Dr. Bernard Powers of College of Charleston discusses about the early part of Robert Smalls life. When Smalls was 11-12 years old, his master decided to hire him out in Charleston doing a variety of different capacities. He worked as a waiter, a lamp lighter, a shoreman before eventually become a ship's pilot.
Smalls was married to a domestic slave who also worked at the downtown hotels in Charleston. They had an unusual arrangement, the couple lived in their own apartment in a livery stable. This was unusual because most slaves were supposed to live on the property owned by their masters.
Early in the Civil War, Smalls was employed on The Planter. This confederate vessel was used to supply the forces around the harbor. Many of the supplies were explosives and ammunition for the battle. Smalls came up with the idea to "steal the ship." The evening of May 12, 1862, the white captain had decided the crew would spend the evening in the city and leave the enslaved crew in charge of the ship. The members arranged to load the family of the members on the ship by sailing out of the harbor.
Smalls found the captain's hat and coat and he began to walk back and forth across the bow of the ship mimicking the behavior of the captain. He gave the appropriate signals and the ship sailed on beyond the harbor out into the water. They approached a Union naval blockade, but fortunately his wife had a white bedsheets that they used to indicate surrender.
The historic downtown Charleston worked on getting a marker located near where Smalls took The Planter.