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
from Beaufort County
In office
November 22, 1870 – March 4, 1875
Preceded by Jonathan Jasper Wright
Succeeded by Samuel Greene
Member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from Beaufort County
In office
November 24, 1868 – November 22, 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 U.S. Navy and U.S. 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, CSS Planter, in Charleston harbor, and sailing it from Confederate controlled waters to the U.S. blockade. His example and persuasion helped convince President Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the U.S. Army.

Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina. After the American Civil War, he became a politician, winning election 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 was the last Republican to represent South Carolina's 5th congressional district until 2010.

Early life[edit]

Robert Smalls 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.[2] He grew up in the city under the influence of the Lowcountry Gullah culture of his mother, Lydia Polite, a slave of McKee.[3]

Life in Charleston[edit]

Smalls' master sent him to Charleston at the age of 12 to be hired out, with the money to be paid to his master. He began in a hotel, then became a lamplighter on Charleston's streets. In his teen years, his love of the sea led him to work on the docks and wharves of Charleston.[4]

Smalls became a stevedore (dockworker), a rigger, a sail maker, and eventually worked his way up to being a wheelman (more or less a pilot, though slaves would not be called by that title). He became very knowledgeable about Charleston harbor.[4]

Marriage and family[edit]

Smalls met a hotel maid, Hannah Jones, whom he married on December 24, 1856. She was five years his senior and already had a daughter. Their first child together, Elizabeth Lydia Smalls, was born in February 1858. In 1861 they had a son, Robert Jr., who died at the age of two.

Escape from slavery[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, a lightly 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. the following morning, Smalls and seven of the eight enslaved crewmen decided to make a run for the Union blockading ships, as they had previously planned. Smalls dressed in the captain's uniform and had a straw hat similar to that worn by the captain. He sailed the Planter out of what was then known as Southern Wharf, then stopped at a nearby wharf to pick up his own family and the families of other crewmen, who were hiding there.

Smalls's daring escape succeeded. Besides her two small cannons, the Planter had four valuable artillery pieces aboard as cargo as well as their ammunition, intended for a Confederate fort. Even more valuable, however, were the code book containing the Confederates' secret signals, and a map of the mines and torpedoes laid around Charleston harbor.

Smalls piloted the ship past the five Confederate forts that guarded the harbor. They suspected nothing, since he had given the correct Confederate signals. The Planter passed Fort Sumter approximately 4:30am, and he headed straight for the U.S. fleet, flying a white bed sheet as a sign of surrender. He was spotted by the USS Onward, which was about 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. He then surrendered the Planter and her cargo to the United States Navy.[4]

Service to the Union[edit]

Smalls proved to be very valuable to the Union Navy, since he gave detailed information about Charleston's defenses to Admiral Samuel Dupont, commander of the blockading fleet.

Smalls quickly became well known in the North. Newspapers described his actions, and Congress passed a bill, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, that awarded Smalls and his crewmen the prize money for the Planter. Smalls' share was US$1,500 ($35,555 in 2016). He met President Lincoln two weeks later and gave a first hand account of his adventure.

Smalls' bravery became a major argument for allowing African Americans to serve in the Union Army. He worked with the Navy until March 1863, when he was transferred to the Army. Due to racism at that time, he only served as a civilian. By his own account, Smalls was present at 17 engagements in the Civil War.

With the encouragement of Major General David Hunter, the Union commander at Port Royal, Smalls went to Washington, D.C., in August 1862 with Mansfield French, to try to persuade Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to permit black men to fight for the Union. He was successful and Stanton signed an order permitting up to 5,000 African Americans to enlist in the Union forces at Port Royal. Those who did were organized as the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Regiment (Colored).

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 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.[4]

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 511 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 U.S. 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 South Carolina 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 to 1911 with only a short break in service. He lived as owner of the house in which he had been a slave.


By his first wife, Hannah Jones Smalls, Robert Smalls had three children—Elizabeth Lydia (1858-1959; m. Samuel Jones Bampfield, 9 living children), Sarah Voorhies (1863-1920, m. Dr. Jay Williams, no children), and Robert, Jr., who died in infancy. She had two daughters before she met and married Robert Smalls: Charlotte Jones (m. Willie Williams) and Clara Jones (m. James Rider).[5]

Hannah Smalls died on July 28, 1883; on April 9, 1890, Robert Smalls married a Charleston schoolteacher, Annie E. Wigg who bore him one son, William Robert Smalls (1892-1970). Annie Smalls died on November 5, 1895.[6]

Smalls died in 1915 at the age of 75. He was buried in his family's plot in the churchyard of the Tabernacle Baptist Church 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.[7]
  • 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 USAV Major General Robert Smalls (LSV-8), a General Frank S. Besson-class 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]


  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, War Hero and Legislator", Beaufort County Library.
  3. ^ Robert Smalls—Official Website and Information Center
  4. ^ a b c d Gerald Henig, "The Unbeatable Mr. Smalls", America's Civil War, March 2007.
  5. ^ "Civil War Preservation Trust: Civil War Figures As Examples of Character and Leadership--Robert Smalls"
  6. ^ Andrew Billingsley,Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families
  7. ^ "Greater Pittsburgh Area". North American Forts. Retrieved 7-04-2008.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)


  • 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.
  • Gabridge, Patrick, Steering to Freedom, (Penmore Press, 2015) ISBN 1942756224 Fictional novel of Robert Smalls' life.
  • 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
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

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

Succeeded by
John J. Hemphill
Preceded by
Edmund W.M. Mackey
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Carolina's 7th congressional district

Succeeded by
William Elliott