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Red-roofed white steeple of Tabernacle Baptist Church on Craven Street, Beaufort
Steeple of Tabernable Baptist Church, Beaufort, burial site of Robert Smalls.
     

Robert Smalls
War Hero and Legislator
(1839-1915)

by Dennis Adams, Information Services Coordinator
and Grace Morris Cordial, Historical Resources Coordinator

Profile view of bust of Robert Smalls at Tabernacle Baptist Church

Bust of Robert Smalls by Marion Talmage
Etheredge. Bust at Tabernacle Baptist
Church, 907 Craven Street, Beaufort.

(Photograph by Dennis Adams, Jan. 20, 2007)

The white frame of the John Mckee House, seen through a break in dense foliage  

Childhood

Robert Smalls began life as a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina on 5 April 1839, born to Robert and Lydia Smalls. Lydia was a house servant for her master, plantation owner John K. McKee and, according to American Eras, "McKee was probably Smalls' father." McKee had brought Lydia, a slave born on the Ashdale Plantation, to his home on Prince Street in Beaufort to look after his five children.

Although Lydia was well treated and given sufficient clothing and food, she hardly equated her well-being with true freedom. She instilled this resistance to slavery in her

Lydia, in the opinion of some historians, took Robert to the Beaufort jail yard to watch the public beating of slaves and had him witness slave auctions in town. By the time Robert Smalls made his daring bid for freedom as a young man, he had already taught himself to read and write with help of Miss Cooley, a school teacher.

The John McKee (or Robert Smalls) House, 511 Prince Street, Beaufort. Smalls bought the house in a tax auction in 1863.
(Photograph by Dennis Adams, Jan. 21, 2007.)
 

Robert Smalls, the Charleston Tradesman

Henry McKee inherited Lydia and young Robert upon his father's death in 1848. As an owner of a Sea Island plantation, McKee had four classes of slaves on the Sea Island plantations (in order of their economic and social importance):

Drivers, who, subject to their white masters and overseers, controlled the field hands, dealt out rations and even inflicted corporal punishment on the laborers. Drivers possessed a considerable degree of judgment and knowledge of plantation economy (the owners spent relatively little time on their lands).

Tradesmen, who were often carpenters, wheelwrights and other skilled workers whom their owners could also hire out to neighbors.

House servants, who performed the domestic work reserved for slaves unable to do a full day's work elsewhere. These were "Swonga people" in the Gullah language of the Sea Islands.

 
1862 engraving of slave children sitting in yard as an African-American woman brings a kettle of food
"Feeding the Negro Children Under the Charge
of the Military Authorities at Hilton Head,
South Carolina."
Engraving in Harper's Weekly, "The Steamer 'Planter'
and Her Captor," June 14, 1862, p. 372.
Beaufort District Collection
Field hands, who made up one third of the slave work force.

As Henry McKee's favorite servant, Robert Smalls cared for his master's horses, carried the bow when his owner partook in archery and rowed McKee's boat on day trips. In 1851, McKee bought Cob Call Plantation near Charleston and brought Smalls with him. Occasionally, a master would allow a slave to separate his day into "Master's time" and "Slave's time." McKee agreed to hire Robert Smalls out as a tradesman for a set commission of $15 a month (about $335 in current value). If the slave had any time or energy left over, the slave could accumulate monies for himself.

On December 24, 1858, 17 year-old Smalls married his first wife, Hannah Jones. Jones, 13 years older than her husband, had worked as a hotel maid. As a free agent on "Slave's time," Robert Smalls worked in Charleston as a waiter at the Planter Hotel, lamplighter for the city, stevedore and, in time, as a laborer on a commercial ship docked in the city. Her owner agreed to sell Jones to Robert Smalls for seven dollars a month. Smalls was also able to pay $800 for the freedom of both his wife and child (Elizabeth Lydia Smalls, who had been born on February 12, 1858).

A short man (5', 5" tall), Smalls was a sturdy fellow and well suited to work on the dockside, During the year he worked on the ship for rigger John Simmons, Smalls learned a great deal about sail-making and sailing the tides of Charleston harbor.

