April 5, 1839
February 23, 1915
The Civil War navy pilot, politician, and businessman Robert Smalls was born a slave near Beaufort, South Carolina. Smalls moved to Charleston, where he was allowed to hire himself out if he paid his owner $15 a month. The knowledge of coastal waterways that he gained as a boatman made possible one of the Civil War's most daring exploits.
In 1862 the Confederate government made Smalls wheelsman of the steamboat the Planter (the title pilot was deemed inappropriate for a slave). He learned the signals necessary to pass southern fortifications and the location of mines.
On May 12, 1862, while white crew members were on shore, Smalls steered the ship, containing his family and a small group of other slaves, to Union lines. The news spread across the country. The coup was important militarily and symbolically, demonstrating what slaves—supposedly docile and content in their servitude—could accomplish.
Awarded $1,500 for the armed boat and commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Colored Troops, Smalls became pilot of the Planter, participated in seventeen battles, and recruited for the army. During and after the war he raised funds in the North for black southerners' interests. Doggedly pursuing his own education, he bought schools for freedmen while investing extensively in real estate and companies in his native state.
Dramatic as Smalls's escape was, his later career constituted his greatest legacy. During the twelve years that Reconstruction allowed black southerners political opportunities, Smalls became a South Carolina state congressman and senator and then, for most of the years between 1874 and 1886, a U.S. congressman, known for his repartee. In the state legislature he sponsored bills for free compulsory public education. He attended the 1864 Republican National Convention, helped write the 1868 state constitution, and became a major general of the state militia. In office, he fought not only for freedmen's interests—cheap land prices, continuing eligibility for army enlistment, and enforcement of the Civil Rights Act—but for his general constituency's concerns, including a railroad, reformed penitentiaries, property rights of wives and tenants, and health care for the poor.
When the Compromise of 1877 returned political control to Democrats, they quickly sought to drive out and
discredit all Republican officeholders. Smalls—who enjoyed the admiration of his African-American constituents for the heroic act he never tired of recounting—did not escape controversy. Despite having consistently attacked governmental extravagance and corruption, he faced a bribery charge, which was ultimately dropped. But staying in office became increasingly difficult, with the Democrats using violence and crooked elections to disfranchise the black population as the federal government lost interest in the former slaves. Smalls won his final congressional election against the viciously racist "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman in 1884.
Even after elected positions were no longer possible, Smalls's loyalty to the Republican Party assured him of patronage jobs. He served as Beaufort's customs collector from 1890 until 1913. He also continued to organize his district's black Republicans and to use his influence for former constituents whenever possible.
Holt, Thomas. Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina During Reconstruction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Miller, Edward A. Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839–1915. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
elizabeth fortson arroyo (1996)