Robert Smalls: A Legendary African-American Hero

Robert Smalls: Life, Achievements, Family, Timeline, Early Life and Interesting facts

Thousands of movies, biographies, and documentaries have narrated the lives of iconic historical people. Their adventures and victories over impossible odds and challenges continue to inspire the next generations. Some of them have a legacy that continues to impact our lives, defining the path that led to modern civilization.

 

One of these heroes is Robert Smalls, who grew up as slavery stained the United States of America. The nation would soon bleed in a civil war as the Union and Confederacy fought viciously to determine the fate of their republics. In a daring display of courage, he freed his family through a stolen Confederate military ship towards the tiny harbor controlled by the Union in his state. Robert Smalls’ bravery inspired President Abraham Lincoln to include African-Americans in the Union Army, guaranteeing their victory.

 

After the Civil War, Robert Smalls went back to the city where he used to be enslaved. He established the Republican Party of South Carolina, ran for the state legislature, and eventually became a representative. An enslaved person by birth, Robert Smalls fought for his people, got elected among the most powerful men in the country, and helped the United States rise again from the carnage.

 

In this article, you will discover the admirable and inspiring complete picture. Robert Smalls’ example and determination remain powerful as this generation yearns for justice, greatness, and purpose.

 

Robert Smalls’ childhood

 

Robert Smalls was born in 1839 inside a plantation cabin in Beaufort, South Carolina. Her mother, Lydia Polite, was an enslaved person owned by Henry McKee. Lydia used to work in McKee’s fields, but she has been serving at the masters’ house. This task provided Robert and Lydia a relatively more comfortable life than the other enslaved people.

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As he grew up, Robert became the McKees’ favorite enslaved person. But Lydia ensured that her son would understand the sufferings and hardships of their enslaved people. Lydia requested their masters to let Robert work in the field and watch enslaved people get whipped.

 

Despite being bound by slavery and poverty, Robert’s mother wanted him to experience the world outside the plantation. She asked Henry McKee to send Robert as a laborer, where the McKees could take his salary aside from a dollar. Because of this, Robert spent his teenage years working as hotel staff and a lamplighter in Charleston, the capital port city of South Carolina. But he would soon discover that he loves the sea. Robert worked at the city harbor and wharves.

 

On December 24, 1856, Robert Smalls married another enslaved hotel helper, Hannah Jones. He was just seventeen, while Hannah was five years older. They would have a daughter named Elizabeth Lydia two years later. Robert yearned to buy their freedom, but it cost $800 (over $24,000 in our time). He could only save $100.

 

Robert Small as the U.S. Civil War began

 

Robert Small was close to the epicenter of the U.S. Civil War. On the night of April 12, 1861, the South Carolina militia attacked Fort Sumter, an American military base near Charleston Harbor. Months later, the Confederate state army found Robert Small as an asset in their war effort. They appointed him to pilot the CSS Planter. This military transport laid mines, surveyed coastal areas, and delivered provisions and soldiers.

 

Since he steered the CSS Planter, Robert Small learned so much about the coasts, harbors, and river deltas in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Robert gained the confidence and trust of his crew and the ship’s owners.

 

As the war progressed, he and the ship’s crew could see the blockade of Union ships seven miles away from their harbor. Thus, in April 1862, he hatched an audacious goal to escape to freedom. Robert shared this scheme with his fellow enslaved people on the ship whom he trusted. It was the only opportunity for them and their families—their lives were at stake should they fail.

 

Robert Small and their escape on the stolen CSS Planter

 

A month later, on May 12, 1862, Robert Small steered the ship to Coles Island, ten miles away from Charleston. There, they picked up military supplies from a disassembled Confederate base. The men loaded four artillery guns, ammunition, and firewood into the CSS Planter by the end of this transport operation.

 

It was a typical evening for the officers at the Charleston harbor. As always, they left Robert Small and the seven enslaved crew in the CSS Planter to spend the night. But, this time, Robert asked their captain if the crew’s families could go to the ship as long as they left before the curfew. The captain agreed, and soon, the men would reunite with their relatives.

