Little-Known Facts About Black History, Culture, Inventions, and More!

Home News/ Blog Museums Organizations About Us Contact Us

The Slave Who Cleverly Stole a Confederate Ship and Freed Himself With 15 Others

Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls was born as a slave in 1839, but later became a free man after he cleverly managed to steal a confederate ship and steer his way to freedom.

In 1862, in middle of the Civil War, Smalls was a 23-year old who was working aboard the USS Planter, a sidewheel steamer that was being used by the Confederacy as an armed dispatch boat.

His job was to help plant sea mines, deliver ammunition and supplies to Confederate outposts along the coast, and to steer the ship. Because of this, he knew the shipping routes, the checkpoints, and the codes and signals to get past the forts.

On May 13, 1862, Smalls decided to steal the ship and sail his way to freedom. It was extremely risky, but he was well-prepared. That morning at 4am, Smalls quietly took the ship from the wharf, and with a Confederate flag flying, steamed past the successive Confederate forts while pretending to be the boat's captain, C. J. Relyea. He had carefully studied his body language overtime, and also wore the captain's jacket over his shoulders with his straw hat.

When they reached their destination, Smalls had carried himself and 15 other slaves to freedom behind Union lines: seven crewmen, five women, and three children.

Later, the U.S. Congress awarded Smalls and his crew half of the ship’s value, and he was awarded the rank of Navy Captain. In 1874, he ran to become a Representative in the U.S. Congress, and won 80 percent of the vote. As Congressman, Smalls pushed for legislation to desegregate the military.

He sadly passed away in 1915.