Robert Smalls

The United States of America was founded on the principles of equality and opportunity for all. In the 1800’s these principles were not strictly adhered to by all and a tremendous battle ensued. That battle was the United States Civil War in which northerners, wishing an end to slavery, found themselves at war with southerners, who wanted slavery to remain in place. The Civil War was a conflict that saw the rich and the poor, the famous and the unknown, and the black and the white pitted against each other in mortal combat. During the war, it was not uncommon for someone to rise from obscurity to being recognized as a war hero. This research paper discusses the life of one of those individuals, a black man named Robert Smalls.

Robert Smalls was born a slave on April 5, 1839, in a slave quarters behind a house at 501 Prince Street, in Beaufort, a coastal town in the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Smalls was known as Small during his early years and until shortly after the Civil War. His mother, Lydia, was a house servant for her owner, John McKee. Although there is great dispute as to who his father was it is generally agreed that he was white. (Miller 7) Upon McKee’s death, Smalls and his mother were inherited by his son, Henry McKee. Henry McKee, according to Smalls, was a very kindly man toward his slaves. Although he did not encourage so, he didnt aggressively prohibit his slaves from learning to read and write. McKee even made an arrangement with Smalls that gave Smalls the freedom to obtain employment.

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In 1861, McKee sold the Prince Street house and fled the area, fearing its occupation by Union forces. With his authorization to obtain employment in hand, Smalls moved to Charleston and hired out as a laborer, first as a waiter at the Planter hotel, then as a lamplighter for a city contractor, and, finally, as a stevedore on the Charleston docks. It was his job as a stevedore that led him to employment with John Simmons, who hired Smalls as a ship rigger in the winter and a coastal
vessel sailor in the summer. It was during this employment that Smalls became an expert pilot of boats along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia.

In 1858, Smalls married Hannah Jones, a slave that was working as a hotel maid. According to Smalls, the marriage was not a bonding as a matter of love on his part, but as a matter of the household services a wife would render to him. (Miller 9) A daughter, Elizabeth Lydia, was born to the couple in 1859 and a son, Robert Jr., was born in 1861. Smalls made an agreement with his wife’s owner to purchase his wife and daughter for the sum of $800. It is not known whether this or any other agreement included the purchase of his son. When Smalls had saved approximately $700 toward the purchase, he fled Charleston with his family, having never made payment toward the agreement.

In 1861, Smalls accepted a job as a deck hand aboard the Planter, a cotton steamer. When the Civil War began, the Planter was pressed into service for the Confederacy. Smalls was soon promoted to wheelman. His position was actually that of pilot, but at the time Southerners did not assign this title to blacks. Smalls, seeking to obtain freedom for himself and his family, began planning to steal away with the Planter and turn it over to Union forces. On the evening of May 12, 1862, the Planter docked in Charleston. District standing orders, at the time, stipulated that at least one white officer remain aboard the boat at all times to prevent an uprising of black slaves and crewmen. On this particular night, however, Captain C. J. Relyea and all of his white officers had gone ashore to attend a party. This provided Smalls and his fellow conspirators with the opportunity they had been planning for. They quickly loaded their families who had been waiting in hiding on other vessels. At approximately 3 a.m. on May 13th, the Planter got up steam, Smalls hoisted the Palmetto and Confederate flags and headed to the north Atlantic wharf to pick up his family and some others. His experiences gained under the employment of John Simmons and in
piloting the Planter served him well in navigating the craft. He successfully navigated down the South Channel, giving the correct steam whistle at Fort Johnson and again at Fort Sumter, past Confederate forces. In a daring move, Smalls actually wore Captain Relyea’s straw hat and stood in plain view in the wheelhouse to increase their chances of success. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, the Planter and her runaway crew approached the Union warship U.S.S. Onward of the blockading fleet stationed off the Charleston coast. Smalls surrendered the ship to the Onward’s commander, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant J. F. Nickels saying “Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!” (Miller 1) The Planter was considered to be a valuable prize as she could carry as many a 1,000 troops, and her shallow draft allowed her to safely navigate most of the coastal waters. The actions of Smalls were considered especially daring as the Planter had served as the headquarters ship for Brigadier General Roswell S. Ripley, commander of the Second Military District of South Carolina, and Smalls had stolen the ship from right in front of Ripley’s home office. Smalls had won freedom for himself and his family and his actions won him instant national fame.

Smalls was soon commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, Company B, 33rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops where he served as pilot to the Planter. He was later assigned to the ironclad Keokuk for an attack into Charleston Harbor. During the attack the Keokuk was struck by over 90 shells and soon sank. Smalls managed to survive and was transferred back to the Planter. In November of 1863, the Planter was under such severe attack that the white captain of the ship wanted to surrender. Smalls, however, fearful of the treatment he knew he would receive from Confederate captors, instead urged the gunners to continue to battle the enemy. The captain took cover in the coal bin during the battle, while the crew fought on under Smalls’ leadership. As a result of these events, the captain of record was dismissed, and Smalls was promoted to the position of Captain.