 

When their families arrived, the men announced that they planned to escape that night finally. At first,  Robert’s wife, Hannah, was shocked, but she decided to take the risk. However, the other women and children screamed in terror. The men tried to silence them until they regained their composure and senses. At last, everyone on the ship rejoiced because they had the chance to become free.

 

Three crew members acted as if they had brought their families back home but only left their loved ones at the harbor outside. Then, the men hid inside a steamer at the port before returning to the CSS Planter soon after.

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At 3:00 am, on May 13, Robert Smalls and his crew members executed his plan. He wore the captain’s uniform and straw hat. Robert sailed to two harbor locations to pick up their families. Together, they sailed to the sea aboard the stolen Confederate ship.

 

The CSS Planter sailed past five harbor forts. Robert Smalls correctly gave the signals at each checkpoint while imitating the captain’s nuances. His looks and behavior successfully deceived the Confederate watchers and guards.

 

After an hour since they left Charleston harbor, they approached Fort Sumter, the strictest Confederate stronghold. Everyone aboard, including Robert Smalls, was intensely nervous. The women started weeping and praying silently, but Robert strove to stay alert and relaxed. To avoid suspicion, Robert steered CSS Planter unhurriedly in its usual path. The fort gave them a challenge signal, to which Robert responded with the correct signs. A dreadful silence followed. Robert thought that Sumter would unleash its cannons to destroy them. Fortunately, the fort signaled that they could pass.

 

Instead of going to Morris Island, South Carolina’s farthest outpost, Robert Smalls steered the ship to the Union blockade of vessels. They replaced the CSS Planter’s Confederate flag with a white bed sheet brought by Hanna Smalls. Fort Sumter only realized their mistake when the CSS Planter was beyond their cannon’s range.

 

USS Onward, one of the Union Navy ships in the blockade, planned to bomb CSS Planter until sunrise, allowing them to see the white flag. The ship crew members saw the African-American escapees celebrating, singing, and jumping in joy. Some crewmen aboard CSS Planter even looked back and mocked Fort Sumter. Robert Smalls steered their ship to USS Onward.

 

John Nickels, the captain of USS Onward, went to CSS Planter. He gave Robert Smalls the United States flag, then Robert surrendered the ship and its contents to the Union Navy.

 

Robert Smalls’ bold escape plan was a success.

 

Robert Smalls’ immediate contribution to the United States

 

Aside from the weaponry inside the CSS Planter, the intel provided by Robert Smalls about the enemy territory was vital for the war effort. He gave the Confederate manual of Navy hand signals and a map of mines scattered at the Charleston harbor. Moreover, Robert taught the Union Navy officers about the South Carolina waterways and troop arrangements. He also reported that its southern area is vastly undefended.

 

A week after Robert Smalls stole the CSS Planter and escaped, the Union Army captured Coles Island unchallenged. This location would serve as their base in the Confederate South throughout the Civil War.

 

The Navy captains and lieutenants were amazed at Robert Smalls’ brilliance, courage, and contributions to the war effort. They wrote to Washington D.C., praising the enslaved person and pilot for his skill. He was just 23 at the time.

 

Robert Smalls’ fame and campaign for African-Americans

 

The Northern States hailed Robert Smalls as a hero. Congress authorized Robert and his crew prize money for surrendering the Planter ship from the Confederate Navy. (Robert’s share was $1500 or over $40,000 today.) While Union magazines celebrated Robert’s adventures and achievements, Southern newspapers called for the punishment of officers responsible for his escape.

 

New York abolitionists invited Robert Smalls to the state to help collect donations for past enslaved people. However, Admiral Samuel Du Pont wanted Robert to help the Union Navy as they intended to attack Charleston. But before Robert went with Du Pont, he visited Washington D.C. with ministers. They encouraged President Abraham Lincoln and War Secretary Edwin Stanton to allow African-American men to join the Army. Thanks to Robert Smalls’ campaign, thousands of Black people were permitted to fight in the Civil War as colored regiments.

 

Robert Smalls’ illustrious military career

 

Robert Smalls served the Union Navy as a civilian pilot and adviser. While the Planter was repaired, Robert steered the Crusader and Keokuk. He helped remove the mines he planted as an enslaved person at the coastline of Charleston and Beaufort. Robert also participated in the Union blockade and several battles. One of these engagements is the attack on Fort Sumter.

