Robert Smalls (1839–1915) was the first and only black to attain the rank of captain in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. He was a skilled pilot who took control of the armed Confederate dispatch boat, The Planter, in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 12, 1862. With the help of eight black crewmen, Smalls put his family and other fugitives on board and sailed it out of the harbor to turn it over as a prize of war to the Union Navy on May 13, 1862. The boat was eventually refitted as a gunboat, and Smalls was made a captain in the Union Navy. At the time of his heroic deed, Smalls was a slave. He was born in slave quarters in Beaufort, South Carolina, and his father is believed to have been a European. He was sold in 1851 to a slave owner who lived in Charleston, South Carolina. The owner allowed Smalls to work for pay outside of the plantation, and it was on his job as a ship rigger that he learned about sailing and became a superior sailor. He was employed on The Planter in 1861 and began hatching his plan to escape. He was initially commissioned as a second lieutenant in Company B, 33rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops; he was denied enlistment in the Federal Navy because he was not a graduate of the naval academy. His promotion to captain came as a result of his actions at the battle at Folly Creek, South Carolina. He was serving on The Planter when Confederate troops opened fire on it. Smalls took over after the white commander panicked, and he was able to bring the ship safely back to port. He left the navy at the end of the Civil War, but went on to a career as a politician. As a Republican congressman from South Carolina, he served longer than any other black during Reconstruction, although not in consecutive terms. When he left the House of Representatives in 1887, he became a customs collector, with his last post in his hometown of Beaufort. He held that position until his death.
Captain Robert Smalls was the only African American to achieve that rank during the American Civil War.