That One Time a Civil War Slave Totally Stole a Confederate Steamship
White sailors left Robert Smalls on board unsupervised—and he didn’t hesitate
During the American Civil War, a black slave named Robert Smalls stole a Confederate steamship from under the noses of Southern troops—and sailed the vessel all the way to Union territory.
It was May 13, 1862 in Charleston, South Carolina. Smalls, a native of the nearby city of Beaufort, was a pilot aboard the Confederate naval vessel Planter, an armed, side-wheel steamer built in 1860.
Although a slave, Smalls lived with his wife in an apartment in Charleston at the war’s outbreak in 1861. His owners had offered to sell him his freedom for $800, but Smalls had been unable to pay.
He was one of eight slaves that comprised a portion of the steamer’s crew. During a stopover along the South Carolina coast, the three white crewmen failed to follow a Confederate naval policy requiring a white to remain on board at all times. The Confederate sailors decided to leave the slaves on Planter and spend the night on land.
The then-22-year-old Smalls didn’t hesitate—he’d prepared for exactly this contingency. At three o’clock in the morning, he picked up his family plus a few other slaves at Charleston’s West Atlantic Wharf, then easily piloted the ship away from shore, taking her right past five Confederate ships.
In the early morning dark, no one could tell a black man was behind the wheel. Smalls flew all the correct flags requesting safe passage through Confederate waters. Entering Union territory, Smalls surrendered Planter to the Union’s USS Onward.
Smalls and the other slaves were not unaware of the risks. If the Confederates had found them out, they intended to either “escape or use whatever guns and ammunition they [had] to fight and, if necessary, sink the ship,” according to a U.S. Navy report.
In handing over Planter, Smalls also gave Union forces Confederate signal codes and maps showing underwater mine placements. The value of the ship and its cargo was $30,000.
Later, Smalls met with Pres. Abraham Lincoln. The pilot told Lincoln that black soldiers “will be better fighters than whites” because the blacks will be “fighting for their freedom.”
Confederate authorities arrested Planter’s white captain and crew. The South put a $4,000 bounty on Smalls’ head.
Planter’s slave crew received cash rewards. At least one of the black sailors used the money to purchase his family’s freedom. Smalls became the Union navy’s first black ship captain in 1863, ultimately fighting in 17 battles.
Smalls returned to Beaufort after the war and entered politics, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives for four years and, later, the South Carolina state senate. He died in Beaufort in 1915.