At 3:00 a.m. on May 12, 1862, slave Robert Smalls led one of the Civil War’s greatest escapes. 

Smalls and his black crew had been left on board the Confederate ship Planter as it docked for the night at Atlantic Wharf in Charleston Harbor, the three white officers having disembarked for the night. 

Smalls donned a white ship captain’s uniform and a captain’s straw hat and silently pulled the ship from the dock. 

After stopping at another wharf to pick up families of his crew, Smalls – an experienced ship pilot – guided the vessel past five Confederate harbor forts, giving the correct checkpoint signals and maintaining the straw-hatted bearing of the ship’s white Captain Relay. 

He sailed past Fort Sumter at about 4:30 and sailed to the Union Naval Blockade, which almost opened fire before seeing the white bedsheet flown for surrender. 

Robert Smalls went on to lead many more brave journeys in life. 

He piloted U.S. Navy vessels in battles against the South and to supply Union forces and Freedman’s Bureau relief. 

Settled in his home town of Beaufort, he succeeded in business and was elected to high office, including the United States House of Representatives, where he served as the first black congressman in South Carolina’s history. 

In a 1895 speech in the South Carolina legislature, Smalls said the following: “My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”

Robert Smalls

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