Born into bondage, Robert Smalls rose from slavery to the Halls of Congress. In between, he helped the Union win the Civil War by doing what no black American had ever done before -he commanded a naval vessel.
AT HOME ON THE WATER
Robert Smalls was born a slave on April 5, 1839, in the coastal town of Beaufort, South Carolina. His first taste of a sailor’s life came at 12 years old when his master hired him out to work at a shipyard in Charleston Harbor. Smalls took to it, displaying a natural talent for seamanship. By 19, he had risen to the highest sea rank available to a slave: a ship’s pilot. Although Smalls could neither read nor write, his photographic memory recalled every bar, shoal, and current in Charleston Harbor.
In 1858 Smalls married another slave, Hannah Jones, and two years later they had a son, Robert, Jr. Being a respected sea pilot, Smalls life was better than that of most slaves …but he was still a slave. Longing to be his own master, he set out to buy his family’s freedom. And he almost did it -Smalls had saved $700 of the $800 purchasing price when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Then everybody’s life was put on hold.
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