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A daring midnight dash that changed history

A daring midnight dash that changed history
May 2020

Why Robert Smalls should be remembered as the Lowcountry’s Paul Revere

Robert Smalls

Every schoolchild has heard the tale of Paul Revere—the man who, during his midnight ride, warned that liberty was at risk with the British coming. Gaining on his legendary status, with good reason, is our own local hero—Robert Smalls, the escaped slave, who also beat innumerable odds for freedom.

On May 13, 1862, the white crew of the CSS Planter went ashore in Charleston leaving Smalls on watch. An experienced pilot who had been planning his getaway for some time, Smalls began his daring escape. Picking up his wife, children, and friends at a wharf off East Bay Street, he donned a disguise and sailed by the Confederate defenses in the harbor, pulling down the Confederate flag as he relinquished the ship to the Federal fleet.

News of his exploits and courage raised morale for the Union and helped convince President Abraham Lincoln to allow black men to enlist in the all-white military. As captain of the Planter, Smalls saw service until the end of the war. For the rest of his life, he led by example and as a member of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, and as state sentator, state representative, and Beaufort customs collector.

His actions helped free millions, and although no poet has come forth—yet—to enshrine his deed, he, like Paul Revere, is remembered for a perilous midnight dash that changed our country’s history. Two markers, one on East Bay Street at the Battery and another a few blocks away, recall his life and victory.