Robert Smalls chose freedom to become Civil War Pilot, Sea Captain & Republican Leader in Congress


"Many have critiqued Kanye West's comments about slavery being a 'choice', failed to recognize the countless number of Blacks who committed acts of bravery and pressed toward freedom in many ways. During the American Civil War, Robert Smalls freed himself, his crew, and their families from slavery on May 13, 1862. The fearless Smalls led an uprising aboard a Confederate transport ship, the CSS Planter, located in Charleston harbor, and sailed it north to freedom. His feat successfully helped persuade President Abraham Lincoln to accept Black soldiers into the Union Army.


Robert Smalls became a ship's pilot, sea captain, and politician during and after the American Civil War. While in office, Smalls authored state legislation that gave South Carolina the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States. The Martin Luther King Republicans (MLKR) encourage you to study more about Blacks who did not settle for their enslavement conditions, like Smalls. We would encourage you to visit the monument dedicated to Smalls in Charleston, but sadly it was vandalized by ANTIFA in 2016. We would also like to thank the Naional Park Services - Fort Sumner National Monument website where we gathered the following information on Robert Smalls. And as always, please COMMENT, LIKE, and SHARE. Thank you."- Jimmy Lee Tillman, II founder, and president.

Who was Robert Smalls


Robert Smalls was born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina. At age twelve, Smalls' master sent him to Charleston to find work. Sending slaves to the city to "hire themselves out" was common in the nineteenth century. Slaves were required to send any money they made home to their masters. Working at a variety of jobs aboard boats, Smalls learned to navigate Charleston Harbor's waterways. At the beginning of the Civil War, Smalls worked as a steersman aboard the CSS Planter, a steamboat chartered by the Confederate government to act as a dispatch and survey boat.



On May 12, 1862, he and other enslaved crew members were detailed to load some heavy guns onto the Planter to be taken to a Confederate fort. They stretched out the work so that the guns would have to remain aboard overnight. When the white captain, engineer, and mate went into town for the evening, Smalls put on the captain's straw hat and sailed the vessel to another pier where his family and friends waited. They boarded, and he sailed out of Charleston Harbor, blowing the steam whistle at the appropriate checkpoints for safe passage past Forts Sumter and Moultrie.


Then, just out of range of their guns, Smalls raised the white flag of surrender and turned over the Planter and all the guns and military supplies aboard to the USS Onward, part of the Union blockade fleet. Through his daring act, Smalls secured everyone's freedom on board and instantly became a Union war hero.


Rear Admiral Samuel F. DuPont wrote to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that "This man, Robert Smalls, is superior to any who has yet come into the lines, intelligent as many of them (contraband slaves) have been. His information has been most interesting, and portions of it of the utmost importance."

The Southern press was, however, understandably frustrated. The Charleston Daily Courier reported that "this vessel (the Planter), which has been allowed to escape under our very noses, to the enemy with a heavy responsibility somewhere, had on board six cannon."

Recognized for his bravery and skill, Smalls became one of the first African American pilots in the United States Navy. He was wounded on April 7, 1863, while piloting the USS Keokuk during the ironclad attack on Fort Sumter. He also served as a captain for the US Navy during Charleston's siege, 1863-1865.



After the Civil War, Smalls served in various public offices, including the United States House of Representatives. Smalls continued to fight for equality for African Americans throughout his political career.

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