The Little-Known Hero Who Seized Control Of A Confederate Ship And Escaped With His Freedom

While civil war tears America apart, an enslaved sailor by the name of Robert Smalls waits patiently to make his move. Under the cover of darkness, he manages to swipe a Confederate ship right from beneath the noses of his captors and sail it straight into the arms of the Union fleet. Finally, he has won his freedom, but his story doesn’t end here; Robert Smalls will go on to change the course of history.

The beginning of an extraordinary career

On May 13, 1862, with Union ships blockading the Confederate stronghold of Charleston, Smalls defied the odds to break free from his captors in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. But that was just the beginning of his extraordinary career. As a military leader and politician, he would play a vital role in one of the most turbulent periods of American history. 

Early years

Born on April 5, 1839, in Beaufort, South Carolina, Smalls was the son of an enslaved woman named Lydia and grew up in a small hut behind his owner’s home. And even though he was treated slightly better than some of his contemporaries, he learned the harsh realities of the antebellum South from a young age.

Witnessing the truth

There were rumors, you see, that Smalls’ father had actually been the plantation owner, John McKee, or perhaps his son, Henry. And as a result, he was shielded from the worst treatment that was readily doled out to other slaves. But when Lydia sent him out into the fields to witness the atrocities firsthand, he was left in no doubt as to the truth.

Behind bars

As a result of what he witnessed, Smalls’ ignorance turned to defiance. And according to reports, he began stirring up trouble, regularly finding himself behind bars. Hoping to secure his safety, Lydia arranged for her son to be sent to Charleston, where he could be hired out as a laborer.