into the Union blockade. The first ship she approached was the USS Onward -and her captain was preparing to fire on the Confederate vessel. But Smalls put their fears to rest when he waved a large white flag and shouted out a friendly greeting: "Good morning, sir! I have brought you some of the old United States guns!"
The daring escape made headlines in the North, hailing Smalls for his cunning and guile. This led to a meeting with President Lincoln in August. Smalls so impressed the Union leader that Lincoln took the politically dangerous step of authorizing 5,000 blacks to be recruited for military service. Before the war ended three years later, more than 180,000 black American volunteers would serve in Lincoln's army -most of them former slaves.
The federal government awarded Smalls $1,500 for capturing the Planter, but he still chose to enlist and fight for the Union. After making a recruiting tour of New York, Smalls was sent back to South Carolina and commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant, Company B, 33rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops. He was once again given the wheel of the renamed USS Planter, now part of the Union blockading fleet.
In November 1863, the Planter took part in a futile attack on Fort Sumter with Smalls as pilot under Captain James Nickerson. When the ship was caught in a deadly crossfire from Confederate shore batteries, the captain deserted his post and ran below deck, hiding in the coal bin. Smalls took command, keeping the guns firing while he used his encyclopedic knowledge of Charleston harbor to maneuver the damaged ship to safety.
A Naval Board of Inquiry dismissed Nickerson for cowardice, but Smalls was again regarded as a hero ...and was given his first command. His ship: the Planter, the same ship on which he had escaped two years earlier. In combat, Captain Smalls fought in 17 naval engagements; off duty, he studied with tutors to learn to read and write, skills which has been forbidden him as a slave.
CONTINUING THE FIGHT
When the war ended Smalls returned to Beaufort. Using the money he earned, he purchased the house in which he was born and moved his family into it (which now included two daughters and his recently freed mother). Smalls entered politics and served five non-consecutive terms in Congress. In 1897 the government belatedly recognized his wartime service by awarding him a $30-per-month veteran's pension.
Robert Smalls died in Beaufort in February 23, 1915. His home has since been designated a National Historic Landmark. A naval cargo vessel, the USS Robert Smalls, was named in his honor. Beside Small's grave is a statue with an inscription that sums up his life's work: "My people need no special defense, for the past history of this country proves them to be the equal of any people, anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life."