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Robert Smalls Sailed Americans to Freedom

Robert Smalls (1839-1915) was an enslaved African American assigned to steer the Confederate transport ship CSS Planter during the American Civil War. On May 13th, 1862–and while the ship’s three white officers were spending the night ashore–Smalls dressed as a Captain (along with most other enslaved crewmen) and sailed the Planter out of the Southern wharf.

Smalls then sailed the ship to another nearby wharf, where he retrieved his own family–along with the families of the other crew members–before sailing the ship past Fort Sumter and surrendering it, its cannons, and the Confederate code books to the Union-controlled United States Navy.

Smalls got his chance because white officers and crew sometimes left the black crew members in charge of the ship while they slept in their homes offshore. This was against military orders, but the consensus at the time was that blacks weren’t capable of performing acts like the one Smalls was planning. Nobody saw it coming.

Smalls and his new crew of eight slipped the Planter out of the harbor while the captain was away. They then stopped to pick up their families at the North Atlantic Wharf. But the ship was noisy, so there was no way they would pass through undetected. Things thus had to look routine and normal in order for them to evade capture. Hannah Jones told her husband: “It is a risk, dear, but you and I, and our little ones must be free. I will go, for where you die, I will die.”

Donning a captain’s coat, Smalls heroically steered the ship through the dark waters, avoiding suspicion by correctly signaling at the heavily armed Confederate lookouts as he’d seen others do many times before. If that hadn’t worked and they’d been caught, Smalls and the crew vowed to not be taken alive and instead ignite the explosives aboard the ship.

By dawn, the Planter reached Union territory. Smalls and crew hastily lowered the ship’s Confederate flag and flew a white sheet that Jones had taken from the hotel where she worked. They held their breath as they approached the first Union ship they saw, the Onward.

Smalls, the crew, and their families had been liberated, and, in running off with a Confederate supply ship, they’d done a favor for the Union to boot. The 16 people aboard the Planter were now free from their Confederate enslavers for the first time in their lives.