Robert Smalls escapes enslavement

Historic black and white photograph of Robert Smalls, an black American Civil War hero, sitting in a portrait pose. He is dressed in a formal dark suit with a buttoned-up waistcoat, a white shirt, and a bow tie. Robert has a full beard and mustache, and his hair is parted on the side. He gazes off to the side with a thoughtful expression. Notable is a watch chain draped across his waistcoat.
Robert Smalls

“One night when the officers are on shore, we’re going to take the boat, put you and the children aboard and sail it out to the bar. With my wearing Captain Relyea’s hat, the sentries’ll think it’s him and let us pass.”

“And what’ll happen if you’re caught?” Hannah asked.

“I’ll be shot. Sure it’s a risk. But freedom’s only seven miles away. Freedom for Elizabeth, for Robert.”

Robert Smalls was born to a mother who was enslaved. And as for his father, well no one knows for certain who he was. Some said it was the slave master of the plantation, or his son, or maybe even the plantation manager. But what is certain is that Robert was favored amongst the enslaved children. So much so that his mother wasn’t sure he understood the horror that enslavement was.

But as Robert entered his late teens and early 20’s, he yearned for freedom. Broad shouldered and slim waisted, self confident and strong, by 22 years old he was a husband to Hannah, and a father to Elizabeth and Robert Jr.

And so it was in that year, 1862, he plotted an escape.

For almost a year, Robert had been assigned to wheelsman the CSS Planter, a 140 foot long and fifty foot wide Confederate Ship, one of the fastest in the Charleston harbor. This position was the closest an enslaved person could have to being a pilot.

On May 12th, he made his move. As the 3 white officers aboard the ship spent the night ashore, Robert put on the captain’s gold-trimmed jacked and straw hat, took helm of the ship, picked up his family and the families of a few other enslaved men who were with him and steered the ship out of the Confederate harbor where they surrendered to the U.S. Navy.

He and his family were free. And for the Union Army, getting access to this ship was critical, as aboard was the code book containing the Confederate signals, and a map of the mines and torpedoes that had been laid in Charleston’s harbor.

Robert and his men were rewarded for their action. He got to meet President Lincoln. And their actions became a major argument for permitting African Americans to enlist in the Union Army.

After the war, Robert would co-found the South Carolina Republican Party. Then then he would go on to represent South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives.


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“Robert Smalls, the story of his escape from slavery” sources:

  • “Captain of the Planter; the story of Robert Smalls” by Dorothy Sterling. Published by Doubleday in 1958
  • Robert Smalls, S.C. M.C. Born in Beaufort, SC, April. [Between 1870 and 1880] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.