Hand color tinted photo of Robert Smalls
Robert Smalls (April 5 , 1839–February 23, 1915) was an enslaved African American who, during and after the American Civil War, became a ship’s pilot, sea captain, and politician. He freed himself and his family from slavery on May 13, 1862, by commandeering a Confederate transport ship, the Planter, in Charleston harbor, and sailing it to freedom.
He was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, and eventually became a politician, serving in the South Carolina State legislature and the United States House of Representatives. During his career, Smalls authored state legislation that gave South Carolina the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States, founded the Republican Party of South Carolina, and convinced President Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union army. He is notable as the last Republican to represent South Carolina’s 5th congressional district until 2010.
Robert was born in 1839 in a slave cabin behind his master’s house on 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, South Carolina. He would grow up in Beaufort under the influence of the Lowcountry Gullah culture of his mother. Smalls’ mother, Lydia, was a slave held by Henry McKee.
Life in Charleston
Robert was sent to Charleston at the age of 12 because people believed his master Henry McKee was also his Father. 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 on the docks and wharves of Charleston in his teen years. He became a stevedore (dockworker), a rigger, a sail maker, and eventually worked his way up to being a wheelman (essentially a pilot, though blacks were not called pilots). He became very knowledgeable of the Charleston harbor.
Marriage and family
Robert met a hotel maid, Hannah Jones, and married her on December 24, 1856. Hannah was five years his senior and had an adolescent daughter at the time. Hannah and Robert had their first child, Elizabeth Lydia, in February 1858. In 1861 they had another child, Robert Jr., who died in 1863.
Escape from the Confederacy
In the fall of 1861, Smalls steered the CSS Planter, an armed Confederate military transport. On May 12, 1862, the Planter’s three white officers decided to spend the night ashore. About 3:00 am on the 13th, Smalls and seven of the eight enslaved crewmen decided to make a run for the Union vessels that formed the blockade, as they had earlier planned. Smalls dressed in the captain’s uniform and had a straw hat similar to that of the white captain. 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 the relatives of other crewmen, who had been concealed there for some time.
With his crew and the women and children, Smalls made the daring escape. The Planter had as cargo four valuable artillery pieces, besides its own two guns. Perhaps most valuable was the code book that would reveal the Confederate’s secret signals, and the placement of mines and torpedoes in and around Charleston harbor.Smalls used proper signals so the Confederate soldiers wouldn’t know he is escaping in the ship.
Smalls piloted the ship past the five Confederate forts that guarded the harbor, including Fort Sumter. The renegade ship passed by Sumter approximately 4:30 a.m. He headed straight for the Federal fleet, which was part of the Union blockade of Confederate ports, making sure to hoist a white sheet as a 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 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 in the North. Numerous newspapers ran articles describing his actions. Congress passed a bill, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, that rewarded 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) and gave the President his personal account. Lincoln was 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. He was never enrolled in either branch of service but served as a civilian. 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 try 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.The Union got Smalls as a naval pilot. Smalls was later reassigned to the USS 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.
Smalls returned with the Planter to Charleston harbor in April 1865 for the re-raising of the American flag upon Ft. Sumter.
After the Civil War
Immediately following the war, Smalls returned to his native Beaufort, SC, where he purchased his former master’s house at 512 Prince St. His mother Lydia lived with him for the remainder of her life. He allowed his former master’s wife—elderly and confused—to move back in the home prior to her death.
In 1866 Smalls went into business in Beaufort with Richard Howell Gleaves, opening a store for freedmen. That same year in April, the “radical” Republicans who controlled Congress overrode 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 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 participated in the South Carolina Republican State conventions.
During the Reconstruction era, Smalls was elected a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1865 and 1870, and the South Carolina Senate between 1871 and 1874. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served from 1875 to 1879. From 1882 to 1883 he represented South Carolina’s 5th congressional district in the House, and from 1884 to 1887 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 considered by Congress.
After the Compromise of 1877, and as a part of wide-ranging Southern 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 was active politically into the twentieth century. He was a delegate to the 1895 constitutional convention, and spoke against the disfranchisement of black voters. With one break in service, Smalls was appointed U.S. Collector of Customs 1889–1911 in Beaufort, where he lived as owner of the house in which he had been a slave. Smalls died in 1915 at the age of 75. He was buried in his family’s plot in downtown Beaufort.