Smalls’ heroic wartime record, his ability to speak the Gullah dialect of Sea Islanders and the solidly Republican electorate around Beaufort opened the way for a post-war career in politics. As early as October 1862, Smalls traveled to New York to gain support for the Port Royal Experiment for settling freed slaves, and he joined a delegation of free blacks sent to the Republican convention in June 1864.

Following the Civil War, he was elected a delegate to the 1868 state constitutional convention and, in April, 1868, was elected to the state house of representatives, serving until 1870. He subsequently was a member of the state senate from 1870 to 1874. His political career culminated in 1874, with the election to Congress from the Fifth District over Independent candidate J.P.M. Epping.

Smalls took his seat in the Forty-fourth Congress on March 4, 1875, and served on the Agriculture Committee. He succeeded in having the harbor at Port Royal, South Carolina, designated as the southern rendezvous for the United States Navy. He fought against the transfer of federal troops from the South to the Texas frontier, warning that their removal would encourage private militia groups to take the law into their own hands and declare open warfare on citizens loyal to the Reconstruction governments. He also opposed racial discrimination in the armed services.

Smalls won reelection in 1876, over Democrat George D. Tillman. During the campaign he resisted Democratic attempts to “redeem” South Carolina by driving blacks from public life. Smalls managed to retain his seat despite efforts by Tillman to have the House overturn the results. During the last session of the Forty-fourth Congress in February 1877, Smalls delivered a major address calling for an “honest ballot,” praising the Republican state government of South Carolina and deploring efforts to deprive blacks of their political and economic rights.

After regaining control of the state, Democrats seeking Smalls’ resignation from Congress gained his conviction on false charges of having received a $5,000 bribe while in the state senate. Smalls was jailed briefly but pardoned by Democratic governor William D. Simpson, who acted on assurances from the United States district attorney that South Carolinians accused of violating election laws would not be prosecuted. The abolition of voting precincts in counties with a Republican majority and the presence of armed whites that harassed the largely black audiences at his election meetings doomed Smalls’ bid for reelection in 1878. Although Tillman beat him, he stood for election to the seat again in 1880.

Narrowly defeated, he successfully contested the result and was finally seated in the Forty-seventh Congress on July 19, 1882, and served on the Committee on Agriculture and the Committee on the Militia. In September, Smalls was defeated for the Republican nomination at the Seventh District convention by Edmund W.M. Mackey. When Mackey died in January, 1884, Smalls was elected to fill the vacancy and took his seat in the Forty-eighth Congress on March 18, 1884, where he was a member of the Committees on Manufactures and on the Militia. Later that year, he was reelected to a full term over William Elliott, and in December was nominated for the United States Senate by black legislators. He lost the Senate nomination to Wade Hampton by a vote of 3l to 3.

In the Forty-ninth Congress, he served on the Committee on War Claims and tried to secure for South Carolina a full refund of money collected from the state during the war years. He supported an amendment to interstate commerce legislation sponsored by Representative James E. O’Hara of North Carolina, requiring equal accommodations for all railroad passengers regardless of their color, and southern legislation guaranteeing integration of eating places in the District of Columbia. Smalls asked the House to defy President Cleveland and approve a fifty-dollar monthly pension for the widow of General David Hunter, who in 1862 had issued an order freeing slaves in Florida,
Georgia, and South Carolina, and had authorized the raising of one of the earliest black regiments, the First South Carolina. Smalls also reaffirmed his party loyalty by opposing Democratic-sponsored proposals for civil service reform.

By 1886 President Cleveland, Governor John P. Richardson, Senator Wade Hampton, and First District Congressman Samuel Dibble were determined to unseat Smalls. Aided by their efforts and a weakening in Republican solidarity, Elliott won the election. Once more Smalls took his case to the House, which declined to unseat Elliott. Smalls remained politically active and joined other black leaders in their vain fight against disfranchisement at the state constitutional convention of 1895.

He also advised South Carolina blacks against joining the “Exodusters” immigrating to Kansas.

In 1889, President Harrison appointed Smalls collector of the port of Beaufort. He held this post
almost continuously until the opposition of South Carolina senators Benjamin Tillman (brother of
George D. Tillman) and Ellison D. Smith forced him to step down in June 1913. Smalls died in
As Robert Smalls is an example, the United States truly became a land of opportunity after the Civil War. Where else in the world could a man born into slavery achieve such fetes as rise to war hero and successful politician.

Cooper, Michael L. From Slave to Civil War Hero: The Life and Times of Robert Smalls
(A Rainbow Biography). New York: Lodestar Books, 1994.

Jones, Kevin K. “African American Warriors.” Captain Robert Smalls 8 Nov.1997. Online. 19 Sep.1998.

Meriwether, Louise. The Freedom Ship of Robert Smalls. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall,

Miller Jr., Edward A. Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress 1839 – 1915.
Columbia: University of South Carolina Printing, 1995.

Uya, Okon Edet.From Slavery to Public Service: Robert Smalls, 1839 – 1915. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1971.


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