Robert Smalls, The Pilot

Smalls' keen navigational skills earned him a job as the pilot of the Confederate gunboat The Planter in March 1861. Before the war, The Planter had been a 147 foot-long cotton steamer, capable of holding 1400 bales of cotton. Thirty feet in the beam, and drawing 3 feet, 9 inches, the vessel had two single-cylinder steam engines that powered the side paddle wheels independently. It now took supplies to Rebel forts in Charleston Harbor as a special dispatch boat for Brigadier General Roswell S. Ripley, port architect and commander of the second military district of South Carolina. Ripley was second in command to Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard.

Smalls' employer, John Ferguson, paid him $16 a month. Although $15 went to Henry McKee, Smalls was able to earn extra money, "moonlighting" by moving

 

"The Planter" at dock with crew member standing near one of the guns
"The Gun-Boat 'Planter,' Run Out of
Charleston, S. C. by Robert Smalls,
May, 1862."
Engraving in Harper's Weekly, "The Steamer 'Planter'
and Her Captor," June 14, 1862, p. 372.

Beaufort District Collection

goods for merchants. He was known as an expert pilot, and had studied the maps and sea charts of South Carolina and Georgia. Meanwhile, the fellow slaves aboard The Planter planned their escape to freedom. They chose the able seaman Robert Smalls as their leader.

Escape to Freedom

"The Planter" at full steam   At around 3:00 a.m. on May 13, 1862, Smalls stole The Planter out of Charleston Harbor with a crew of eight African American sailors: John Smalls (engineer, no relation to Robert) and Alfred Gradine (engineer), Abraham Jackson, Gabriel Turno, William Morrison, Samuel Chisolm, Abraham Allston, and David Jones. Also on board were five women and three children (including Smalls' daughter). The entire white crew of The Planter - including the captain, C. J. Relyea, the chief engineer, Zerich Pitcher, and the mate, Samuel H. Smith -- had gone ashore on unauthorized leave, trusting in the loyalty of the black crewmen. As soon as the white men were out sight, Smalls and his crew left the dock, which was directly below General Ripley's house and office.

No ships challenged The Planter on its way to Fort Sumter, at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. Beyond the Harbor lay ships of the Union blockade, but Smalls feared that a
Confederate officer at the fort would challenge his boat at so early an hour. He offered this prayer:

The Planter, on open water.
Plate in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, vol. 12, between pages p. 820 and 821.

Beaufort District Collection
(Photograph by Dennis Adams, Jan. 24, 2007.)

"Oh Lord, we entrust ourselves into thy hands. Like thou didst for the Israelites in Egypt, Please stand over us to our promised land of freedom."

While s
ome crew members begged for a change of course, Smalls steered The Planter directly beneath the walls of Fort Sumter. He kept to the shadows inside the pilothouse, hiding his face under the brim of the captain's hat. Smalls blew the steam whistle twice and waved to the guards standing 40 feet above. "Pass The Planter," shouted one of the Rebels. "Blow the damned Yankees to hell, or bring one of them in!"

Smalls shouted out "Aye, aye!" -- and The Planter sailed on out of the range of the cannons. Now flying a white flag of surrender made from a bed sheet, the steamboat approached the nearest Union ship, the U.S.S. Onward, whose astonished skipper, Lieutenant J. Frederick Nickels, had The Planter boarded by his own crew. Once aboard the Onward with his men. Robert Smalls told Nicholas of his wish for freedom, of his desire to serve the United States Navy.

Suspecting a Rebel "Trojan Horse", Lt. Nickels ordered The Planter searched for Confederate troops in hiding. He found only the eight crew members, the five women and three children on board, as well as four dismounted guns. On May 13, Smalls to spoke with Admiral Du Pont, who afterwards wrote to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that "this man, Robert Smalls, is superior to any who has yet come into our lines, intelligent as many of them have been. His information has been most interesting, and portions of it of utmost importance. … I shall continue to employ Robert as a pilot on board The Planter for inland waters. "

The Navy received both The Planter and the slaves on board as contraband property of war.

On May 14, the day after the capture of The Planter, Gen. Ripley reported that "the mischief occurred from the negligence of the captain and officers of the boat and the disobedience of orders. I shall prefer charges against them at an early day and lay them before the general commanding the department."


National Fame

Harper's Weekly devoted an illustrated feature article to Robert Smalls and the capture of The Planter on June 14 (just one month after the incident). President Lincoln would later received Smalls and his crew in Washington to recognize their bravery.

