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In 1862, a slave hijacked a Confederate ship and became a national hero

Robert Smalls
Photo: ullstein bild (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Robert Smalls

What it’s about: One of the most thrilling and fascinating stories of the Civil War and its aftermath. During the war, Robert Smalls escaped from slavery by stealing a Confederate ship, piloting it through Confederate-controlled waters to freedom, then personally helped convince Abraham Lincoln to accept African-Americans into the Army and Navy. But the story doesn’t end there. After a successful career in business, he entered politics and served three terms in the House Of Representatives.


Strangest fact: Smalls was able to steal a ship because, even as a slave, he was an experienced sailor. While we think of slaves toiling in fields, it was common practice to send enslaved men and women into the workforce, although the master was the one cashing the paycheck. From age 12, Smalls worked in Charleston, keeping a dollar a week of his wages. He worked in a hotel, then as a lamplighter, and then found his calling on the docks. He went from longshoreman to rigger to sail maker to wheelman—a ship’s pilot in all but name, as that title was reserved for whites. Smalls’ wife, Hannah Jones, was enslaved but working as a hotel maid when they met. Smalls intended to purchase freedom for the couple and their children, and managed to save $100, but the price was $800, an impossible sum.

A group of children sit amongst the ruins of Charleston, South Carolina, destroyed in fighting during the American Civil War.
Photo: Hulton Archive (Getty Images)

Thing we were happiest to learn: Smalls found another path to freedom. Some months after the South seceded, Smalls was hired out to steer the CSS Planter, a Confederate military transport. He piloted the ship for several months, gaining the owners’ trust, but all the while plotting with several crewmen. On May 12, 1862, the Planter picked up four large guns and 200 pounds of ammunition. Traditionally the white sailors would sleep on dry land, while the black crewmen had to stay on the ship. But this suited Smalls, as he and the remaining crew slipped away in the night, picked up their families who were waiting at a nearby wharf, and headed north.

Smalls knew all the Confederate signals, and was able to pass every checkpoint. He wore the captain’s straw hat and copied his mannerisms, and from a distance, was able to fool the Confederates on shore. In the wee hours of the morning, Planter reached the U.S. Navy, lowered the Confederate flag, and replaced it with a white bedsheet. The USS Onward nearly fired on Smalls, but there was just enough early-morning light to see the flag of surrender. Smalls greeted the Onward’s captain, saying, “Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!”


The story of the Planter was a sensation throughout the North, and Smalls was a national hero. Not only had he delivered his crew to safety and returned enemy artillery to the Navy, he, like many who escaped slavery during the war, was a key source of military intelligence, giving the Union information about troop movements, fortifications, and mines in Charleston harbor. With his help, the U.S. Navy was able to retake Coles Island—Planter’s home port just south of Charleston—for the remainder of the war. Smalls also lobbied Abraham Lincoln to allow African-Americans into the Union army, and succeeded where Generals Fremont and Sherman had previously failed.

Soldiers on parade, circa 1942.
Photo: Express (Getty Images)

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Despite Smalls’ ongoing heroics, he still had to fight for recognition after the war. After his escape on the Planter, no one would fault Smalls for riding off into the sunset, but he served in the Navy through the duration of the war, piloting half a dozen ships. At one point, the Planter was under fire and the ship’s captain fled to hide in the coal bunker. Smalls took command, refusing to surrender, and steered the ship to safety. He was promoted to acting captain of the ship.

Except Smalls still wasn’t allowed the title of pilot or captain, this time because he wasn’t a graduate of the naval academy. Instead, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant, which had equivalent pay to a captain. After the war, he was told his commission was unofficial, which meant he wasn’t eligible for a pension. Smalls had to wait until 1897 and an act of Congress to rectify the situation. An 1883 Navy report also stated his reward for commandeering the Planter was “absurdly low,” and Congress eventually paid him more than twice the original reward, but not until 1900.


Also noteworthy: After the war, Smalls returned to Charleston, buying his former master’s house, which had been seized for refusal to pay taxes. (The house’s previous owner sued, but Smalls won, setting an important postwar legal precedent). Smalls also bought a building he turned into a school for black kids, and learned to read and write himself. He co-owned a store that primarily served freedmen, a newspaper, and a horse-drawn railway line that ran to the Charleston docks. The railway had an all-black board of directors (with one exception), and was called, “the most impressive commercial venture by members of Charleston’s black elite.”

Abe, of course.
Photo: Hulton Archive (Getty Images)

Smalls was fiercely loyal to what was then the party of Lincoln, which, in his words, “unshackled the necks of 4 million human beings.” He exhorted black voters to, “bury the Democratic Party so deep that there will not be seen even a bubble coming from the spot where the burial took place.” (Obviously, this didn’t happen, and a century after emancipation it would be the Democrats who took up the cause of civil rights, and the Republicans who would cynically court white racists.)

Smalls was a delegate at the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention, and that same year was elected to the state legislature. He wrote legislation that gave South Carolina the first compulsory public school system in the country, as well as the state’s Homestead Act. In 1874, he was elected to Congress for two terms, lost a re-election bid, then won his seat back in 1882 and remained for three more terms, making him the second-longest-serving African-American in Congress until well into the 20th century. He was nominated for Senate in 1886, but lost to Confederate veteran Wade Hampton.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Smalls’ legacy shows the respect he won from the Navy, but also serves as a depressing look at how slow progress has been. Camp Robert Smalls was established to train sailors during WWII… but only black sailors, as the Navy was still segregated. And the first Army ship ever named after an African-American was the USAV Major General Robert Smalls… but that milestone wasn’t reached until 2004.

Further down the Wormhole: One of the Civil War generals who tried to enlist black troops, only to be overridden by Lincoln (before his meeting with Smalls), was John C. Frémont. Before the war, Frémont had been the territorial governor of California, acting as one of the state’s first U.S. Senators. And in 1856, he was the nascent Republican Party’s first candidate for president. He carried most of the North, but lost to James Buchanan. Southern Democrats “warned that his election would lead to civil war,” a threat they still made good on four years later. He’s an important, complicated, and largely forgotten figure in the history of the American frontier. Perhaps the best-known figure of that era wasn’t a real person, but the Lone Ranger was likely based on a real person—Bass Reeves, a U.S. marshal who arrested more than 3,000 lawbreakers across the Great Plains in the 1800s. We’ll see how closely the real-life legend matches the fictional one next week.


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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.