Robert Smalls was born a slave on a South Carolina plantation, and when he turned 12, his master sent him to Charleston to hire out. Smalls worked at various jobs, sending most of his earnings back to his master. He eventually married a hotel maid, also a slave, and in 1861 was hired as a deckhand on the former cotton steamer Planter, then serving as a military transport for the Confederate Navy. He soon proved his worth and was promoted to “wheelman” (actually a pilot, but as an African-American he was not permitted to hold that title).
On the night of 13 May 1862, while moored at Southern Wharf in Charleston Harbor, all three of the Planter’s white officers ignored regulations and went ashore, leaving Smalls and the other slave crewmen alone on the vessel. Smalls waited until 0300, then executed a plan he had been preparing quite some time. After donning the captain’s uniform, he quietly got under way and headed for another wharf, where his wife and children and the families of other members of the crew were waiting. When all were embarked, Smalls pointed the Planter’s bow toward the sea . . . and freedom.