The awe-inspiring courage of Robert Smalls isn’t as well known as it should be. Born into slavery in 1839 to a slave named Lydia Polite in Beaufort, South Carolina, he was most likely the son of his owner, Henry Mckee. As a teen, he worked as a laborer in Charleston, first in a hotel, then as a lamplighter, until he got jobs on the docks, working his way up to the position of wheelman on the Confederate steamer Planter, a military transport ship. Smalls steered the ship along riverways and along the coasts of Florida and South Carolina and was a skilled and knowledgable navigator. Outside the Charleston harbor were the Union blockade ships. Smalls had a family and was very afraid they could be sold and separated at any time, so he made a daring and dangerous plan. When the white crew members were on shore the night of May 12, 1862, Smalls put on the captain’s uniform and hat and sailed past five Confederate harbor forts, giving the correct signals. He then picked up his wife and children and the families of the other enslaved crewmen. Knowing that the ship would be fired on when it reached the Union blockade, the crew replaced the Confederate flag with a white sheet and surrendered the ship and its cargo to the U.S. Navy. For his intelligence and bravery, Smalls became a hero in the North.
For more about Robert Smalls’ exceptional life read Be Free or Die: the amazing story of Robert Smalls’ escape from slavery to Union hero, by Cate Lineberry.