Robert Small worked as a pilot on the U.S.S. Wabash for a short time before traveling to New York for a speaking tour to boost support of the Union cause. During his tour, he proposed a colony of freed slaves in Port Royal, Beaufort County.

 
Portrait of a youthful Robert Smalls with beard and moustache, dressed in formal clothes
"Robert Smalls, Captain of the Gun-Boat, 'Planter'."
Engraving in Harper's Weekly, "The Steamer 'Planter'
and Her Captor," June 14, 1862, p. 372.
Beaufort District Collection

"A Blow to the Confederacy's Morale"

Notable Black American Men called The Planter's capture "a blow to the Confederacy's morale and an encouragement for the Union." Robert Smalls' surrender of The Planter also made him an outlaw in the South. He had gained invaluable intelligence of Confederate forts and encampments. During his year on The Planter, Smalls had surveyed rivers and laid mines along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and brought Rebel soldiers and supplies into these areas. When he told a Union commander that fortifications on the Stono River had recently sent its cannons to Charleston to address a weapons shortage in the city, Federal forces seized the area without a fight on May 20, 1862. Union troops used the Stono River as a base of operations for the duration of the Civil War.

Soon after the capture of the Stono River strongholds, the Union assigned Smalls to pilot The Planter, now a Federal naval ship. Smalls served as a volunteer because of naval regulations that allowed blacks to serve only as laborers and required enlisted men to graduate from naval school. However restricted, Smalls' promotion and subsequent service was an unparalleled achievement for an African American.

Commissioned as a second lieutenant in Company B, 33rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, Robert Smalls fought in 17 battles in the Civil War, including the Pocotaligo, Coosawhatchie and Combahee raids and the burning of Bluffton. The Planter would often stay just out of range of Confederate artillery guns to taunt the enemy. In his most celebrated exploit, Smalls brought The Planter into the Stono River near Folly Creek and encountered enemy fire. Captain Nickerson, the white commanding officer on the ship, ordered the ship beached and fled to the coal bunker, but Smalls stood fast, bringing The Planter and crew out of harm's way.

Engraving of a rank of Federal troops firing at Confederate soldiers at Pocotaligo, Northern Beaufort County
"The Federal Troops, Under Generals Brannan and Terry, Driving the Confederates,
Under General Walker, Across the Pocotaligo Bridge, Near the Charleston and
Savannah Railroad, October 22d, 1862 -- From a Sketch by W. T. Crane."

Engraving from "Pocotaligo Depot, South Carolina." Harper's Weekly, February 25, 1865, p. 113.
Beaufort District Collection


This action in northern Beaufort County was one of the engagements supported
by Robert Smalls on The Planter. The Pocotaligo Bridge can be seen in the
upper left of the engraving.


As a result, Robert Smalls was promoted to full captain around the birth date of his second daughter (Sarah Voorhees, on December 1, 1863). He was named commanding officer of The Planter until his discharge from military service on June 11, 1865.

After those 17 engagements with the enemy, however, The Planter docked in Philadelphia for repairs, where its captain and crew remained for seven months. While in that city, Smalls hired two tutors and availed himself of formal education.

From Philadelphia, the ship returned to Charleston (abandoned by the Confederates on February 17, 1865), where it ferried men and supplies across the Harbor for the balance of the war, including units from 3rd Pennsylvania, 55th Pennsylvania, 97th Pennsylvania, 48th New York, 5th New Hampshire, the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery and 102nd U. S. Colored Troops. On April 14, 1865, Robert Smalls took his family and 3,000 freedmen aboard The Planter for a trip to Fort Sumter. On the fourth anniversary of the fort's bombardment by Rebel troops, the passengers joined a flag-raising ceremony to mark the end of the Civil War.

After the war (in 1866), Smalls' received belated prize money for the capture of The Planter (Smalls $1500 and each of the other crew received $500 each -- the current values were around $20,800 and $7,000 respectively). This award undervalued The Planter: The crew was entitled to half of the ship's true value of $75,000 (erroneously appraised at $15,000). Years later, when North Carolina Congressman James E. O'Hara tried to secure fair compensation for the crew and to place Robert Smalls on the retired navy list as a captain, his measures were blocked by a hostile Congress.

