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How ‘Robert Smalls’ Seized a Confederate Warship to Escape From Slavery to Freedom

Robert Smalls and a crew which was composed of slaves stole a cotton steamer from a dock and gathered family members to steal away. The group slowly navigated their way down the harbor. Smalls disguised as the captain wearing his big wide brim straw hat, used all the correct codes and signals at two Confederate checkpoints, one including Fort Sumter.

Once in the clear Smalls sailed out to sea and raised the white flag to surrender the ship to the blockading Union fleet. Robert Smalls had accomplished what most slaves during that time wanted to do, but was too afraid, he had made it to freedom. He along with nine men, five women and three children were free.

Robert Smalls was born on April 5, 1839 in Beaufort, S.C. His mother was a slave that often worked the fields but was allowed to serve in the house as well. Smalls never knew his father, but many people believed that slave owner John Mckee but there were many other men who some people say could have been as well. However, Smalls was always shown favoritism by the slave owner and their family. Smalls mother worried that because of this he would lose sight of who really was and that he was a slave. His mother would arrange for him to work just like the rest of the slaves and to be rented out as well. Smalls soon began to rebel.


By the time Smalls was 19 he was working city jobs and was allowed to keep a dollar of his money each week; his owner took the rest. He learned the harbor well, and started working on the ship the “Planter”. He soon met his wife, Hannah, who was a slave of the Kingman family. The two were allowed to move into an apartment together and they had two children. Smalls wanted to purchase his wife’s freedom but did not have enough money, and it would take him a life-time to make the money that was needed. So, he came up with the plan to escape to freedom. On May 13, Smalls put on Captain Rylea’s straw hat and tells his “Planter’s” crew to head out, and put up Confederate flags as decoys. Smalls could easily pass for white in the night. After the escape there was a $4,000 bounty on his head. Smalls became known in the North as a hero. He died in Beaufort on February 22, 1915, in the same house behind which he had been born a slave.


Written by PH

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