Born April 5, 1839
Beaufort, South Carolina
Died February 22, 1915
Beaufort, South Carolina
Union Navy pilot and one of the
first black U.S. congressmen
Made a dramatic escape from slavery
by stealing a Confederate Navy ship
In 1862, Robert Smalls stole a Confederate supply ship and turned it over to the Union Navy. What made this feat even more remarkable was the fact that Smalls was a slave. His dramatic escape from slavery brought him wide acclaim in the North as a Civil War hero. After the war ended, Smalls became an important black leader during the difficult period of American history known as Reconstruction (1865–77). He overcame discrimination to serve five terms in the U.S. Congress as a representative from South Carolina.
Born into slavery
Robert Smalls was born a slave on April 5, 1839, in Beaufort, South Carolina. Black people were taken from Africa and brought to North America to serve as slaves for white people beginning in the 1600s. The basic belief behind slavery was that black people were inferior to whites. Under slavery, white slaveholders treated black people as property, forced them to perform hard labor, and controlled every aspect of their lives. States in the Northern half of the United States Page 400 | Top of Article began outlawing slavery in the late 1700s. But slavery continued to exist in the Southern half of the country because it played an important role in the South's economy and culture.
Smalls's mother, Lydia, worked as a house servant on a plantation (a large farming estate) in Beaufort. Smalls did not reveal the identity of his father, but it was probably the owner of the plantation, John McKee. Like many slaves, Smalls did not have a last name as a boy. He began using "Small" as his last name because he was short, so people often called him "Small Robert." He later changed his last name to Smalls.
Compared to slaves who worked in the fields growing cotton and rice, Smalls had a relatively easy life as the son of a house servant. He lived in slave quarters near the main house, helped his mother with the cooking and cleaning, and acted as a personal slave and companion for the master's oldest son, Henry McKee. When John McKee died in 1848, Smalls and all of the other slaves became the property of Henry McKee.
Works in Charleston Harbor
In 1851, Henry McKee sent Smalls to work as a laborer in the nearby port city of Charleston, South Carolina. Slaveowners often arranged for their extra slaves to take jobs in the cities. This way, the master avoided the expense of feeding and housing them, and also collected some of the money that the slaves earned in wages. Although he was just twelve years old, Smalls worked as a waiter, lamplighter, and stevedore (a person who loads and unloads cargo from ships). He enjoyed the freedom of living in the city—away from the watchful eye of his master—but also struggled to provide for himself. In the mid-1850s, Smalls became romantically attached to a slave woman named Hannah. They considered themselves married, even though slaves were not legally allowed to marry.
After working on the docks for several years, Smalls joined the crew of a commercial ship in the late 1850s. But this was a time of great political tension in the United States. For years, the North and the South had been arguing over several issues, including slavery. Growing numbers of Northerners Page 401 | Top of Article believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life.
By 1861, this ongoing dispute had convinced several Southern states to secede from (leave) the United States and attempt to form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. South Carolina was one of the states leading the secession movement. But Northern political leaders were determined to keep the Southern states in the Union. The two sides soon went to war. Many people in the South used their slaves to perform the hard labor needed to prepare the Confederacy for war. In March 1861, Smalls was hired to serve as a pilot on the Planter. This steamboat was originally designed to carry cotton shipments, but during the war it was used to move troops and supplies between Confederate forts along the South Carolina coast.
Escapes from slavery on a Confederate ship
The North had a big advantage on the seas during the Civil War. It controlled most of the ships that made up the U.S. Navy fleet, and it had many factories to make more ships. The Union used this superior naval strength to capture Port Royal Sound—a good harbor near Beaufort, only fifty miles south of Charleston—early in the war. Using Port Royal Sound as a base of operations, the Union Navy then set up a blockade of several major port cities along the Atlantic coast in the South, including Charleston. The blockade consisted of a row of warships that prevented Confederate ships from reaching the Southern cities with shipments of food, guns, ammunition, and other supplies.
In the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, the Planter left Charleston harbor on what appeared to be a routine supply mission. On deck, a man wearing a captain's hat even saluted to the Confederate forts as he passed by them at the entrance to the harbor. But the Planter steamed directly
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toward the Union ships forming the blockade. The surprised Union ships nearly fired upon the approaching Confederate vessel, but held off at the last minute as the Planter raised a white flag of surrender.
When Union sailors boarded the enemy ship, they found sixteen slaves—including eight male crew members, five women, and three children—along with four cannons Page 403 | Top of Article and some ammunition. The man in the captain's hat introduced himself as Robert Smalls. He explained that the people on board the Planter were slaves who had risked their lives to escape and also to deliver the ship and its guns to the Union. When the Planter's white crew members had gone ashore for the night, the black crew members had picked up their families and made a desperate dash for freedom.
