Biography of Robert Smalls, African American Civil War Hero

Robert Smalls

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Born a slave in 1839, Robert Smalls was a sailor who escaped to freedom and changed the course of history during the Civil War. Later, he was elected to the House of Representatives, becoming one of the first African American members of Congress.

Fast Facts: Robert Smalls

  • Occupation: Sailor, U.S. Congressman
  • Known For: Became a Civil War hero by providing the Union Navy with intelligence after being enslaved aboard a Confederate ship; later, elected to the U.S. Congress.
  • Born: April 5, 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina
  • Died: February 23, 1915 in Beaufort, South Carolina

Early Years

Robert Smalls was born on April 5, 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother, Lydia Polite, was a house slave owned by Henry McKee; although his paternity was never formally documented, it is possible that McKee was Smalls’ father. Smalls was sent to work in McKee’s fields as a child, but once he reached adolescence, McKee sent him to Charleston to work. As was commonplace at the time, McKee was paid for Smalls’ labor.

At some point during his teen years, he found work on the docks in Charleston’s harbor, and he worked his way up from longshoreman to rigger, and eventually to the position of sailmaker by the time he was seventeen. He moved through various jobs until he became a sailor. Eventually, he struck a deal with his master, which enabled him to keep his earnings of approximately $15 per month.

When war broke out in 1861, Smalls was working as a sailor on a ship called the Planter.

The Gunboat Planter
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Escape to Freedom

Smalls was an accomplished sailor, and was extremely familiar with the waterways around Charleston. In addition to being a sailor on the Planter, he sometimes worked as the wheelman—essentially, a pilot, although he was not allowed to hold that title because of his status as a slave. A few months after the Civil War began in April 1861, he was given the task of steering the Planter, a Confederate military ship, along the coast of the Carolinas and Georgia, while Union blockades sat nearby. He worked diligently at this job for nearly a year, but at some point, he and other enslaved crew members realized they had an opportunity for escape: the Union ships in the Harbor. Smalls began to craft a plan.

In May 1862, Planter docked in Charleston and loaded up several large guns, ammunition, and firewood. When the officers on the ship disembarked for the night, Smalls put on the captain’s hat, and he and the other enslaved crewmen sailed out of the harbor. They stopped along the way to pick up their families, who were waiting nearby, and then headed straight to the Union ships, with a white flag displayed in place of the Confederate banner. Smalls and his men immediately surrendered the ship and all of its cargo to the Union Navy.

Men Who Captured The 'Planter'
Interim Archives / Getty Images

Thanks to his knowledge of the Confederate ships’ activities in Charleston Harbor, Smalls was able to provide the Union officers with a detailed map of fortifications and underwater mines, as well as the captain’s codebook. This, along with other intelligence he provided, soon proved Smalls to be valuable to the Northern cause, and was quickly hailed as a hero for his work.

Fighting for the Union

After Smalls surrendered the Planter to the Union, it was decided that he and his crew should be awarded the prize money for the ship’s capture. He was given a position with the Union Navy as the pilot of a ship called Crusader, which scoured the Carolina coast finding mines that Smalls had helped place when aboard the Planter.

In addition to his work for the Navy, Smalls traveled periodically to Washington, D.C., where he met with a Methodist minister who was trying to persuade Abraham Lincoln to allow black men to join the Union Army. Eventually, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton signed an order creating a pair of black regiments, with five thousand African American men enlisting to fight in the Carolinas. Many of them had been recruited by Smalls himself.

In addition to piloting Crusader, Smalls was sometimes behind the wheel of the Planter, his former ship. Over the course of the Civil War, he was involved in seventeen major engagements. Perhaps the most significant of these was when he piloted the ironclad Keokuk in the April 1863 attack on Fort Sumter, just off Charleston’s shore. The Keokuk sustained heavy damage and sank the next morning, but not before Smalls and the crew had escaped to the nearby Ironside.

Later that year, Smalls was aboard the Planter near Secessionville when Confederate batteries opened fire upon the ship. Captain James Nickerson fled the wheelhouse and hid in the coal bunker, so Smalls took command of the wheel. Fearing that the black crew members would be treated as prisoners of war if captured, he refused to surrender, and instead managed to steer the ship to safety. As a result of his heroism, he was promoted to the rank of Captain by Department of the South Commander Quincy Adams Gillmore, and given the role of Acting Captain of the Planter.

Political Career

After the Civil War ended in 1865, Smalls returned to Beaufort and purchased the home in which his former owner had lived. His mother, who still lived in the house, resided with Smalls until she died. Over the next few years, Smalls taught himself to read and write, and founded a school for the children of former slaves. He established himself as a businessman, philanthropist, and newspaper publisher.

During his life in Beaufort, Smalls became involved in local politics, and served as a delegate to the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention in the hopes of making education free and mandatory for all children in the state. That same year, he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, working tirelessly for civil rights. Within a few years, he was serving as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, and was soon appointed to the rank of lieutenant-colonel of the Third Regiment, South Carolina State Militia.

By 1873, Smalls had his sights set on more than just state politics. He ran for office and was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served as the voice of residents of South Carolina's predominantly black coastal region. Fluent in the Gullah language, Smalls was popular with his constituents, and was re-elected consistently until 1878, when he was charged with taking a bribe in the form of a printing contract.

Smalls regained his political footing shortly thereafter, however. He served as a delegate once more to the 1895 South Carolina constitutional convention, where he fought against white politicians who aimed to disenfranchise his black neighbors with questionable voting laws.

In 1915, at the age of 75, Smalls passed away from complications of diabetes and malaria. A statue was erected in his honor in downtown Beaufort.

Sources

  • Boley, Oklahoma (1903- ) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed, blackpast.org/aah/smalls-robert-1839-1915.
  • Gates, Henry Louis. “Robert Smalls, from Escaped Slave to House of Representatives.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 6 Nov. 2013, www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/which-slave-sailed-himself-to-freedom/.
  • Lineberry, Cate. “The Thrilling Tale of How Robert Smalls Seized a Confederate Ship and Sailed It to Freedom.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 13 June 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/thrilling-tale-how-robert-smalls-heroically-sailed-stolen-confederate-ship-freedom-180963689/.
  • “Robert Smalls: Commander of the Planter During the American Civil War.” HistoryNet, 8 Aug. 2016, www.historynet.com/robert-smalls-commander-of-the-planter-during-the-american-civil-war.htm.