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Robert Smalls

Kerry Egan Kerry Egan
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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Robert Smalls from Beaufort, South Carolina
Robert Smalls from Beaufort, South Carolina

Name: Robert Smalls

Born: April 5, 1839

Died: Feb. 23, 1915

Background/significance: Robert Smalls was a hero and statesman. If you didn't know that Smalls was a real man, you'd be forgiven for thinking his story had to be made up by a novelist or screenwriter. His life story is the stuff of great drama - hardship, loss, astounding bravery, thrilling action, triumph and touching forgiveness.

Smalls was born a slave in 1839 in Beaufort. At the age of 12, he was sent away to work in Charleston. There, he started working on the wharves and docks. Eventually, he moved all the way up to piloting ships through Charleston Harbor and the Sea Islands.

In 1862, Smalls, then 22, was working as the wheelman (in essence, the pilot) of the CSS Planter, a Confederate military transport ship.

On May 12, the ship's three Confederate officers decided to risk court martial and spend the night ashore in Charleston. Smalls and the other enslaved crewmen saw their chance. He had been planning for weeks, just waiting for the right opportunity. All but two of the crew - also slaves - agreed to join him. They were going to commandeer the ship and make a run for it. They were going to escape.

At 3 a.m., they hoisted the Confederate and South Carolina flags. Smalls dressed in the captain's uniform and pulled a wide straw hat down low on his face. He and the crew sailed the ship to another wharf where his wife, Hannah Jones, their children and the families of the other crew members were hiding. Then they took off across Charleston Harbor.

Smalls piloted the ship past five Confederate forts, confidently giving the secret signals to each in his guise as captain. An hour and a half later, as they left the harbor and approached the Union ships' blockade, they pulled down the flags and hoisted a white sheet that Smalls' wife had brought aboard.

At first, the Union ships did not see the white flag in the murky dawn light, and prepared to fire on the small ship. But as the sun rose, the white sheet could be seen, and the crew came up on deck to sing and dance. The Union blockade took them in. Smalls' daring escape, on a commandeered Confederate ship in the middle of Charleston Harbor and under the noses of the Confederate Navy at the height of the Civil War, had earned the freedom of 18 people. He delivered not only the ship to the Union, but also ammunition and, most valuable of all, the Confederate code book.

But his escape did so much more than that. The sheer bravery of the act became famous and was pivotal in changing public understanding of the courage and strength of former slaves. When Smalls met with President Lincoln, he lobbied for the Union to enlist black men as soldiers in the US Army. The right was granted shortly thereafter.

This might be the most exciting episode of Smalls' life, but certainly not the only important one.

After the war, Smalls served in the South Carolina state assembly and senate. There, he wrote legislation to make South Carolina the first state to offer free and compulsory education to all citizens. He also founded the Republican Party in South Carolina. He went on to represent South Carolina as a Congressman in the US House of Representatives.

After the war, he bought his former owner's house in Beaufort, where he'd been born in a cabin in the back as a slave. He lived there with his wife, children and mother. He took in the elderly and frail widow of his former owner, as well.

South Carolina connection: Smalls was born, died and buried in Beaufort. He served South Carolina in the state assembly and senate, and represented the state in the US House of Representatives.

Discover more: The Robert Smalls House, now a National Historic Landmark, still stands in Beaufort. A monument and small bust of him sits in the churchyard of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort, where he's buried.

Kerry Egan
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.