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Smalls, Robert (1839-1915)

Robert Smalls (1839-1915)

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African american sailor

The Escape. While their white officers slept peacefully in Charleston, the slave crew aboard the Confederate gunboat Planter made a daring run for Northern vessels anchored off the coast of South Carolina. During the predawn hours of 13 May 1862, the ships pilot, Robert Smalls, and his crew sailed the vessel from its dock in Charleston Harbor, discreetly slipped past Confederate cannons at Fort Sumter, and surrendered the ship to the Union blockading squadron. Startled by the fast approaching ship, Northern seamen prepared their guns to fire, but quickly stopped after a sailor spotted a white flag. The astonished Northerners seized the ship with its four unmounted guns and crew of eight African American males (five women and three children were also aboard). The remarkable tale of the Planter quickly spread throughout the divided nation, making Smalls a hero in the North and an outlaw in the South.

Early Life. Robert Smalls was born a slave on 5 April 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother worked as a house servant for her master John K. McKee, a wealthy plantation owner. McKee was probably Smallss father. After McKee died in 1848, his son Henry inherited Smalls and his mother. In 1851 McKee hired Smalls out as a laborer in Charleston. There he worked as a waiter, lamplighter, and stevedore. Eventually he secured employment on a commercial ship docked in Charleston. After gaining experience as a sailor, Smalls hired on to pilot the Planter in March 1861, a cotton steamer converted into a gunboat by the Confederate government in order to move supplies between forts in Charleston Harbor.

A Contraband of War. Like all slaves who fled to Union lines, Smalls was received by the Union navy as a contraband of war. Although the Planter and its crew represented a propaganda coup for the North, Smalls knowledge of local waters and enemy encampments proved more valuable. Piloting the ship for over a year before his defection, Smalls had traveled along the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida laying mines, transporting men and supplies, and surveying local rivers. His intelligence reports convinced Union naval officers to attack Rebel strongholds on Coles Island on the Stono River immediately. Smalls had informed the Union naval commander for the area that the Confederates recently disarmed the fort and sent its cannons to Charleston because of a weapons shortage. On 20 May 1862 Union gunboats seized the fort without a fight, and the Northern navy used the river inlet as a base of operations for the rest of the war. Shortly afterward Smalls became a pilot for a Federal naval ship. Due to navy restrictions, however, Smalls served the Union navy as an army volunteer since the navy only enlisted blacks as ship laborers.

National Hero. The story of Robert Smalls and the Planter became a national phenomenon. Harpers Weekly published a celebrated article about the great escape along with pictures of Smalls and the Confederate gunboat. To honor the feat, Congress passed a bill bestowing a cash prize to Smalls and the other crew members; Smalls received $1,500 while the crew received $400-$450 each. After a brief stint as pilot for the U.S.S. Wabash, Smalls traveled to New York and embarked on a speaking tour designed to generate excitement for the Union cause. Following the tour, Smalls returned to South Carolina and was appointed captain of the Planter (now in service with the Union army), an unprecedented promotion for an African American during the Civil War. Smalls fought in seventeen engagements before docking the Planter in Philadelphia for an overhaul and repairs. He spent seven months in the city and afterward returned to Charleston, where the Planter was primarily engaged in ferrying men and supplies across the harbor for the remainder of the war. During the Reconstruction era Smalls used his national reputation to gain political office in South Carolina, first as a state representative and later as a congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives. He died in 1915.

Source

Edward A. Miller Jr., Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995).

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Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls (1839-1916) was a black American statesman who was born a slave and made a daring escape at the beginning of the Civil War. After the war he served five terms in Congress as the representative from South Carolina.

Robert Smalls was born a slave, to Robert and Lydia Smalls at Beaufort, S.C., on April 5, 1839. He was taken to Charleston as a youth and worked there at a variety of jobs. He soon mastered the seafaring art and became the de facto pilot of a Confederate transport steamer, the Planter. Smalls never accepted his enslaved condition and was determined to free himself. He taught himself to read and write, mastered the tricky currents and channels of Charleston Harbor, and bided his time. Sooner or later his chance would come: he would be free. He had to be free.

The Civil War brought his chance. On the morning of May 13, 1862, long before the sun was up and while the ship's white officers still slept in Charleston, Smalls smuggled his wife and three children aboard the Planter and took command. With his crew of 12 slaves, Smalls hoisted the Confederate flag and with great daring sailed the Planter past the other Confederate ships and out to sea. Once beyond the range of the Confederate guns, he hoisted a flag of truce and delivered the Planter to the commanding officer of the Union fleet. Smalls explained that he intended the Planter as a contribution by black Americans to the cause of freedom. The ship was received as contraband, and Smalls and his black crew were welcomed as heroes. Later, President Lincoln received Smalls in Washington and rewarded him and his crew for their valor. He was given official command of the Planter and made a captain in the U.S. Navy; in this position he served throughout the war.

After the war Smalls returned to South Carolina to enter politics. He served in the Carolina Senate from 1868 to 1870. In 1875 he was elected to the U.S. Congress for the first of five terms. His record as a congressman was progressive. He fought for equal travel accommodations for black Americans and for the civil and legal protection of children of mixed parentage. He was one of the six black members of the South Carolina constitutional convention of 1895.

After leaving Congress, Smalls was duty collector for the port of Beaufort. He retained his interest in the military and was a major general in the South Carolina militia. He died on Feb. 22, 1916.

Further Reading

A fine biography of Smalls is Okon Edet Uya, From Slavery to Public Service: Robert Smalls, 1839-1915 (1971). Dorothy Sterling, Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls (1958), written for young people, has an extensive bibliography. A good account of Smalls is in William J. Simmons, Men of Mark (1968). Francis B. Simkins and Robert H. Woody, South Carolina during Reconstruction (1932), discusses his political career.

Additional Sources

Miller, Edward A., Gullah statesman: Robert Smalls from slavery to Congress, 1839-1915, Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. □

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"Robert Smalls." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/robert-smalls