Years of working on ships around Charleston, South Carolina, paid off for Robert Smalls and twelve other enslaved people. On May 13, 1862, Smalls, his wife and two children, and twelve other slaves took over the Planter, a steamboat built to haul cotton.
Dressed as the captain, Smalls used the signals he knew would allow passage by Fort Sumter. He then steered the ship towards the Union Navy, which was currently blockading the port. Hoisting the white flag of surrender, Smalls offered the boat to the Union forces.
Not only had he won freedom for himself, his family and twelve others, but Smalls had also given the Union a ship, weapons and important information about the Confederates' defenses. President Lincoln authorized a bill giving Smalls $1500 for his actions. He was named captain of the Planter and took part in seventeen engagements (events during the Civil War) on behalf of the Union.
When the war was over, Smalls lectured throughout New York. He bought the Beaufort, South Carolina, home where he and his mother had been enslaved; he lived there for the rest of his life. Smalls served terms in the South Carolina Senate and House of Representatives before being elected to the U.S. Congress for five years.