When one man decided he'd had enough living life as a slave, he hatched a daring escape so he and his family could be free.

There is a lot of discussion about removing statues of US Civil War personalities in the United States right now, but one man whose statues will likely never be torn down is Robert Smalls. Born in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1839, Robert Smalls was a slave. As a slave, he worked in many roles, but most importantly, he served as a pilot and guide in the Confederate Navy during the American Civil War. It was during this time that he planned his escape. In 1862, he commandeered a Confederate navy steamship (the CSS Planter) and escaped to the North—surrendering his ship and cargo to the Union navy. And this was just the beginning of the impact he made.

Did you know?

  1. Robert feared his family would be split up (as often happened with enslaved families). He couldn’t afford to purchase their freedom, so instead he planned an escape.
  2. Robert Smalls studied the mannerisms of the Planter’s captain and dressed like him so that the ship could pass other navy ships without raising and alarm.
  3. The trip north required him to pilot the Planter past several forts and checkpoints, giving the correct whistle signal at each.
  4. The ship stopped to rescue the families of the slaves on board before they left for the North.
  5. Smalls delivered not just the ship and all its armaments; he also gave the Union the Confederate charts and codebook.
  6. The effort of Smalls is credited with convincing President Lincoln to allow African Americans into the Union Army.
  7. Smalls went on a speaking tour, convincing African Americans to enlist in the army.
  8. In 1863, Smalls returned to service to pilot the Planter (now a Union vessel).
  9. He was promoted to Captain in December 1963, making him the first African American to hold that title in the US Navy.
  10. After the war, Smalls entered politics as a Republican in his native state of South Carolina, becoming a powerful figure in the Republican party.