Without any doubt the most famous African-American Charlestonian of the Civil War, Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, in April, 1839. His parents were slaves of the McKees, and Robert ,as a favorite of the family, was given opportunities other slaves were not. When he was 12, he was taken to Charleston, where he could be hired out. He excelled in various jobs, working ultimately as a sailor.
Smalls married Hannah, a slave, in the 1850s and worked to buy her freedom. He was allowed to keep a portion of his wages, with the greater part going to his master. When the war started, Smalls was the pilot of the Planter, a small dispatch and transportation side-wheel steamer which plied the waters of Charleston harbor. It had the capacity to carry 1,400 bales of cotton.
The Confederate army pressed the boat into military service along with its civilian crew, including Smalls. The Planter became the dispatch boat and flagship for General Roswell Ripley, the commanding officer in charge of Charleston’s defenses, who used it inspecting forts, transporting officers and troops, and charting the whereabouts of the enemy.
Smalls led a group of slaves to freedom aboard the Planter when he made his famous escape in the early hours of May 13, 1862. He left the dock on the Cooper River, picked up his and other slave families and made it past the Confederate defenses.
After delivering the Planter to the Union navy, Smalls and his crew were taken to Port Royal and presented to Commodore Dupont, who called Small’s act “one of the coolest and most gallant naval acts of the war.” Smalls and his crew were awarded prize money for having commandeered an enemy vessel.
But Small’s career had only begun. He volunteered to serve the remainder of the war on board the Planter and other vessels, although he never actually joined the army or navy. He was of great value to the Union navy because he knew Charleston harbor well and knew where many of the obstacles, mines and torpedoes were located, as he had helped to place many of them. He aided the Union by providing information about the Stono River area and participated in 17 engagements. In the April 1863 siege of Charleston he piloted the ironclad Keokuk. The Dictionary of American Biography recounts Smalls’ greatest moment under fire: “In 1863, while the Planter was sailing through Folly Island creek, the Confederate batteries at Seccessionville opened such a hot fire on her that the captain deserted his post and took shelter in the coal bunker. Smalls entered the pilot house, took command of the boat, and carried her safely out of reach of the enemy’s guns.” For this act of courage he was made captain of the Planter. Surrender of the vessel would, of course, have meant likely death for Smalls and the other black crew members. (The Confederates said they would execute escaped slaves fighting for the Union.) He therefore defied his superior and saved his ship — and himself.
Smalls became a political symbol early in the war. In August, 1862, he was sent to Washington by Gen. Rufus Saxton to meet with President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton to seek permission to arm African Americans and allow them to join the arms. Smalls traveled to New York to raise funds to aid the freed slaves in the Port Royal area. A New York Times headline called him “The Hero of the Planter.” The African Americans of New York City cheered him and presented him with a medal picturing the Planter sailing out to the blockade past Fort Sumter.
Smalls continued to pilot the Planter until 1866. He assisted in the support of Sherman’s army and transported Saxton to Charleston after the fall of the city in 1865. He took part in the April 14, 1865, ceremony at Fort Sumter when Gen. Anderson raised the old flag over the fort. “Almost central in interest,” one Northerner wrote, “the Planter, crowded almost to suffocation,” with former slaves, was piloted by Smalls, “a prince among them, self-possessed, prompt and proud.”
At the end of the war Smalls returned to Beaufort, where he was active in Republican party politics. His moderate views made him popular with both races. He served in the state House of Representatives from 1868 to 1870 and in the Senate from 1870 to 1874. From 1875 to 1887 (except 1880-1881) he served in Congress. In 1889 he was appointed collector of the Port of Beaufort, in which capacity he served until 1913 (except during Grover Cleveland’s second term).
He purchased his former master’s home in Beaufort in 1865 and lived there the rest of his life. He died in 1915.
There are several monuments to him, but the most eloquent is at Robert Smalls Junior High School in Beaufort. In May 1862, Smalls had been a 23-year-old slave who could not read.
Robert N. Rosen is a lawyer and past president of the Fort Sumter/ Fort Moultrie Historical Trust.