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, gained freedom and 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 and the U.S. Navy.

Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina. After the American Civil War, he returned there and became a politician, winning election as a Republican to the South Carolina State legislature and the United States House of Representatives during the Reconstruction era. 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. He founded the Republican Party of South Carolina. Due to the state's white Democrats disfranchising most blacks (who made up much of the Republican Party), Smalls was the last Republican to represent South Carolina's 5th congressional district until 2010. After Reconstruction ended in the late 1870s Democrats controlled all the Southern states and disenfranchised blacks (who were Republicans). The "Solid South" gave nearly all its electoral votes to Democrats in presidential elections. Republicans seldom were elected to office in Southern states outside of some Appalachian mountain districts.

Early life[edit]

Robert Smalls was born in 1839 as a slave in a cabin behind his master Henry McKee's house 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 the McKees.[3]

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

Smalls was a stevedore (dockworker), a rigger, a sail maker, and eventually worked his way up to become a wheelman, more or less a pilot, though slaves were not honored by that title. As a result, he was very knowledgeable about Charleston harbor.[4]

At age 17 Smalls married Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel maid, in Charleston on December 24, 1856. She was five years his senior and already had two daughters. Their own first child, Elizabeth Lydia Smalls, was born in February 1858. Three years later they had a son, Robert Jr., who died at age two.[5]

Escape from slavery[edit]

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

In the fall of 1861, Smalls was assigned to steer the CSS Planter, a lightly armed Confederate military transport under the command of Charleston's District Commander Brigadier General Roswell S. Ripley.[6] Planter's duties were to deliver dispatches, troops and supplies, to survey waterways, and to lay mines. Smalls piloted the Planter throughout Charleston harbor and beyond, on area rivers and along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts.[2][7][8] From Charleston harbor, Smalls and the Planter's crew could see the line of Federal blockade ships in the outer harbor, seven miles away.[9]

The day of May 12, 1862, the Planter traveled ten miles southwest of Charleston to stop at Coles Island, a Confederate post on the Stono River that was being dismantled.[10] There she picked up four large guns to transport to a fort in Charleston harbor. Back in Charleston, the crew loaded 200 pounds of ammunition and 20 cords of firewood onto the Planter.[7] At some point family members hid aboard another steamer docked at the North Atlantic wharf.[11][12]

On the evening of May 12, Planter was docked as usual at the wharf below General Ripley's headquarters.[2] Her three white officers disembarked to spend the night ashore, leaving Smalls and the crew on board, "as was their custom."[13] About 3 a.m. May 13, Smalls and seven of the eight slave crewmen made their previously planned escape to the Union blockade ships. Smalls put on the captain's uniform and wore a straw hat similar to the captain's. He sailed the Planter past what was then called Southern Wharf, and stopped at another wharf to pick up his wife and child, and the families of other crewmen.

Smalls guided the ship past the five Confederate harbor forts without incident, as he gave the correct signals at checkpoints. The Planter sailed past Fort Sumter at about 4:30 a.m. He headed straight for the Union Navy fleet, flying a white bed sheet as a surrender flag. The Planter had been seen by the USS Onward, which was about to fire until a crewman spotted the white flag. The Onward′s captain boarded the Planter, and Smalls asked for a United States flag to display. He surrendered the Planter and her cargo to the United States Navy.[4] Smalls' escape plan had succeeded.

In addition to her own light guns, Planter carried the four loose artillery pieces from Coles Island and the 200 pounds of ammunition. Most valuable, however, were the captain's code book containing the Confederate signals, and a map of the mines and torpedoes that had been laid in Charleston's harbor. Smalls' own extensive knowledge of the Charleston region's waterways and military configurations proved highly valuable. At Port Royal he gave detailed information about Charleston's defenses to Admiral Samuel Dupont, commander of the blockading fleet. Federal officers were surprised to learn from Smalls that contrary to their calculations, only a few thousand troops remained to protect the area, the rest having been sent to Tennessee and Virginia. They also learned that the Coles Island fortifications on Charleston's southern flank were being abandoned and were without protection.[7] This intelligence allowed Union forces to capture Coles Island and its string of batteries without a fight on May 20, a week after Smalls' escape. The Union would hold the Stono inlet as a base of operations for the three-year duration of the war.[2]

