Early on May 13, 1862, a 23-year-old enslaved harbor pilot named Robert Smalls, seized the 149-foot Confederate transport vessel CSS Planter from its wharf in Charleston’s Cooper River before dawn. He and six enslaved crew members guided the ship through the harbor channel, past Fort Sumter and into the sea before the captain and engineer became aware it had been taken.
Beyond Fort Sumter lay the Federal fleet, blockading the harbor – this being the early days of the Civil War. Smalls and his crew delivered the Planter to the North, along with the code book containing the Confederate signals, and a map of the mines and torpedoes that had been laid in Charleston’s harbor.
This action won freedom for Smalls, his crew, his wife and three children.
Their action helped convince President Abraham Lincoln to accept African-Americans into the military. The U.S. Army appointed Smalls captain of the ship, which fought in navy battles during the war. When the war concluded, Smalls was awarded the honor of raising the Stars and Stripes again at Fort Sumter.
After the war, Smalls served as a state legislator and then a five-term U.S. Congressman. He authored state legislation providing for South Carolina to have the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States, and founded the Republican Party of South Carolina. He was the last Republican to represent the Beaufort area for 135 years.
Robert Smalls died in 1915 at the age of 76, a hero of the Civil War.
You can hear the story of Robert Smalls, and much more, on a Charleston Harbor Tour.