Robert Smalls, who proved himself one of the most courageous men of the Civil War, is well-known for one act of bravery against the Confederate Army.
Smalls began the war as a slave crew member on a dispatch ship called the Planter. An excellent sailor and devoted to the ideal of freedom, Smalls believed that risking his life and the lives of his family on the night of May 13, 1862 was the only pos¬ sible chance to secure their freedom.
The Planter’s officers had taken their men on shore at Charleston, South Carolina after a day of hard labor. Robert Smalls, then 23 years old, finding the ship’s captain absent, arranged for his family and five others to sneak on board during the night. Smalls took up the captain’s position and guided the Planter out into the channel with its eight person crew. The eyes of Confederate guards were upon him.
Smalls went on deck wearing Captain Relyea’s characteristic straw hat and stood with his arms crossed over his chest as the ship glided past the guards.By the time they realized he wasn’t Relyea, he had passed them and headed straight for Union territory.
The Confederates immediate¬ ly notified Morris Island, which stood in Smalls’ path, but he piloted the Planter out of guns’ reach and prayed that Union forces wouldn’t mistake him for an enemy. If they misunder¬ stood, they might fire on the incoming ship.
Luckily for Smalls and his family, the Yankee soldiers did¬ n’t fire. Sailing carefully into the safety of Union territory, Smalls » deposited the Planter into Union hands and joined the Union forces. Congress rewarded Smalls’ amazing courage by offering him and his crew one- half of the ship’s value as a reward. Smalls was also made a captain in the navy and given control of the Planter for the remain¬ der of the war.
His courage became legendary, leading to the circulation of a popular story where¬ in two men were overheard arguing togeth¬ er. The first said, “Smalls, Smalls, that’s all you talk about. Smalls isn’t God, you know.” “Sure,” the second man said, “but don’t forget, Smalls is young yet!”
Gaining a popular following for his sup¬ port of African-American education and opportunity, Robert Smalls took up politics. He was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, the state senate, and the US Congress, where he pursued equal opportunity legislation.