Robert Smalls: War hero who piloted his way to freedom

Many immigrants to America arrived with only the clothes on their backs. Others arrived in chains. While our history bears witness to the horrors of slavery, it also records the countless men who fought against it with incredible feats of courage.

One such man is robert smalls. A skilled boat operator, the 23-year-old worked with his six other enslaved men aboard a Confederate steamship. planter, anchored in Charleston Harbor. It was just before dawn on May 13, 1862, when the white captain, as usual, left the ship in charge of his black crew. That’s when Smalls executed an elaborate and extremely dangerous plan.

Wearing a straw hat and disguising himself as a captain, Smalls, aided by darkness, steered the ship out of the harbor, past several heavily armed lookouts and Fort Sumter, which had been captured by Confederates the previous year. He made it to the pier, where 16 other fugitives, including Smalls’ wife and two children, were waiting.

From there they reached one of the Union ships blockading the harbor and narrowly avoided being attacked as an enemy ship. They were eventually released, giving the Union one more ship and a large amount of ammunition.

The union rewarded Smalls and his crew with half of the ship’s value. planter. Smalls’ share was enough to buy a house for the man who once enslaved him.

Smalls continued to fight for the Union Army after personally lobbying Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to allow black soldiers to serve in the military. He eventually reached the rank of captain, where he participated in about 17 military campaigns, including the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1863.

Smalls did not resent America for being enslaved. After the war, he served in the South Carolina State Assembly and Senate, as well as five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. “My race doesn’t require any special defense of them or this country’s past history,” Smalls once said. “This proves that they are equal to any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the fight of life.”