Robert Smalls
April 5, 1839 – February 23, 1915

Robert Smalls was a slave who freed himself and his family from slavery on May 13, 1862, by commandeering a Confederate transport ship, the USS Planter, to freedom in Charleston harbor. He was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, and eventually became a politician—serving in both the South Carolina State legislature and the United States House of Representatives. During his political career, Smalls authored legislation that created the first free and compulsory public school system in America in South Carolina, founded the Republican Party of South Carolina, and successfully convinced President Lincoln to accept African American soldiers into the Union army.

Robert was born in 1839 in a slave cabin behind his master's house on 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, SC. He would grow up in Beaufort as a house slave—also known as Swonga—under the influence of the Lowcountry Gullah Culture that his mother was raised in. Smalls' mother, Lydia, was a slave owned by John McKee.

Robert was sent to Charleston in 1851 to work for his master (now Henry McKee) where he held several jobs. He started out in a hotel, then became a lamplighter on the streets of Charleston. His love of the water, evidenced in his childhood at Beaufort, led him to work down on the docks and wharfs of Charleston in his teen years. He became a stevedore (i.e., dockworker), a rigger, a sail maker, and eventually worked his way up to a wheelman (i.e., essentially a pilot though blacks were not called pilots). He became very knowledgeable of the Charleston harbor.

Robert met a hotel maid, Hannah Jones, and married her on December 24, 1856. Hannah was fourteen years his senior and had an adolescent daughter when she met Robert. Hannah and Robert had their first child, Elizabeth Lydia, in February 1858. In 1861 they had another child, Robert Jr., who would die in 1863.

Escape from the Confederacy

In the fall of 1861, Smalls was made helmsman of the USS Planter, an armed Confederate military transport. On May 12, 1862, the Planter's three white officers were spending the night ashore. In the early morning hours of the 13th, Smalls and several other black crewmen decided to make a run for the Union vessels which formed the blockade, in accordance with a plan which Smalls had previously discussed with them. Robert was dressed in the captain's uniform and even had a hat similar to the white captain's. The Planter backed out of what was then known as Southern Wharf around 3 a.m. The Planter stopped at a nearby wharf to pick up Smalls' family and other crewmen's relatives, who had been concealed there for some time.

Now with his wife and children and a small group of other African Americans now aboard, Smalls made his daring escape. The Planter not only had the blacks on board but it also had four valuable artillery pieces aboard, besides its own two guns. Perhaps most valuable was the code book in Robert's possession that would reveal the Confederate's secret signals and placement of mines and torpedoes in and around Charleston harbor.

Smalls piloted the ship past the five Confederate forts which guarded the harbor, including Fort Sumter. The renegade ship passed by Sumter approximately 4:30 a.m. He then headed straight for the Federal fleet, which was part of the Union blockade of Confederate ports, making sure to hoist a white flag. The first ship he encountered was USS Onward, which prepared to fire until a sailor noticed the white flag. When the Onward's captain boarded the Planter, Smalls requested to raise the US flag immediately. Smalls turned the Planter over to the United States Navy, along with its onboard cargo of artillery and explosives intended for a Confederate fort.

Service to the Union

Because of his extensive knowledge of the shipyards and Confederate defenses, Smalls was able to provide valuable assistance to the Union Navy. He gave detailed information about the harbor's defenses to Admiral Samuel Dupont, commander of the blockading fleet.

Smalls became famous throughout the North. Numerous newspapers ran articles describing his actions. Congress passed a bill, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, rewarding Smalls and his crewmen with the prize money for the captured Planter. Smalls' own share was $1,500 ($34,000 adjusted for inflation in 2007 dollars), a huge sum for the time. Robert personally met Abraham Lincoln in late May 1862 (two weeks later) upon which he heralded his personal account to the President. Lincoln was quite impressed with Smalls' intelligence.

His deeds became a major argument for allowing African Americans to serve in the Union Army. Smalls served under the Navy until March 1863, when he was transferred to the Army. However, he remained a civilian and was never actually enrolled in either branch of service. By his personal account, Robert served in 17 different engagements during the Civil War.

