Just before the crack of dawn on May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls and a crew of other fellow slaves in what was at the time Confederate America escaped with a military gunship steamer. He even proceeded to pick up family members at rendezvous points around the harbor, navigate away and correctly signal his way through numerous Confederate checkpoints.
He even was able to provide the correct signal at Fort Sumter, and other heavily guarded defensive positions. He donned the captain’s wide-brimmed straw hat, as a way to disguise his face and as soon as they made it out of Confederate waters, his crew raised a white flag to surrender to the blockading Union fleet.
In a mere four hours, Robert Smalls had done something that people thought impossible, securing himself in folklore as one of the greatest escapes ever. In the middle of a full-on Civil War, he had not only escaped slavery and freed many other people, but he had also stolen and commandeered a heavily armed Confederate gunship steamer boat. And delivered over 17 people, including woman and children, from the terror of slavery to freedom.
The story starts when Smalls married his wife Hannah and had two children. Knowing that being all slaves he had no guarantee of safety or even being allowed to live together, Smalls was able to negotiate with his owners to buy his family outright. However, they put the price up very high at $700, which was an unimaginable amount of money for Smalls at the time. He knew that the Union blockade was accepting to save runaways and thus he saw his opportunity for freedom.
The best part was that the Union saw them returning the gunship as rescuing the boat from enemies of the government, resulting in every crew member receiving over $1,500. Still, Smalls was now a legend in both sides of the Civil War, the Confederates quickly put a $4,000 bounty on his head. He became such a hero in the North, when President Lincoln authorized the recruitment of black soldiers it is said Smalls personally recruited over 5,000 soldiers.