Robert Smalls's Great Escape: How A Slave Stole A Confederate Ship And Sailed To Freedom

By | December 3, 2019

Smalls was born into slavery

Born into slavery and forced to work as a ship's captain without any of the respect usually afforded to a ship's captain, Robert Smalls was a man who refused to live by the rules set by the Confederate Army during the Civil War. For his ultimate act of defiance, he stole a Confederate ship and sailed his family and friends to freedom, after which he continued subverting expectations by becoming a successful businessman and politician. Smalls ended his life as one of the wealthiest men of the South, and not just for a former slave.

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Source: PBS

Born on April 5, 1839, Robert Smalls was raised in a shack behind his master's house in Beaufort, South Carolina. No one knows who his father was, but his descendants believe his owner, John McKee, sired the boy. Others have suggested McKee's son, Henry, and his plantation manager, Patrick Smalls, as likely suspects. (Interestingly, the shared last name of "Smalls" may be a complete coincidence.)

It's a depressing fact that the brutal reality of life as a slave often meant forgoing the privilege of knowing exactly who fathered their children, but because it was believed that Smalls was related to someone high up on the plantation food chain, he led a relatively comfortable existence in his childhood. Worried that her son didn't truly understand how terrible life was for slaves, his mother sent Smalls to work in the fields near the whipping post.

The experience seemed to have a lasting effect on the young man. When he was 19, Smalls was sent to the city, where he worked as a lamplighter before securing a job on the USS Planter. While working his way up to wheelman (Confederates refused to bestow the title of captain upon him), he met his wife, Hannah, and began devising a plan to purchase her freedom.

Smalls hatched a daring escape plan

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Source: National Archives

It took months for Smalls to plot his escape plan, which he put into action in the early morning hours of May 13, 1862. Though it was against military rule for soldiers to leave their boat while it was manned by slaves, Smalls knew that wouldn't stop Captain Charles Relyea and his subordinates from heading to shore that night, so he bid goodnight to the three white Confederate officers as they left the boat for the evening.

Once Relyea and his men were home, Smalls donned one of Relyea's outfits before taking the Planter out of the dock and toward the Union blockade anchored outside Charleston Harbor. With 16 people on board, it was imperative that Smalls do everything in his power to make sure the Planter made it beyond the Confederate docks unnoticed. With the darkness and his wits to help him, the ship passed out of Confederate territory, but another problem was waiting.