Robert Smalls

South Carolina SC History SC African-American History Notable SC African-Americans Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls

On May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls – an enslaved deckhand – commandeered the Confederate transport ship,The Planter, and sailed it out of the Charleston harbor, carrying his family and crew to safety.

Smalls, who had experience piloting, disguised himself as the boat's captain and sailed past five Confederate forts towards a Union blockade, where he surrendered the ship to United States Navy and secured freedom for himself and his fellow slaves.

Captain Robert Smalls
Portrait of Captain Smalls, Age 31 • Library of Congress, 1870

Smalls then joined the Navy and was made captain of The Planter until the close of the Civil War. Following the war, Smalls returned to his home town of Beaufort, where he represented his district for five terms in the United States Congress.

Smalls was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1868 and then to the South Carolina Senate in 1870. He served in the United States Congress from 1875 through 1879 (two consecutive terms), from 1882 through 1883, and again from 1884 until 1887.

As a freedman in Beaufort, he was a member of Tabernacle Baptist Church, where he is buried. A bronze bust has been erected in his honor near his grave. He was also a member of the Grand Hall of the Republic, fraternal organization founded in 1866 for African-American veterans of the Civil War.

Grand Army Hall
Grand Hall of the Republic • Vanessa Kauffmann, 2015 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent

Smalls founded the Republican Party of South Carolina, which at that time mirrored the values of President Abraham Lincoln.

Robert Smalls Biography

Robert Smalls Aboard the Planter

  • Chronicles of Black Courage - African American Confederate Sailor Robert Smalls - how the Beaufort slave hijacked a Confederate steamship, disguised himself as a white captain, and sailed to Union safety - as appeared in Ebony

  • Don't give up! - November 1863 - how Smalls, now a pilot for the US Navy, urged his shipmates to continue fighting even as their captain prepared to surrender ... they won the battle, the old captain was dismissed, and Smalls took over as leader - scroll down to "Promotion"

  • The adventures continue - read about the rest of Smalls' life, including how he became a celebrity and a politician, was sentenced to jail for accepting a bribe, received a pardon, and went back to Beaufort to retire in his old master's house

  • UPDATE: Confederate Ship Hijacked by a Slave Found Off SC Coast - read The Washington Post 2014 article about the discovery off the coast of Cape Romain of the ship that sunk in 1876

More about Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls Statue, Tabernacle Baptist Church, Robert Smalls Grave
© Ester Fogle

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