Robert Smalls, the Public Servant

In June 1864, Robert Smalls had been part of a delegation of free blacks to attend the National Republican Party Convention. As a civilian, Robert Smalls went to Columbia as a delegate to the state Constitutional Convention of 1866, advocating mandatory public education for children. From 1868 to 1870, he served in the South Carolina House of Representatives as a Republican and was elected to the state Senate for an additional four years. His tenure was not without difficulties as he was tried, convicted and eventually pardoned for accepting a bribe during the tumultuous Reconstruction years.

The first of Smalls' five terms in the United States Congress began in 1875. Although he lost his seat from 1880 to 1881, he regained his seat in 1881, after contesting the results. Robert Smalls served in the House of Representatives until 1887, in the 44th, 45th, 47th, 48th, and 49th Congresses. His most vocal opponent was William Elliott, of a Beaufort planter family. The two men disputed the congressional seat as each took his cause for overturning election irregularities to the 50th U. S. House Committee on Elections. Smalls never returned to a congressional seat.

Modern brick entrance to Robert Smalls Middle School
Robert Smalls Middle School (43 W.K. Alston Road), just off the Robert Smalls Parkway.
(Photograph by Dennis Adams, Jan. 19, 2007)
  Smalls backed progressive causes, like equal travel accommodations for African Americans, redistribution of land confiscated by the Federal government and full legal protection for children of mixed race. He sought money to restore the Beaufort Library, whose collection had been confiscated during the Civil War and later destroyed in a fire. Smalls also foresaw the need to put up telegraph lines in South Carolina. These measures were impossible to pass, however, in a time when African American lawmakers struggled even to obtain basic rights for blacks. Author Jim Bampfield said that Smalls succeeded "in fulfilling his election campaign promise to establish a permanent naval presence at Port Royal. His legislative legacy is the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island."

As delegate to the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1895, Smalls witnessed the enactment of Jim Crow legislation that would greatly reduce the legal rights of black South Carolinians for decades to come. He refused to sign the document.

In his Convention speech, Robert Smalls objected that the issue of the bribery conviction had been revived by his opponents "to inflame the passions of delegates against Republicans against Republicans and force them to vote for this most infamous Suffrage Bill, which seeks to take away the right to vote from two-thirds of the qualified voters of the State." He said, "It was the brawny arm of the Negro which cared for you in your cradle, made your harvest, protected you in your homes, and yet he is the man you propose to rob of his suffrage."

Concluding his now-famous speech, Smalls said that all African Americans needed "is an equal chance in the battle of life. I am proud of them, and by their acts toward me, I know that they are proud of me, for they have at all times honored me with their vote. I stand here the equal of any man. I started out the war with the Confederates; they threatened to punish me and I left them. I went to the Union army. I fought in seventeen battles to make glorious and perpetuate the flag that some of you trampled under your feet."

Robert Smalls Later in Life

In 1883, Smalls lost his first wife, Hannah, from causes not placed on public record. He was remarried in 1890, to a 34 year-old school teacher named Annie Elizabeth Wagging, with whom he had one son, William Robert, two years later. Annie Elizabeth died in 1895.

Public life did not end with the 49th Congress. Robert Smalls returned to Beaufort, where he had been appointed by President William McKinley to the post of customs collector. He served in that post from 1889 to 1913, the year when President Woodwork Wilson came to office and segregated Federal government positions. He continued to work for the South Carolina Republican Party and came forth as a leader following Beaufort's fire of 1907.

Smalls also served in the South Carolina Militia, with the rank of major general (the reason for the sports teams' nickname at Robert Smalls Middle School: "The Generals"). He was
director of the black-owned Enterprise Railroad and publisher of the Beaufort Standard, an African-American newspaper.

 
Wooden desk with shelf range used by Robert Smalls during his tenure as Customs collector in Beaufort
 

Desk, made around 1875 and used by Customs Collector Robert Smalls, is
now in the Beaufort Museum.
From the Collection of
Historic Beaufort Foundation.
Donated by A. Mills Kinghorn
.
(Photographed by Dennis Adams on Jan. 19, 2007.
Use restricted exclusively to this web page.)