Becomes a Union war hero
The story of Smalls's dramatic escape from slavery attracted a great deal of media attention in the North. Many newspapers and magazines published articles about him and called him a war hero. Admiral Samuel DuPont (1803–1865), the commander in charge of the Union naval blockade of Charleston, called Smalls's escape "one of the coolest and most gallant [brave and daring] naval acts of war." Of course, people in the South were not so thrilled by the news. A newspaper in Richmond, Virginia, called the loss of the Planter "one of the most shameful events in this or any other war."
Smalls and the other former slaves on board the Planter were accepted into the Union as "contrabands" (the Union Army was authorized to seize any Confederate property used in the war effort, including slaves, as "contraband of war"). The U.S. Congress granted Smalls a $1,500 cash reward for delivering the ship, and gave several hundred dollars to each member of his crew. Smalls continued to help the Union Navy by providing valuable information about Confederate defenses in the Charleston area. After all, he had explored many rivers and inlets during his supply missions on the Planter.
At that time, black men were not allowed to serve as Union soldiers. Smalls joined a group of prominent black leaders who tried to convince President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) to allow black men to join the army. Lincoln eventually allowed an all-black regiment—the First South Carolina Volunteers—to be formed on the South Carolina coastal islands, near Smalls's home. Smalls helped recruit black men to join the war effort both in his home state and in the North. Smalls himself served in the Union Navy. When he was promoted to captain of the Planter, he Page 404 | Top of Article became the first black man ever allowed to command an American warship. He continued to carry supplies along the coast—this time for the Union—and also fought in seventeen naval battles.
Launches political career
By the time the Civil War ended in 1865, Smalls was a well-known and wealthy man. He arranged to buy the plantation in Beaufort where he was born, and he and his wife raised three children there. The United States continued to struggle with important and complicated issues during this time. For example, federal lawmakers had to decide whether to punish the Confederate leaders, what process to use to readmit the Southern states to the Union, and how much assistance to provide in securing equal rights for the freed slaves. This difficult period in American history was called Reconstruction, and it lasted until 1877.
Now that they were free, black people wanted equal rights and opportunities in Southern society. But many white people in the South wanted things to stay the way they were before the war. In many cases, the struggle between the two groups turned violent. As a result, the U.S. Congress took control of the Reconstruction process in 1866 and sent federal troops into the Southern states to enforce their policies.
Under Congressional Reconstruction, black Americans were allowed to vote and to participate in government in the South for the first time. Smalls decided to put his reputation as a war hero to use by running for public office. In order to rejoin the Union, the Southern states were required to hold conventions to rewrite their state constitutions. Smalls was elected as a delegate to South Carolina's constitutional convention. He helped create a new state constitution that outlawed slavery, provided free public education to all children, and guaranteed black people the right to vote and hold office.
In November 1868, Smalls was elected to the South Carolina state legislature representing Beaufort and the surrounding area along the coast. He was one of 82 black men elected to the state legislature, out of a total of 155 representatives. Page 405 | Top of Article South Carolina was the only state in which black members made up a majority of the state legislature during Reconstruction. In 1874, Smalls was elected to represent South Carolina in the U.S. Congress. He lost his seat in the elections of 1878, but then regained it in 1880. He failed to hold his seat again in 1882, but was reelected in 1884. Although Smalls lost the election in 1886, he reclaimed his seat anyway because his opponent died before taking office. He completed his final term in public office in 1888.
Retires in Beaufort
In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison (1833–1901) appointed Smalls as the customs collector for the Port of Beaufort. He was in charge of collecting fees from international merchants who shipped goods into the United States. Smalls also married schoolteacher Annie Elizabeth Wigg that year (his first wife had died seven years earlier). They had a son together, William.
In 1895, South Carolina held another convention to rewrite the state constitution. This time, however, the idea was to roll back many of the reforms that had taken place during Reconstruction. Only 6 of the 160 delegates to the convention were black. Racist white people had used violence to intimidate black people so that they would not vote or try to hold office. As a result, whites had gradually returned to power throughout the South, and they passed many laws discriminating against blacks. Smalls knew that the proposed changes to South Carolina's constitution would hurt black people. In a speech at the convention, he said: "My race needs no special defenses. 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."
Smalls was not successful in his efforts to prevent discrimination from returning to South Carolina. However, he remained in his job as customs collector for twenty years before retiring in 1913. He died on February 22, 1915, at the age of seventy-five. Since he was still a considered a hero in the black community, his funeral was the largest ever to take place in the town of Beaufort.
Where to Learn More
Cooper, Michael L. From Slave to Civil War Hero: The Life and Times of Robert Smalls. New York: Lodestar Books, 1994.
Meriwether, Louise. The Freedom Ship of Robert Smalls. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
Miller, Edward A., Jr. Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Sterling, Philip. Four Took Freedom: The Lives of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Robert Small, and Blanche K. Bruce. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.
Uya, Okon Edet. From Slavery to Public Service: Robert Smalls, 1839–1915. Oxford University Press, 1971.
Williamson, Joel. After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction, 1861–1877. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965. Reprint, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1990.