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 on Robert Smalls

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 Biography Sources

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