Smalls (pictured right, circ. 1776) was born a slave on
Ashdale Plantation at Beaufort, SC
At age 12, Smalls'
owner sent him to Charleston to hire himself out. He worked
as a waiter,
He was hired as a
deckhand on the rebel steamer PLANTER in 1861 and
He mastered the
seafaring art, and as the de facto pilot of the PLANTER, he
On the morning of May 13, 1862, long before sunrise and while the ship's white officers still slept in Charleston, the 23-year old slave pilot Robert Smalls smuggled his wife and three children aboard the PLANTER (pictured right, circa 1861 loaded with cotton) and took command.
With his crew of 12 slaves, Smalls donned the clothing of the PLANTER's confederate captain, hoisted the Confederate flag and with great daring sailed the PLANTER past the other Confederate ships and out to sea.
Once beyond the range of Confederate guns, he hoisted a flag of truce and delivered the PLANTER to the commanding officer of the Union fleet. Smalls explained that he intended the PLANTER as a contribution by black Americans for the cause of freedom.
The ship was received as contraband, and Smalls and his black crew were welcomed as heroes. Later President Lincoln received Smalls in Washington and rewarded him and his crew $1500 for their valor.
Built for commercial use at Charleston in 1860, the PLANTER (pictured right) was a 300-ton side-wheel steamship. She was armed with a 24-pound howitzer, a 32-pound pivot gun, a 7-inch rifle and 4 smooth-bore cannons.
The PLANTER had served as headquarters ship for General Ripley. She was a valuable ship because she could carry as many as 1,000 troops, and her shallow draft gave her freedom throughout the coastal waters.
Robert Smalls was transferred to the ironclad KEOKUK (pictured left) for an ill-fated attack at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 7, 1863. KEOKUK suffered almost 100 shell hits at or below the water and sunk to the bottom.
Smalls survived the KEOKUK attack and was transferred back to the PLANTER. He was given official command of the PLANTER and made a captain in the US Navy. He served in this position throughout the war.
Above, a line engraving published in "Harper's Weekly", January-June 1863, pages 264-65, depicting the Federal fleet off the harbor mouth at the time of the ironclads' attack on Fort Sumter, 7 April 1863.
U.S. Navy ships specifically identified include NEW IRONSIDES (second from left in the ironclad formation) and KEOKUK (ironclad furthest to the right).
the war, Smalls (pictured right, circ 1871) returned to
South Carolina to enter politics. He served in
Smalls' record as a
congressman was progressive. He fought for equal travel
Congress, Smalls served as U.S. Collector of Customs
1889-1911 in Beaufort, SC.
retained his interest in the military and became a major
general in the
1900, he was awarded an additional $5,000 in prize money for
Robert Smalls died of smallpox on
Feb 22, 1916, and is buried in the
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