National Constitution CenterCenturies of Citizenship: A Constitutional Timeline Exhibit
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1850-1865: We are a house divided, a nation torn by bloody civil war

May 13, 1862
Robert Smalls escapes to freedom after piloting steamship Planter out of Charleston harbor

Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls, 1839-1915

He seized an opportunity for freedom

Robert Smalls was an enslaved South Carolinian pressed into service as a ship’s pilot for the Confederate Navy. On May 13, 1862, as the white officers slept, Smalls smuggled his family on board the Planter. He then hoisted the Confederate flag and daringly sailed past other Confederate ships in Charleston Harbor and out to sea. Once out of range of the Confederate gunboats, Smalls raised a white flag of truce. He delivered the Planter to the Union fleet blockading Charleston.

Smalls and his crew of 12 slaves were welcomed as heroes. He was honored at the White House and became a captain in the Union Navy. After the war, Smalls had a distinguished political career, including election to five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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