Robert Smalls was born on Ashdale Plantation on Lady’s Island, South Carolina. As a descendent of Guinea slaves, Smalls was hired as a deckhand on the CSS Planter, an armed Confederate military transport in 1861. He served under Brigadier General Roswell Ripley, commander of the Second Military District of South Carolina. Smalls was promoted to pilot of the Planter within a year.
On May 12, 1862, the Planter’s officers decided to have the crew spend the night ashore. In the early morning hours, Smalls, then 23, commandeered Planter. At that time, the ship was loaded with weapons and equipment for the rebel forts. Along with seven of the eight enslaved crewmen, Smalls stopped by a nearby wharf to pick up Smalls’ wife, children and twelve relatives of the other crewmen. They sailed towards the nearest Union blockading ship, Onward, with a raised white flag. Dressed in a captain’s uniform, Smalls reported shouted, “Good morning, sir! I have brought you some of the old United States’ guns, sir!”
Regarded as a national hero in the north, Smalls and his associates were given prize money from President Lincoln for their efforts and information regarding rebel locations. Smalls continued to fight in the Civil War for the Union and became the first black captain of a United States vessel. After the war, he learned to read and write and participated in the drafting of South Carolina’s state constitution. Smalls went on to serve five terms as a U.S. Congressman representing South Carolina. He moved back to Beaufort, South Carolina and served for nearly 20 years as U.S. Collector of Customs and lived, as the owner, in the same house in which he had been a slave.