Smalls was born into slavery in 1839 and didn't escape until 1861 when he was assigned to steer a Confederate ship. The officers and crew of the CSS Planter were sleeping ashore for one evening, which is when Smalls and a few others decided to escape. They waited until the officers fell asleep and made a run for it at 3 AM. Smalls dressed as the white captain of the Planter, and he and the crew stole the ship. They stopped at a nearby wharf to pick up the family of Smalls and other crewmen.
Smalls continued to sail passed five Confederate forts, even Fort Sumter, until they reached the Union blockade. Smalls made sure a white flag was raised, and the Planter was taken in by the Union. The ship included lots of cargo and weapons along with a code book that included some of the Confederate's greatest secrets.
Smalls knowledge of Confederate Navy operations was very valuable to the Union, and he became quite famous for it. His positive contribution helped convince the nation to allow African Americans to serve in the Civil War. Smalls went on to serve in the Union Navy as well as the Army, although he was only allowed to serve as a civilian.