Robert Smalls

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Robert Smalls
Robert Smalls - Brady-Handy.jpg
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Carolina's 7th district
In office
March 18, 1884 – March 3, 1887
Preceded by Edmund W.M. Mackey
Succeeded by William Elliott
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Carolina's 5th district
In office
July 19, 1882 – March 3, 1883
Preceded by George D. Tillman
Succeeded by John J. Hemphill
In office
March 4, 1875 – March 3, 1879
Preceded by District re-established
John D. Ashmore before district eliminated after 1860
Succeeded by George D. Tillman
Member of the South Carolina Senate
In office
1870 – 1874
Member of the South Carolina House of Representatives
In office
1868 – 1870
Personal details
Born (1839-04-05)April 5, 1839
Beaufort, South Carolina
Died February 23, 1915(1915-02-23) (aged 75)
Beaufort, South Carolina
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Hannah Jones (until 1883)

Annie Wigg

Military service
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Navy, United States Army
Years of service 1862 – 1868
Rank None (civilian pilot and armed transport captain[1] )
Battles/wars Siege of Charleston, Sherman's March to the Sea

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, his crew and their families from slavery on May 13, 1862, by commandeering a Confederate transport ship, the CSS Planter, in Charleston harbor, and sailing it to freedom beyond the Federal blockade. His example and persuasion helped convince President Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union Army.

He was born in Beaufort, South Carolina. After the American Civil War, he became a politician, elected to the South Carolina State legislature and the United States House of Representatives. As a politician, Smalls authored state legislation providing for South Carolina to have the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States, and founded the Republican Party of South Carolina. He is notable as the last Republican to represent South Carolina's 5th congressional district until 2010.

Early life[edit]

Robert was born in 1839 into slavery in a cabin behind the house of his master Henry McKee on 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, South Carolina. He grew up in the city under the influence of the Lowcountry Gullah culture of his mother. Smalls' mother, Lydia Polite, was a slave held by McKee.[2]

Life in Charleston[edit]

McKee sent Robert to Charleston at the age of 12 to be leased out, or hired out, with the money earned to be returned to his master. He held several jobs. He started out in a hotel, then became a lamplighter on the streets of Charleston. His love of the water led him to work on the docks and wharves of Charleston in his teen years.[3]

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.[3]

Marriage and family[edit]

Robert met a hotel maid, Hannah Jones, and married her on December 24, 1856. Hannah was five years older and already had a 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[edit]

The Gun–boat "Planter", run out of Charleston, SC, by Robert Smalls, May 1862
Map of early African-American involvement in the Civil War, including Robert Smalls' liberation of the Planter

In the fall of 1861, Smalls was assigned to steer 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 a.m. 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. He backed the Planter 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 would not know he was 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 was preparing to fire until a sailor noticed the white flag. When the Onward's captain boarded the Planter, Smalls requested to raise the United States 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.[3]

Service to the Union[edit]

Because of his extensive knowledge of the shipyards and Confederate defenses, Smalls provided 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 quickly became famous in the North. Numerous newspapers ran articles describing his daring 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 (about $34,000 adjusted for inflation in 2012 dollars), a huge sum for the time. He met Abraham Lincoln in late May 1862 (two weeks later) and gave the President his personal account.

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, Smalls served in 17 different engagements during the Civil War.

With the encouragement of Major-General David Hunter, the 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 be summarily killed. Taking command, Smalls piloted the ship out of range of the Confederate guns. For his bravery, Smalls was named to replace Nickerson as the Planter's captain.[3]

Smalls returned with the Planter to Charleston harbor in April 1865 for the ceremonial raising of the American flag upon Ft. Sumter.

After the Civil War[edit]

Immediately following the war, Smalls returned to his native Beaufort, 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 (Jane Bond McKee, who was elderly) 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. In 1868, they passed the 14th Amendment, extending citizenship to all Americans regardless of their race.

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 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 also served briefly as the commander of the South Carolina Militia with the rank of major general.