With the encouragement of Major-General David Hunter, Union commander at Port Royal, Smalls went to Washington, DC., with Mansfield French in August 1862, to persuade President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to permit black men to fight for the Union. He was successful and received an order signed by Stanton permitting up to 5,000 African Americans to enlist in the Union forces at Port Royal. These men were organized as the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.

Smalls served as a pilot for the Union Navy. In the fall of 1862, Planter had been transferred to the Union Army for service near Fort Pulaski. Smalls then returned to the Planter, now a Union transport.

On April 7, 1863, he piloted ironclad USS Keokuk in a major Union attack on Fort Sumter. The attack failed, and Keokuk was badly damaged. Her crew was rescued shortly before the ship sank.

In December 1863, Smalls became the first black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States. On December 1, 1863, the Planter had been caught in a crossfire between Union and Confederate forces. The ship's commander, Captain Nickerson, decided to surrender. Smalls refused, fearing that the black crewmen would not be treated as prisoners of war and might even be shot. Smalls took command and piloted the ship out of range of the Confederate guns. For his bravery, Smalls was named to replace Nickerson as the Planter's captain.

Robert returned with the Planter to Charleston harbor in April 1865 for the re-raising of the National flag upon Ft. Sumter.

After the Civil War

Immediately following the war, Robert returned to his native Beaufort, SC, where he purchased his former master's estate on 512 Prince St. His mother Lydia lived with him for the remainder of her life. He even allowed his former master's wife—elderly and confused—to move back in the home just prior to her death as a token of graciousness.

In 1866 Smalls went into business in Beaufort with Richard Howell Gleaves, opening a store for freedmen (freed slaves). That same year in April, the "radical" Republicans that controlled Congress over rode President Andrew Johnson's vetoes and passed a Civil Rights Act, along with ratifying the 14th Amendment, extending citizenship to all Americans regardless of their color.

Smalls identified with the Republican Party, saying it was "The party of Lincoln which unshackled the necks of four million human beings." In his campaign speeches he said " every colored man who has a vote to cast, would cast that vote for the regular Republican Party and thus bury the Democratic Party so deep that there will not be seen even a bubble coming from the spot where the burial took place." Later in life he recalled "I can never loose [sic] sight of the fact that had it not been for the Republican Party, I would have never been an office-holder of any kind—from 1862—to present." He was a delegate at several Republican National Conventions and as participant in South Carolina Republican State Conventions.

During Reconstruction, Smalls was a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1865 and 1870 and the South Carolina Senate between 1871 and 1874. He was then elected to the United States House of Representatives and served from 1875–1879 and 1882–1883 in South Carolina's 5th congressional district, and from 1884–1887 in South Carolina's 7th congressional district. He was a member of the 44th, 45th, and 47th through 49th U.S. Congresses. During consideration of a bill to reduce and restructure the United States Army, Smalls introduced an amendment that “Hereafter in the enlistment of men in the Army . . . no distinction whatsoever shall be made on account of race or color.” The amendment was not even considered by Congress.

After the Compromise of 1877, and as a part of wide ranging white efforts to reduce African American political power, Smalls was charged and convicted of taking a bribe five years earlier in connection with the awarding of a printing contract. He was pardoned as part of an agreement in which charges were also dropped against Democrats who had been accused of election fraud.

Smalls remained a political figure into the twentieth century and was a delegate to the 1895 constitutional convention. He spoke out against the disenfranchisement of black voters. With one break in service, Smalls was U.S. Collector of Customs 1889–1911 in Beaufort, where he lived as owner of the house in which he had been a slave. The Robert Smalls House is now a National Historic Landmark. The desk that Smalls used as Collector of Customs is on display at the Beaufort Arsenal Museum in Beaufort.

Monuments and legacies

Fort Robert Smalls was built by free Blacks in 1863 on McGuire's Hill at the mouth of Becks Run in Arlington Heights, for the defense of Pittsburgh during the American Civil War.

Smalls died in 1915 at the age of 75. He was buried in his family's plot in downtown Beaufort. A monument and statue are dedicated to his memory.

In 2004, a ship was launched which is named for Robert Smalls. It is LSV-8, a Logistics Support Vessel operated by the U.S. Army. It is the first Army ship named after an African American.

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