Service to the Union[edit]

Smalls, just turned 23, quickly became known in the North as a hero for his daring exploit. Newspapers reported his actions, and the U.S. Congress passed a bill awarding Smalls and his crewmen the prize money for the Planter. Smalls's share came to US$1,500 (equivalent to $35,555 in 2015). He met President Abraham Lincoln two weeks later and had a chance to tell him a first-hand account of his adventure.

Smalls' courage was an example to encourage admission of African Americans in the Union Army. Smalls worked as a civilian with the Navy until March 1863, when he was transferred to the Army. By his own account, Smalls was present at 17 major battles and 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. He wanted to persuade Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to permit black men to fight for the Union. He was successful; 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, the 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 the ironclad USS Keokuk in a major Union attack on Fort Sumter. The attack failed, and the Keokuk was badly damaged. Her crew was rescued shortly before the ship sank.

In 1863, Smalls became the first black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States. On December 1, the Planter was 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]

In 1864, Smalls was in a streetcar in Philadelphia and was ordered to give his seat to a white passenger. Rather than ride on the open overflow platform, Smalls left the car. This incident of humiliating an heroic veteran, was cited in the debate that resulted in the legislature's passing a bill to integrate public transportation in Pennsylvania in 1867.[14]

Smalls returned with the Planter to Charleston harbor in April 1865 for the ceremonial raising of the American flag again at Fort Sumter.

Smalls was discharged on June 11, 1865. He continued to pilot the Planter, serving a humanitarian mission of taking food and supplies to freedmen who lost their homes and livelihoods during the war. On September 30, the Planter entered the service of the Freedman's Bureau.[14]

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, the elderly Jane Bond McKee, to move into her former home prior to her death. Smalls spent nine months learning to read and write. He purchased a two-story Beaumont building to be used as a school for African-American children.[14]

In 1866 Smalls went into business in Beaufort with Richard Howell Gleaves, a businessman from Philadelphia. They opened a store to serve the needs of freedmen. That 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, which was ratified by the states to extend full citizenship to all Americans regardless of race.

Smalls was a loyal Republican. On August 22, 1912, he wrote to U.S. Senator Knute Nelson, "I never lose sight of the fact that had it not been for the Republican Party, I never would have been an office-holder of any kind—from 1862 to the present."[15] In words that became famous, he described his party as "the party of Lincoln...which unshackled the necks of four million human beings". He wrote this line on September 12, 1912, in a letter expressing his anxiety over the looming presidential election.[16] He concluded that letter, "I ask that every colored man in the North 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."[17]

Smalls was a delegate at the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention where he was a part of the effort to make free, compulsory schooling available to all South Carolina children.[14] He also served as a delegate at several Republican National Conventions; he also participated in the South Carolina Republican State conventions.

During the Reconstruction Era, Smalls was a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1865 and 1870, followed by the South Carolina Senate between 1871 and 1874. He also served in the South Carolina militia until 1877, and briefly served as its commander with the rank of major general.[14]

In 1874, Smalls was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served two terms 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 district boundaries, including Beaufort and other heavily black, coastal areas in South Carolina's 7th congressional district, giving the others substantial 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.” However, the amendment was not considered by Congress. He was the last Republican to be elected from the 5th district until 1910. He was the second-longest serving African-American member of Congress (behind his contemporary Joseph Rainey) until the mid-20th century.

