War brings a level of destruction that few other events, whether natural or man-made, can match. But historically, war has also brought opportunities. For example, many men in the 19th century owed their political advancement to the fame won on the battlefield, rather than from their actual political abilities.
For African American slaves in the South, the Civil War often presented opportunities to seek freedom and leave their old lives behind. Robert Smalls was just one of thousands that used the social disruption that the Civil War brought to gain his freedom.
Smalls was born in 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. He was raised as a house slave, but when he was about twelve years old he was sent to Charleston to work for a new master. In Charleston Smalls held a number of jobs including waiter, lamplighter, dock worker, sail rigger, and boat steersman. When Smalls was 17 he married Hannah Jones, a woman almost twice his age who worked as a hotel maid. His strong work ethic and good nature allowed him to earn privileges that other slaves were often denied. After a daughter was born to the couple, Smalls negotiated with his wife's owner to by them both for $800.00. A son, Robert Jr., was added to the family in 1861.
Smalls was hired in 1861 as a hand on the steamboat Planter, a transport boat that plied Charleston Harbor bringing weapons and ammunition to the harbor's various Confederate forts. Smalls eventually became the ship's pilot and used his nautical skills to make his escape. In the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, while the white boat crew was on land, Smalls, his family and twelve other slaves brought the boat away from dock and toward the Union blockade. As Smalls passed the Confederate forts the gave the correct signals and no exceptional notice was taken by the harbor's defenders. As the Planter moved toward the Union ship Onward, Smalls raised a flag of surrender and brought the boat and the weapons and supplies it carried into the Union blockade.
Smalls's daring escape made national news. His exploits were hailed in the North as proof that African Americans could help the Union win the war, and he was rewarded with a share of the money for the Planter. After meeting President Lincoln and doing some recruiting in the North for black soldiers, Small piloted the Keokuk in the Union navy and was sent back to Charleston Harbor.
In December 1863, Smalls became the first black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States. Back with the Planter, the ship came under Confederate fire and the ship's captain, a man named Nickerson, decided it would be best to surrender, but Smalls, fearing for the safety of the black sailors on board, refused to allow a surrender and piloted the boat away from the guns and to safe waters. Nickerson was demoted and Smalls promoted to captain in his place for his bravery under fire.
During Reconstruction Smalls held a number of political positions in South Carolina and in the U.S. House of Representatives. He held the position of Collector of Customs in Beaufort for many years, where he had purchased the house of his former master. He passed away in 1915 and was buried in Beaufort. In 2004, the U.S. Army named a vessel after Smalls.