 

In June 1863, Robert Smalls piloted the USS Isaac Smith at the newly captured Light House Inlet. Months later, on December 2, Robert steered the Planter on a creek near Folly Island. The Confederates suddenly attacked the ship! The captain hid in the ship’s coal bunker, but Robert refused to leave and give up. He thought the Confederates would kill him and the African-American crew members. Because of this, he took control of the ship and steered it away. His heroic resolve earned him the rank of becoming captain.

 

Robert Smalls’ campaign for Black people and the Republicans

 

In May 1864, the Republicans voted for Robert Smalls to represent them at the party’s National Convention. Then, in spring that year, Robert steered the Planter to Philadelphia for general repairs. He advocated and campaigned for efforts to finance the schooling of formerly enslaved people. Likewise, Robert learned to read and write during his stay in Philadelphia.

 

Despite his achievements and prestige, Robert Smalls became a victim of racism. A white man humiliated Robert by ordering him to give up his streetcar seat. The public was outraged with this treatment of a respected and gallant veteran.

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In December 1864, Robert Smalls brought the newly overhauled Planter to Georgia. He escorted William Sherman’s army as they marched to Savannah, Georgia. Then, he joined the ceremonial flag-raising ceremony by the Union Army at Fort Sumter when the American Civil War ended in April 1865. The Navy discharged Robert Smalls on June 11.

 

Robert Smalls participated in seventeen significant battles during the Civil War.

 

Robert Smalls after the Civil War

 

Robert Smalls continued helping formerly enslaved people and war victims during the initial years of the Reconstruction. Aboard the Planter, Robert Smalls delivered and provided food and supplies with the Freedmen’s Bureau. He returned to the plantation where he grew up as an enslaved person and bought his master’s house. The mansion became a school for Black children, and he allowed his master’s wife Jane to stay with him and his mother Lydia until she passed away.

 

With his business associate from Philadelphia, Robert Smalls founded a store for formerly enslaved people. He also contributed to their region’s economic growth through investments and infrastructure projects. Furthermore, his fellow Black elites connected the harbor and depots with a railway line. This eighteen-mile track provided jobs for Black people and transported cargo and travelers. Moreover, Robert launched a local newspaper publication, the Beaufort Southern Standard.

 

Robert Smalls’ political career in South Carolina

 

Robert Smalls entered politics during the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention. As a delegate, he campaigned to make schooling free and mandatory for every child in the state. That year, he got elected to the state’s House of Representatives. His iconic bills fought for homestead rights and civil rights.

 

In 1870, the public elected African-American South Carolina senator Jonathan Wright into the state’s supreme court. They elected Robert to replace his seat as a state senator. Then, he won in the 1872 elections. As a South Carolina senator, he handled the committees on finance and public printing committees. His fellow legislators and colleagues lauded Robert Smalls for his debating and speaking craft.

 

Meanwhile, the state militia chose him as a lieutenant colonel. He would be promoted to brigadier-general and major-general in the next four years until the Democrats got voted into power in the state.

 

Robert Smalls in the House of Representatives

 

In 1874, Robert Smalls was elected as the representative of congressional districts in South Carolina. He held these positions until 1887. As a congressman, Robert Smalls fought for the rights and safety of African-Americans. One of his proposals was to amend the constitution with a clause that authorities will make no distinction in the Army based on someone’s race. But Congress did not approve it.

 

A year after his election, Robert Smalls tried to stop the order to remove US soldiers from the former Confederacy. He thought that more Blacks might become victims of violence and lynching. But the 1877 Compromise ultimately withdrew the troops in the South. Bourbon Democrats took the opportunity to “redeem” the Southern States and win back the legislatures.

 

The following years were filled with violence and election scandals. The Democrats accused Robert Smalls of bribery for a printing contract, staining his career. Robert lost in the 1878 election and 1880. His contest and the investigations confirmed that the Democrats had cheated the narrow results in 1880. He regained his position in 1882 and during the 1884 election. In his remaining years in the House of Representatives, Robert Smalls wrote legislation for racial equality and pensions. He also encouraged African-Americans in South Carolina to stay instead of moving to northern states or Liberia.

