The Incredible Tale of the Slave Who Stole a Confederate Ship and Sailed to Freedom

Risking life and limb, Robert Smalls escaped with his family and became a Union hero.

June 14, 2017 5:00 am
How Robert Smalls Stole a Confederate Ship and Sailed to Freedom
Circa 1880: Robert Smalls (1839-1915). American naval officer and politician. An African-American born into slavery, he was forced to serve in the Confederate Navy during the Civil War. He took command of a ship and delivered it to Union forces, became a pilot in the U.S. Navy, advanced to captain 1863-1866, the highest ranking African-American officer in the Union Army. Member, South Carolina State House of Representatives. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Sometimes it’s those that history forgets that have the greatest stories to tell. This is the case with Robert Smalls, a 23-year-old slave from Charleston, South Carolina. In 1862, with his wife and two children in tow, Smalls commandeered a Confederate steamship, the Planter, and with a small crew, sailed it across a harbor heavily fortified with Rebel guns to Union forces. He became an instant Union hero—and he and his family were freed.

The entire story of Smalls’ incredible feat is being told in Cate Lineberry’s forthcoming book, Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero, which is set to publish on June 20 from St. Martin’s Press.

Smithsonian is running an exclusive excerpt of the book on its website, and RCL has teased out a few of the most amazing details from it, along with some quotes from Lineberry’s book.

-The wharf where Smalls’ stole the boat from was only “a few miles from Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War had been fired just a little more than a year before.”

-Just two years into the Civil War, Smalls feared for his families safety. “Smalls was haunted by the idea that his family … would be sold. And once separated, family members often never saw each other again.”

-The Union ships Smalls wanted to deliver the Planter to were part of a U.S. Naval “blockade of all major Southern ports President Abraham Lincoln had initiated shortly after Fort Sumter fell in April 1861.”

-The Planter, a steamship, produced a ton of “smoke and noise”—so Smalls’ escape was clearly not one that could be done in stealth mode. Plus, the ship would be passing armed Confederate battlements. In other words, it was extremely risky.

-The other huge risk: Smalls was not able to warn the Union fleet ahead of time that this Confederate ship was theirs to take—and thus avoid being blown out of the water by the very navy he was fleeing toward.

Watch Michael B. Moore, the great-great grandson of Smalls, give a TEDx talk on the Union hero below.



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