Robert Smalls, Civil War Hero

This post is part of our Black History Month blog series.

Our most recent Cottage Conversation featured Dr. Craig Symonds, who spoke to the crowd about the Union and Confederate naval campaigns. Dr. Symonds shared countless stories of the Civil War at sea, and one such story centered around Robert Smalls, an enslaved African-American who captured a Confederate ship and turned it over to the U.S. Navy. In so doing, he also won freedom for his black crew and their families, all of whom were on board. Smalls is the subject of today’s Black History Month post.

Robert Smalls, born in 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina, was hired out by his owner to work on the Charleston waterfront as a young man. Working variously as a sail maker, rigger, and foreman, Smalls gained an expertise of the Georgia and South Carolina waterways. During the Civil War, the Confederate Army conscripted Smalls into service aboard the CSS Planter.

On the night of May 13, 1862, Smalls and seven enslaved men who worked on board the Planter navigated the ship out of the heavily fortified Charleston harbor. After a stop at a nearby wharf to pick up the families of the men on board, Smalls disguised himself as a white captain and maneuvered the ship past several Confederate forts to the Union fleet, at which point he hoisted a white sheet atop the Planter, signifying its surrender. Union officials boarded the ship, and Smalls turned the Planter over to the US Navy. Smalls was hailed across the nation for his daring escape and Congress passed a bill, signed by President Lincoln, that awarded Smalls and his fellow crewmen the monetary reward for the capture of the Planter.

Smalls went on to lead a life of public service, notably as the first black captain of a U.S. vessel and as a Congressman representing South Carolina’s 5th and 7th congressional districts in the U.S. House of Representatives. For more information on Robert Smalls, click the links below.

Black Americans in Congress
The Post and Courier
The South Carolina African-American History Calendar

Image: Robert Smalls. Courtesy of Library of Congress

-Hilary Malson, Marketing and Membership Coordinator at President Lincoln’s Cottage

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