Robert Smalls The Slave Who Stole A Confederate Ship and Became a Senator: Black History Month: A For Kids History Podcast

“My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere, all they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”
— Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls was born a slave in South Carolina April 5, 1839 

At 12 years old Robert Smalls’ owners rented him out to work in the town and on the water as a lamplighter, sailmaker, and sailor. This was where he learned the skills he would later use to make his daring escape and when he met his wife Hannah Smalls. At this time Union ships blockaded the South's harbors and Robert Smalls began to plan his and his young family’s escape.

May 13, 1862 Robert Smalls and a group of fellow slaves made their way to the harbor at dawn,  and stole an ammunitions ship that Smalls had been conscripted to work on by the Confederacy called the Planter and picked up their family members at predetermined ports. Smalls took on the role of Captain responding with proper signals at 4 Confederate check points including Fort Sumpter. Once they were in Union waters Smalls hoisted the white flag and surrendered to the Union Fleet. Keep in mind Smalls did this at the middle of the civil war. A slave who stole a ship in heavily armed confederate waters and delivered 9 men , 5 women , and 3 children to freedom.


Congress gave Smalls $1,500 and he went on a speaking tour to recount his story and recruit freed blacks to serve in the Union army.


For the rest of the war Smalls sailed the Planter which the Union refurbished into troop transport. Smalls sailed for the Union where his knowledge of the South Carolina Seas Islands was invaluable for 17 of his military engagements.

 Robert Smalls was a large factor in encouraging Lincoln to allow free black men to serve in the Union.


During the war Smalls turned his attention to politics. In 1864 he joined the free black delegates. In the same year Smalls was thrown off a street car in Philadelphia. Due to his Celebrity Smalls was able to lead a successful boycott of the

Philadelphia public transportation system. thanks to Smalls the city started integration in 1867-

At the end of the war Smalls had become successful as a Brigadier General. Smalls bought his former owner's home in South Carolina giving the impoverished family a generous price for the home. Smalls spent his time after the war improving on his education and opening a store and a school for black children.

Smalls ever started a newspaper called the Beaufort Southern Standard.

In 1868 Smalls ran for and won his term in the house of representatives. From 1870-1874 Robert Smalls served as a US. Senator.

In 1874 Mr. Smalls won a seat in Congress. His political career was not easy. In 1877 he was arrested and charged with taking a bribe. He only spent 3 days in jail but the experience defocused him from his political goals, especially with the political rise of the

red shirts. In 1879 Smalls was officially pardoned by the governor.

Sources: Word of advice: This is to the best of my abilities and has been reviewed for information meaning read first before letting children read links.


Which Slave Sailed Himself to Freedom PBS By Henry Louis Gates Jr