Robert Smalls 

Robert Smalls was a slave made famous for his daring escape by commandeering Confederate ship The CSS Planter in Charleston, crewed by fellow slaves. Together they sailed past the blockade to their freedom, picking up family members at a rendezvous point.

Considered a hero upon landing on free soil, he petitioned the Secretary of War to recruit African American soldiers and became the first African American to captain a vessel for the U.S.

At the end of the war, Robert Smalls returned to South Carolina, serving for five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

See below to learn more about Robert Smalls and his daring escape from slavery.
Date of Birth and Parents:
Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina at 511 Prince Street on 5 April 1839 to slave, Lydia Polite. His family were owned by John McKee, a planter on Lady's Island. It is not known who his father was, but there is speculation that it was his master or his master's son, Henry.

Until the age of ten, Robert Smalls was sheltered from arduous toil; as a favoured house slave he was given good clothing and the freedom to play with neighbourhood children of both races.

His mother believed that he needed to truly understand what it meant to be enslaved, and so he was taken to the plantation. Robert Smalls experienced the living conditions of the slaves there; he too slept on the floor, and was not allowed to play but instead worked long hours in the fields. He witnessed the punishment that slaves endured and wore the same bedraggled clothing; lessons that fed rebellion in the young Robert Smalls.

At the age of twelve, Robert Smalls often required collecting by Henry McKee from the local jail for refusing to accept South Carolina slave laws and was soon was hired out in Charleston on his mother's request in the hope that this would be safer for him.

Eventually Robert Smalls worked on the CSS Planter, the armed confederate guard boat, learning jobs that were usually carried out by the captain.

Spouse and Children:
Robert Smalls married fellow slave Hannah Jones in 1857 with whom he had two children; Elizabeth Smalls and Robert Smalls Jnr who died in infancy.

After Hannah died in 1883, Robert Smalls eventually married teacher Annie Wigg in 1890 who died five years later.

Hannah's master, Samuel Kingman, allowed Hannah and Robert Smalls to live together, but it was clear to that in order to avoid his wife and children being sold away in the future, Robert Smalls needed to obtain their freedom. Whilst Kingman was agreeable to selling the family, Robert Smalls had saved only an eighth of the cost.

Robert Smalls instead hatched a daring plan, taking the confidence of the other slaves working alongside him. On 13 May, when the white crew were asleep onshore, Robert Smalls put on the captain's hat and ordered the slave crew to hoist the flags. They left the dock and picked up friends and family at a pre-determined place, having decided that should the plan fail, they would rather scupper the ship and die than remain slaves for the rest of their lives.

Adopting the captain's pose, Robert Smalls knew that they should pass unchallenged in the dark, assuming everything went as plan. He casually blew the whistle at the five confederate forts, navigated the mines and even gave the correct Naval signals.

The charade had everyone fooled until they passed out of gun range, whereupon the Planter made a sudden turn toward the Union blockade. The confederate flags were replaced with a white bed sheet, almost noticed too late by the Union ship, USS Onward, who were ready to fire upon the approaching steamer.

On realising in the early sunset that in actual fact there was not a white person in sight, the renegade crew were welcomed on free soil. For their efforts, the crew received financial reward for bringing the Planter to the Union, with which Robert Smalls purchased the McKee house at the end of the Civil War.

Freedom and Later Years:
After his escape, Robert Smalls convinced the Secretary of State to enlist African Americans to assist in the war against the South, having allegedly recruited five thousand men by himself.

He piloted the Planter for the Union in 1862, and later was promoted to Captain in 1863 due to his efforts in the war, namely when caught between heavy Union and Confederate fire. The Planter's white captain hid in the coal bunker and wished to surrender; instead Robert Smalls assumed the role as captain and sailed out of gun range.

When the war was won, Robert Smalls purchased the McKee house and lived with his mother, allowing and the elderly Mrs McKee to reside with them due to her dementia.

He became a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1865-1870, and South Carolina senate between 1871-1874. Robert Smalls was then elected the U.S. House of Representatives from 1875-1879.

Main Menu

Famous American Abolitionists
Click here to learn about American abolitionists and their fight to end slavery.

Famous American Slaves
Visit this page to read about the ordeals of famous African American slaves and their impact on history.

Famous Slave Escapes
Visit this page to learn about some of the most daring slave escapes.

Famous Slave Rebellions
Click here to read about slave rebellions and the effects they had on nineteenth century America.

Slavery Glossary
Visit this page for definitions about slavery and abolition.

State Slave Laws
Click here to learn about the slave codes and laws governing the United States of America.