 

Robert Smalls is the second African-American Congress representative with the most extended term. While staying in the nation’s capital, he belonged to the Berean Baptist Church. He was also a Mason.

 

Robert Smalls’ later years

 

After Robert Smalls’ productive career as a representative during the Reconstruction, President Benjamin Harrison assigned him as a Customs officer in Beaufort. Meanwhile, Robert Smalls actively contributed to the Republican Party in South Carolina. He and his fellow African-American politicians vehemently fought against the Democrats who sought to limit the Black citizens’ voting rights in the Constitution. Unfortunately, the Democrats won in their disfranchisement campaign in the Southern states. These laws and constitutions damaged the Republican Party and civil rights there for several decades.

 

In the 1890s, Robert Smalls got diabetes. He refused to become a Black regiment colonel during the Spanish-American War and did not accept becoming a minister to Liberia. But he continued helping his local community with his influence over the Black population. Robert Smalls prevented a lynch mob from killing Black convicts charged with killing a white person.

 

His wife, Hannah Smalls, passed away on July 28, 1883. Robert Smalls married Annie Wigg seven years later. The schoolteacher from Charleston bore him a son named William Roberts. Unfortunately, Annie died in November 1895.

 

Up to his last moments, Robert Smalls supported and campaigned for the Republican Party. The party fought for Black rights, protections, and social justice, while the Democratic Party resisted such initiatives. Because of this, Robert Smalls thanks what he calls “the party of Lincoln” for freeing the enslaved people and allowing him to become an office-holder. In a letter he wrote to his fellow senator, Robert Smalls encouraged African-Americans to vote for Republicans and “bury” the Democratic Party.

 

Robert Smalls passed away on February 23, 1915, because of diabetes and malaria. The 75-year-old formerly enslaved person, war veteran, businessman, politician, and Black hero was buried in a churchyard in Beaufort, South Carolina. A monument near his grave quotes his declaration to the South Carolina legislature: the Black race is equal to all people—they only need an equal opportunity in life’s battles.

 

Remembering Robert Smalls

 

The State of South Carolina treasures the rich story and legacy of Robert Smalls. His home at Beaufort—the house of his master, which he also bought—is now a National Historic Landmark that tourists can visit. They can also visit the Robert Smalls’ gravesite monument at the Tabernacle Baptist Church. The parkway on the South Carolina Highway between Port Royal Island and Beaufort is named after Robert Smalls. Moreover, in 2012, Charleston celebrated the 150th anniversary of his escape from the Confederacy by stealing the Planter.

 

Schools were named after Robert Smalls, including the Robert Smalls International Academy. When segregation was in place in military facilities, the Great Lakes Naval Training Center instructed Black sailors in Camp Robert Smalls.

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Robert Smalls is also remembered outside the state. He has a statue in the United States National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. Moreover, a US Army Vessel was named after Robert Smalls in 2004. It was the first time such a ship was named after a Black American.

 

Finally, a biographical picture movie about Robert Smalls will soon be created to be produced by Amazon. His feats and heritage will reach and be appreciated by millions of people.

 

Key takeaways about Robert Smalls

 

  • Robert Smalls was born on a plantation as an enslaved person. Although his owner favored him, his mother Lydia wanted him to witness the sufferings of field enslaved people.
  • Robert Smalls worked at the harbor, where he learned how to pilot and manage ships.
  • When the American Civil War began, Robert Smalls worked as a ship pilot and spread mines for the Confederacy.
  • On May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls stole the CSS Planter to free himself, his African-American crew, and their families. He brought the ship to the Union Navy, providing weapons and crucial intelligence.
  • Robert Smalls became a celebrity in the North as a veteran and advocate for Black Americans. He convinced President Abraham Lincoln to allow African-Americans to join the United States Army. Then, he served in the Navy as a pilot.
  • After the Civil War, Robert Smalls became a businessman and a politician. He was among the longest-serving Black representatives in the United States.

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Teboho Ibrahim
Teboho Ibrahim
Love culture History Freedom Truth and experience.

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