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Robert Smalls: War hero who piloted his way to freedom
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Robert Smalls: War hero who piloted his way to freedom

To ensure his family would not be separated, the enslaved helmsman engineered a daring escape.

Many immigrants to America arrived with little but the clothes on their back; others arrived in chains. Even as our history bears witness to the horrors of slavery, it also records numerous men who reacted to enslavement with incredible feats of valor.

One such man was Robert Smalls. A skilled boat pilot, the 23-year-old worked with six other enslaved men crewing the Confederate steamship Planter, docked in the Charleston harbor. It was just before dawn on May 13, 1862, and the white captain had left the ship in the care of the black crew, as he often did. It was then that Smalls carried out his meticulous and extremely dangerous plan.

Impersonating the captain by wearing his straw hat, and aided by the cover of darkness, Smalls steered the ship out of the harbor and past several heavily armed sentries, as well as Fort Sumter – captured by the Confederates the year before. He made it to a wharf where 16 other escapees waited, among them Smalls' wife and two children.

From there they reached one of the Union ships blockading the harbor, narrowly avoiding being attacked as an enemy vessel. They were finally free and had given the Union army one more ship and a trove of munitions.

The Union rewarded Smalls and his crew half of the value of the Planter. Smalls' share was enough for him to buy the house of the man who once enslaved him.

Smalls went on to fight for the Union after personally lobbying Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to allow black soliders to serve. He ended up taking part in some 17 military actions, including the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1863, ultimately reaching the rank of captain.

Smalls did not let his enslavement embitter him against America. Following the war, he served in the South Carolina state Assembly and Senate, as well as five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. "My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country," Smalls once said. "It 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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Matt Himes

Matt Himes

Managing Editor, Align

Matt Himes is the managing editor for Align.
@matthimes →