In an 1863 tax sale, Robert Smalls had bought the house that had once belonged to his owners. As he continued to buy property, Smalls owned most of the block he lived on. The 1870 Census set the value of his real estate at $6,000 (about $83,000 in current value).

Plagued for the last two years of his life by malaria, rheumatism and diabetes, Smalls died in his sleep at home on February 23, 1915. He was survived by his two daughters and a son.
     
The ground-level granite headstone of Robert Smalls bears his name, dates and the Masonic emblem

Robert Smalls' headstone in Tabernacle Baptist Church cemetery. Smalls' funeral was one of the largest in the history of Beaufort County.
(Photograph by Dennis Adams, Jan. 20, 2007.)

 

A Continuing Legacy

In addition to Beaufort's Robert Smalls Middle School and the Robert Smalls Parkway, other public landmarks have borne the name of the Captain of The Planter.

Camp Robert Smalls was a part of the Naval Training Station at Great Lakes, Illinois. African American recruits began basic training there in 1942.

 

The "African-Americans and the U.S. Navy -- World War II Activities in the United States -- Great Lakes Naval Training Station, General Views" web page (www.history.navy.mil/photos/prs-tpic/af-amer/gt-lakes.htm) offers a number of photographs of daily life in Camp Robert Smalls during World War II.

The United States Army honored Smalls' military contribution by launching a Logistics Support Vessel (LSV-8) named the "Major General Robert Smalls" in Moss Point, MS on April 21, 2004. According to the "Legacy: Robert Smalls -- Slave, Sailor, Statesman" web page (www.artvisionexhibitions.com/RobertSmalls.html), the ship cost $25 million and is the first Army vessel named in honor of an African American, as well as the first to bear the name of a Civil War hero. A new lodging facility at the Army base at Fort Eustis, Virginia was named the General Smalls Inn.

Green highway sign reading "Welcome to Robert Smalls Parkway"
Sign on Robert Smalls Parkway, a section of Highway 170
extending from the intersection of Highway 21 in Beaufort
to the Broad River Bridge.
(Photograph by Dennis Adams, Jan. 19, 2007.)

Sources:

• Adams, Dennis and Hillary Barnwell. "The Gullah Language and Sea Island Culture Part II: Sea Island Culture," Beaufort County Library web page, http://www.bcgov.net/bftlib/gullah2.htm.

Bampfield, Jim. "How to Capture a Rebel Warship." Proceedings, February 2001.

• Barnwell, Hillary. "Robert Smalls." (Research paper, undated).

• Department of the Navy. "Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships" website, "The Planter" web page, http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/p8/planter-i.htm (for description and physical dimensions of the ship).

• Dunkelman, Mark H. "A Bold Break for Freedom." American History Illustrated, December 1999.

• Hewett, Janet B. et al. (Editors). Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Serial 76, pp. 276-277 (For reference to The Planter's sailing out of gun range); Serials 54, p. 464 and Serial 56, p. 7 (Engagements of The Planter); Serials 54, 56, 66, 71, 73, etc. (Troops transported by The Planter). Broadfoot Pub. Co., 1994-1998.

• Historic Beaufort Foundation. Historic Resources of the Lowcountry, 1979.

• Historic Beaufort Foundation. Informational wall plaque for Robert Small's desk, 2007.

• "The Inflation Calculator" website (relative monetary values from 1800-2005), www.westegg.com/inflation/

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, vol. 12, p. 821.

• Powles, James M. "South Carolina Slave Robert Smalls Put His Ship-Piloting Skills to Good Use in an Audacious Break for Freedom." America's Civil War, September 2000.

•"Robert Smalls." American Eras, Volume 7: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877. Gale Research, 1997. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC.

• "Robert Smalls." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC.

•"Robert Smalls." Notable Black American Men. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC.

•"Robert Smalls (1839-1915)," article in the Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography.

•"Robert Smalls (1839-1915)," article in Hutchinson's Biography Database.

• Simkins, Francis Butler. The Tillman Movement in South Carolina. Duke University Press, 1926;
p. 216.

• Tindall, George Brown. South Carolina Negroes: 1877-1900. University of South Carolina Press, 1952; pp. 86-87,

The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Prepared under the direction of the Secretary of War by Robert N. Scott. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1880-1900. Series 1, vol. 14, pp. 14-15 (For names of white crew of The Planter).

 
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