Robert Smalls was born on April 5, 1839 behind his owner’s house at 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, South Carolina. At the age of 12, Smalls was sent to Charleston in order to be hired out. This was at the behest of his mother, who frequently saw her defiant son end up in the Beaufort jail. By the time he was 19, he had held several positions and was allowed to save one dollar of his wages a week, with the rest of his money going to his owner. He also developed an interest in sailing and the harbor, which led him to a fateful position on the CSS Planter. During his time at the harbor he served as a dockworker, rigger, sail maker, and eventually a wheelman (which was the same as pilot however only whites could hold that rank). He also met his wife Hannah Jones working at the harbor, who he married on December 24, 1856.
On May 12, 1862, whilst Smalls was serving as wheelman aboard the CSS Planter, a Confederate military transport, the ship’s three white officers decided to depart from the ship and spend the night on land. Seeing an opportunity, Smalls and seven of the crewmen onboard with him made the risky decision to sail the ship toward the Union blockade outside the harbor in the middle of the night. Smalls, impersonating the captain, sailed the Planter out of the Southern Wharf and stopped by a nearby wharf to pick up his family and the families of his crewmembers.
Aboard the ship was not only approximately 200 rounds of ammunition, a pivot gun, howitzer gun and four other guns but also code books containing secret information about the signals and strategies of the Confederate side. Using those signals he cleared two Confederate checkpoints and was able to sail past a fleet of Confederate ships towards the U.S. fleet. Upon passing Ft. Sumter, Smalls lowered the Confederate and South Carolina flags replacing them with a white sheet to signal surrender. The closest ship, the U.S.S. Onward had begun to ready its guns, however as the sun was beginning to rise one of the sailors spotted the white flag, so instead they welcomed the ship, its cargo and the seventeen passengers and crewmen. When the steamer finally arrived next to the Union ships, Smalls was said to say, “Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!”
Smalls proved to be an extremely valuable asset to the North, revealing key Confederate strategies to the Union. Flag Officer Samuel Francis Du Pont wrote of him to the Navy secretary commenting that he “is superior to any who have come into our lines – intelligent as many of them have been.” In recognition of this remarkable feat, Congress authorized the gallant men to be paid a prize, with Smalls personally receiving $1,500. Meanwhile in the South, the Confederate government put a $4,000 bounty on his head.
More importantly, he served as a trailblazer for other African-Americans to join the Union Army. He became a hero in the North and advocated to the Secretary of War that black soldiers should be allowed to enlist (there was a Federal law from 1792 that prohibited them from serving, although some had served in previous wars). A few months later with the passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, which freed slaves whose masters served as part of the Confederate Army, and the Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing slavery throughout the country, blacks were allowed to serve and by some estimates Smalls recruited 5,000 volunteers himself.
He was present at approximately seventeen engagements over the course of the war. One of these battles came in December of 1863, when the CSS Planter, being used for transport, was caught in a crossfire and the captain wanted to surrender. Smalls feared that all of the black crewman would be summarily killed, so instead he took control of the ship and sailed it to safety; as a result, he was named captain of the ship.
Following the war, Smalls returned to his home in South Carolina, where he purchased his former master’s house and lived with his mother and former master’s wife until her passing. He opened a store for freed slaves before becoming involved with the local Republican Party. Smalls was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1865 and from there to the State Senate in 1871. In 1874, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he pushed for an amendment to a bill regarding the United States Army that would have ensured that race would not ever again be a criterion for enlistment in the army; however, the amendment was never considered.
By the late 1870s, the political landscape in the South was shifting as white Democrats were working to encumber voting for blacks and reduce Republican power while white supremacist militias such as the Klu Klux Klan and Red Shirts employed violence against blacks to keep them from voting and to push them out of the political sphere. In fact, during a rally in Edgefield in 1876, former Confederate General Matthew Butler threatened to kill Smalls. Following his reelection that same year, the Democratic South Carolina state government charged him with accepting bribes, a trumped up charge to remove him from office, while his defeated opponent sued claiming that the Federal Troops present in the state hindered voting.
Smalls left Congress in 1887, but continued his political work well into the twentieth century, first working against efforts by white Democrats to disenfranchise blacks during the South Carolina constitutional convention of 1895 and later as the U.S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort, until he was blocked from reappointment in 1911.
Robert Smalls proved himself to be a man of extraordinary character: from his daring escape from the Confederacy and enlistment in the Union Army and Navy, which served as an important precedent for African-American service in the military and made him a widely known hero, to his later work in politics fighting for the rights of Black Americans, which was not only admirable but incredibly courageous considering he acted under the very real threat of violence, to lastly his kindness: allowing the wife of his former master to live with him and his family in the house he had purchased. Smalls led a remarkable life that continues to be an inspiring example of rectitude, achievement and service.