Docked on the Cooper River in Charleston, in the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, with the Confederate crew ashore, Smalls gathered his family, the other enslaved crew and their families and head toward the Atlantic. He donned the top hat and long coat of the Confederate captain. As the boat’s pilot, he knew the various codes executed with the ship’s whistle to get past the forts in the harbor. He calmly sailed past the 5 forts in the harbor and to freedom aboard the USS Onward outside the harbor.
Smalls’ exploits in Charleston made national news! He was received up and down the East Coast as a hero – with parades and receptions in many of the major cities there.
Robert came back to fight in the war. He persuaded President Lincoln to accept formerly enslaved men into the war effort. As a result of bravery under fire, he later became the first African American to command a U.S. naval vessel and the most senior African American to serve in the war. After, he went back to his hometown of Beaufort and was elected to the S.C. legislature. While there he wrote legislation to create the public school system in the state: the first, free, compulsory, statewide, public school system in America.
Later, Smalls was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served five terms. After Washington, Smalls returned to Beaufort where he served out the remainder of his life as Collector of Customs. He founded the S.C. Republican Party and was a Major General in the S.C. Militia. Robert Smalls died on February 23, 1915. One of his more famous quotes is, “My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of anyone. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”
Watch Michael Boulware Moore’s TEDx Talk about Robert Smalls here.