In 1874, Smalls 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. The state legislature gerrymandered to change the boundaries, including Beaufort and other heavily black, coastal areas in South Carolina's 7th congressional district, making the others with high white majorities. Smalls was elected from the 7th district and served from 1884 to 1887. 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. He is the last Republican to have been elected from the 5th district until 2010. He was the longest serving African-American member of Congress until Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in the late 20th Century.

After the Compromise of 1877, the federal government withdrew its remaining forces from South Carolina and other Southern states. White Democrats had used violence and election fraud to regain control in the state legislature. As 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. [Foner, p. 198]

Smalls was active politically into the twentieth century. He was a delegate to the 1895 constitutional convention, and, together with five other black politicians, strongly opposed white Democrat efforts to disfranchise black citizens. They wrote an article for the New York World to publicize the issues, but the constitution was ratified. It and similar constitutions passed court challenges of the time.

Smalls was appointed U.S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort, serving from 1889–1911 with only a short break in service. 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.

Honors and legacy[edit]

  • Fort Robert Smalls, was named in his honor; it was built by free blacks in 1863 on McGuire's Hill on the South Side of Pittsburgh during the American Civil War. It survived until the 1940s.[4]
  • The Robert Smalls House in Beaufort, SC, has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
  • A monument and statue are dedicated to his memory where he is interred at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort.
  • The desk that Smalls used as Collector of Customs is on display at the Beaufort Arsenal Museum in Beaufort.
  • In 2004, the U.S. named a ship 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.
  • There is an exhibit at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum dedicated to Robert Small's contribution to the US Army.
  • Charleston held commemorative ceremonies on the 150th anniversary of Robert Smalls' escape with the Planter, with special programs on May 12 and 13 of 2012.
  • The Oregon Civil War Sesquicentennial presented a special 150th Anniversary program on May 16, 2012 at the Kenton Public Library branch in Portland, Oregon honoring Robert Smalls' epic voyage to freedom and his contributions to society.
  • During World War II, Camp Robert Smalls was established as a sub-facility of the Great Lakes Naval Training Center to train black sailors.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Rodriguez, Junius. "Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, And Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 2". ABC-CLIO. Retrieved 12 July 2013. 
  2. ^ Robert Smalls—Official Website and Information Center
  3. ^ a b c d Gerald Henig, "The Unbeatable Mr. Smalls", America's Civil War, March 2007
  4. ^ "Greater Pittsburgh Area". North American Forts. Retrieved 7-04-2008. 

General[edit]

  • Coker, P. C., III. Charleston's Maritime Heritage, 1670-1865: An Illustrated History. Charleston, S.C.: Coker-Craft, 1987. 314 pp.
  • Downing, David C. A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy, Nashville: Cumberland House, 2007. ISBN 978-1-58182-587-9
  • Foner, Eric ed., Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction Revised Edition. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996). ISBN 0-8071-2082-0. Between 1865 and 1876, about two thousand blacks held elective and appointive offices in the South. A few are relatively well-known, but most became obscure after being omitted from official state histories after Reconstruction. Foner profiles more than 1,500 black legislators, state officials, sheriffs, justices of the peace, and constables in this volume.
  • Rabinowitz, Howard N. Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982) ISBN 0-252-00929-0
  • Kennedy, Robert F., Jr. Robert Smalls, the Boat Thief (New York: Hyperion, 2008). ISBN 1-4231-0802-7. A picture book illustrated by Patrick Faricy.
  • Billingsley, Andrew. Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families (University of South Carolina Press, 2007). ISBN 978-1-57003-686-6.
  • Thomas, Rhondda R. & Ashton, Susanna, eds. (2014). The South Carolina Roots of African American Thought. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press."Robert Smalls (1839-1915)," p. 65-70.

External links[edit]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Edmund W.M. Mackey
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Carolina's 7th congressional district

1884-1887
Succeeded by
William Elliott
Preceded by
George D. Tillman
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Carolina's 5th congressional district

1882-1883
Succeeded by
John J. Hemphill
Preceded by
District re-established
John D. Ashmore before district eliminated after 1860
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Carolina's 5th congressional district

1875-1879
Succeeded by
George D. Tillman