Call it the original “Great Escape.” On May 13, 1862, just over a year into the Civil War, an enslaved man named Robert Smalls, who labored on a Confederate steamer in South Carolina’s Charleston harbor, set into motion a daring plan.
As his great-great-grandson Michael Boulware Moore explained, “He saw that the Confederate crew had left, and he knew that oftentimes they left for the evening, not to come back until the next day.”
For Small and six other slaves and their families, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. “They knew that if they got caught, that they would be, not just killed, but probably tortured in a particularly egregious and public manner,” said Moore.
Disguising himself in the top hat and long overcoat of a Confederate captain, Smalls piloted the ship past Fort Sumpter towards the Union blockade, and freedom.