After the Compromise of 1877, the U.S. government withdrew its remaining forces from South Carolina and other Southern states. Conservative Southern Bourbon Democrats, who called themselves the Redeemers, had resorted to violence and election fraud to regain control of the state legislature. As 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 by which charges were also dropped against Democrats accused of election fraud.[18]

Smalls was active politically into the twentieth century. He was a delegate to the 1895 South Carolina constitutional convention. Together with five other black politicians, he strongly opposed white Democrat efforts that year to disfranchise black citizens. They wrote an article for the New York World to publicize the issues, but the state constitution was ratified. It and similar constitutions across the South for some time passed challenges that reached the US Supreme Court, resulting in the exclusion of African Americans from politics across the South and crippling of the Republican Party in the region.

Smalls was appointed by the Republican national administration as 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.

Business ventures[edit]

Smalls invested significantly in the economic development of the Charleston-Beaufort region. In 1870, in anticipation of a Reconstruction-based prosperity, Smalls, with fellow representatives Joseph Rainey, Alonzo Ransier and others, formed the Enterprise Railroad, an 18-mile horse-drawn railway line that carried cargo and passengers between the Charleston wharfs and inland depots.[19] Except for one white director,[20] the Railroad's board of directors was entirely African American. Richard H. Cain was its first president. Author Bernard E. Powers describes it as "the most impressive commercial venture by members of Charleston's black elite."[21][22]

In Beaufort, Smalls ultimately owned much of the block he lived on.[2] He helped publish a black-owned newspaper, the Beaufort Standard.[14]


With his first wife, Hannah Jones Smalls, Robert Smalls had three children: Elizabeth Lydia (1858-1959; m. Samuel Jones Bampfield, nine living children); Sarah Voorhies (1863-1920, m. Dr. Jay Williams, no children); and Robert, Jr., who died at the age of two. Hannah Jones Smalls 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 Annie E. Wigg, a Charleston schoolteacher, who bore him one son, William Robert Smalls (1892–1970). Annie Smalls died on November 5, 1895.[23]

Smalls died of malaria and diabetes in 1915 at the age of 75.[14] He was buried in his family's plot in the churchyard of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in downtown Beaufort. The monument to Smalls in this churchyard is inscribed with a statement he made to the South Carolina legislature in 1895: "My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life."[24][25]

