In the Spring of 1862 the Civil War was well underway and the Union Navy had blockaded major Confederate port cities, including Charleston, South Carolina.
A twenty-three-year-old enslaved man named Robert Smalls worked in Charleston as a pilot on the CSS Planter, a Confederate gunboat, along with several other enslaved men. Together, the men were able to operate the Planter without any of her white crew, which led them to launch a daring plan under Smalls' leadership.
In the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, while the white crew members were on shore for the night, Smalls and the other men quietly brought their families aboard the Planter and set out from the Charleston harbor toward the Union Naval blockade. Experienced from their work on the gunboat, they gave all the right signals to Confederate gun batteries for safe passage through the harbor. Smalls surrendered the vessel as soon as they reached Union forces, and the men and their families were free!
Read a contemporary account of this event in an article from the June 14, 1862 issue of Harper's Weekly or learn more about Smalls' life, including this daring adventure, at The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls: A Traveling Exhibition and by reading books about him (for adults or children) at your Milwaukee Public Library.
Smalls went on to captain both the Planter and the Keokuk, an ironsides, for the Union Navy during the Civil War. He also recruited thousands of black soldiers for the Union Army during the course of the war. After the war, he went back to South Carolina and continued a career in public service, this time as a Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives and in several other positions.