The Daring, Varied Life of Escaped Slave Robert Smalls

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Part 1: Early Life and Escape

Robert Smalls lived a life of daring, pushing boundaries and taking risks, rising from enslavement to succeed in war, business, and politics. He was an inspiration to many.

Born into slavery, he grew up in the ownership of Henry McKee, who owned slaves in Beaufort, S.C. Robert was born in 1839. His mother was Lydia Polite, who was enslaved by the McKee family. The name of Robert's father is still up for debate, although he has been called Robert Smalls, not Robert McKee. The plantation manager's name was Patrick Smalls.

When Robert was 12, the McKee family moved to Charleston. Robert was put to work on the waterfront, serving aboard ships. When he was 17, he married Hannah Jones, herself a slave who was a hotel maid in Charleston. Together, they had two children, one of whom died of smallpox.

When the Civil War begin in 1861, Robert found work as a deckhand on the Planter, a cotton steamer that had been converted into a supply ship by the Confederacy. The Planter carried supplies from fort to fort in Charleston Harbor and further afield. Robert was an astute observor and a keen sailor; soon, he knew all he needed to know about sailing a ship and about the layout of the harbor and of the routines that ship's captains went through when moving from place to place.

On May 12, 1862, the crew of the Planter went to sleep, leaving Robert and a crew of eight other slaves to watch through the night; this was a common occurrence, since the slaves had shown no sign of wanting to rebel or escape. But escape they did, in the early hours of May 13, easing the Planter out of Charleston Harbor, through five checkpoints, and out into open waters. They stopped along the way to pick up eight passengers, which were five women and three children; three of these passengers were Smalls's wife and children. At each checkpoint, Smalls gave the correct signals because he had memorized them. It also helped that, even though it was dark, Small was dressed just like the ship's captain, even down to the wide-brimmed hat that the captain wore onboard and the mannerisms that the captain adopted that could be seen from far off.

The destination was the Union blockade, which was a few miles offshore. The USS Onward was the first ship that the Planter approached, and the crew of the Onward almost fired on the incoming ship before Small changed the Confederate flag to a white flag of truce. What the Onward crew got was not only more than a dozen escaped slaves but also Robert Smalls and all that he knew about the Confederate ships, docks, harbor patrols, and shipping schedules. Smalls even knew the locations of mines that the Southern crews had placed in the harbor because Smalls himself had been onboard while many of the mines were placed.

Part 2: Business, Politics, and Success

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