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.[26]
  • 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.
  • During World War II, Camp Robert Smalls was established as a sub-facility of the Great Lakes Naval Training Center to train black sailors (the Navy was segregated in those years).
  • The desk that Smalls used as Collector of Customs is on display at the Verdier House museum in Beaufort.
  • In 2004, the U.S. named a ship for Robert Smalls. It is USAV Major General Robert Smalls (LSV-8), a Kuroda class logistics support vessel operated by the U.S. Army. It is the first Army ship named after an African American.[27]
  • An exhibit at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum is dedicated to Robert Smalls' contribution to the US Army.
  • Charleston held commemorative ceremonies in 2012 on the 150th anniversary of Robert Smalls' escape on the Planter, with special programs on May 12 and 13.
  • The Oregon Civil War Sesquicentennial presented a special 150th Anniversary program on May 16, 2012 at the Kenton Public Library branch in Portland, honoring Robert Smalls' epic voyage to freedom and his contributions to society.
  • Robert Smalls Parkway is a five-mile section of South Carolina Highway 170 that crosses Port Royal Island and leads into Beaufort.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rodriguez, Junius. Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, And Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 2. ABC-CLIO. Retrieved July 12, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "Robert Smalls, War Hero and Legislator", Beaufort County Library.
  3. ^ Robert Smalls—Official Website and Information Center.
  4. ^ a b c d Henig, Gerald, "The Unbeatable Mr. Smalls", America's Civil War, March 2007.
  5. ^ a b "Robert Smalls", Civil War Preservation Trust: Civil War Figures As Examples of Character and Leadership.
  6. ^ The 147-foot Planter was "a 'first-class coastwise steamer' hewn locally for the cotton trade out of 'live oak and red cedar'".Gates Jr., Henry Louis. "Which Slave Sailed Himself to Freedom?". PBS. Retrieved June 11, 2016. 
  7. ^ a b c Patrick Brennan (1996). Secessionville: Assault on Charleston. Savas Pub. pp. 25–27. ISBN 978-1-882810-08-6. 
  8. ^ Smalls piloted an expedition to survey all the sandbars "on the coast of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida". Charles Cowley (1882). The Romance of History in "the Black County,": And the Romance of War in the Career of Gen. Robert Smalls, "the Hero of the Planter.". p. 9. 
  9. ^ "Robert's Daring Voyage to Freedom". The Robert Smalls Collection. Retrieved June 11, 2016. 
  10. ^ Johnson Hagood (1910). Memoirs of the War of Secession. State Company. pp. 52–62. Retrieved June 11, 2016. 
  11. ^ They were Smalls' wife Hannah, their two children Elizabeth Lydia and Robert Jr., and Hannah's daughter Clara; Susan Smalls, the wife of another crewman; their child, and Susan's sister; and two other women, Annie White and Lavinia Wilson. 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. p. 56.
  12. ^ This steamer's name is variously spelled Etowah, Etwan, Etiwan, Etowan and Hetiwan. "Etwan".Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships Online: Confederate States Navy. Retrieved June 12, 2016.
  13. ^ Hagood, p. 78. The officers were court-martialed and two were convicted; the verdicts were overturned. "Disgusting Treachery and Negligence",, citing the Charleston Mercury of August 1, 1862. Retrieved June 12, 2016.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Reef, Catherine. African Americans in the Military. Infobase Publishing, May 14, 2014, pp. 184–186.
  15. ^ Yellin, Eric Steven (2007). Racism in the Nation's Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson's America. UNC Press Books. ISBN 978-1-4696-0720-7. p. 77.
  16. ^ Yellin, pp. 76-77.
  17. ^ Newkirk, Pamela (2009). Letters from Black America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-1-4299-3483-1. pp. 123-4.
  18. ^ 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. p. 198.
  19. ^ Its route was planned to run along the wharves from White Point Garden in the Battery north along East Bay Street to Calhoun Street and into the city, northwest to "Ten Mile Hill," near where the airport is today. Acts and Joint Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina. State Printer. 1870. p. 391. ; "1886 Charleston Earthquake, Fig. 28B". Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Saint Louis University. Retrieved June 19, 2016. 
  20. ^ "Carpetbagger" newspaper editor, legislator and county treasurer Timothy Hurley. Powers, p. 169.
  21. ^ By the mid-1870s, the Railroad had passed into new, mostly white ownership. It survived into the 1890s. Powers Jr., Bernard E. (1994). Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822-1885. Fayetteville, Ark.: University of Arkansas Press. pp. 169–70. ISBN 1-55728-583-7. ; Charles M. Goodsell; Henry E. Wallace (1893). The Manual of Statistics: Stock Exchange Hand-book ... p. 441. 
  22. ^ Radio presentation, "Enterprise Railroad." mp3 format. "South Carolina from A to Z Archive (2011-2014)". South Carolina Public Radio. December 26, 2013. Retrieved June 19, 2016. 
  23. ^ Billingsley, p. 213.
  24. ^ "Robert Smalls - Tabernacle Baptist Church - Beaufort, SC". January 18, 2014. Retrieved June 12, 2016. 
  25. ^ Journal of the Constitutional Convention of the State of South Carolina. C. A. Calvo, jr., State Printer. 1895. p. 476. Retrieved 12 June 2016. 
  26. ^ "Greater Pittsburgh Area". North American Forts. Retrieved July 4, 2008. 
  27. ^ "Latest Army Vessel Honors Black American Hero". U.S. Army. Retrieved May 23, 2016. 

Further reading[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 2,000 blacks (including men of color or mixed race) held elective and appointive offices in the South. A few are relatively well-known, but most became obscure because official state histories prepared after Reconstruction omitted them; whites dominated state governments and suppressed the black population and its history. 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. Novel about Robert Smalls' life.
  • 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.
  • Rabinowitz, Howard N. Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982) ISBN 0-252-00929-0
  • 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