Robert Smalls is one man everyone should know. In fact, his story of bravery, brilliance, and perseverance is one that would make for a great film adaptation. Smalls did not only use his smarts to free himself but his killer intelligence took him to the government where he was one of the first Black Americans to serve in the United States Congress. This is his story:
Smalls was born as a slave on April 5th, 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother was a slave and his father is believed to have been the plantation owner. Smalls received some favor growing up in his owner’s house. Still, he was known for staying out past the night curfew for blacks. This fearless spirit would rear its head over and over again in Smalls’ life.
Most impressively, at just 23 years old, Smalls captured a ship in the Charleston Harbor and sailed himself and a small group to freedom. According to historians, Smalls’ owners moved the family to Charleston when he was 12. There, he was hired as a rigger and eventually a sailor which led to a job as a deckhand on the Confederate supply ship the Planter, carrying supplies between forts in Charleston Harbor.
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Smalls learned how to navigate the Planter and in the predawn hours of May 13, 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, he and a crew of eight men, along with five women, and three children (including Smalls’s wife and two children), “quietly slipped the Planter out of Charleston Harbor” as white officers and crew slept in the town.
The Planter was especially important because it held guns, ammunition, and important documents including the Confederates’ shipping routes, mine locations and the times that Confederate ships docked and departed that would be invaluable to Union Commanders.
Smalls expertly navigated the ship through five Confederate checkpoints, offering the correct signal to pass each as he went towards the Union blockade. As PBS says of his expedition, “It was daring and dangerous, and if caught, the crew was prepared to blow up the vessel”.
But Smalls was strategic. The crew of the USS Onward, the first ship in the blockade to spot the Planter, were startled to see the ship and almost fired on the Planter. But when Smalls reached the Union Blockade, he quickly changed the Confederate flag and raised a white bed sheet, signaling surrender.
Smalls powerfully recounted the ordeal to Washington, D.C., writing,
“After waiting apparently in vain, for many years for our deliverance, a party consisting of nine (9) men, myself included, of the City of Charleston, conferred freedom on ourselves, five (5) women and three (3) children; and to the Government of the United States we gave the Planter, a gunboat which cost nearly thirty thousand dollars ($30,000), together with six (6) large guns, from a twenty-four (24) pounder howitzer to a hundred (100) pound Parrott rifle. We are all now in the service of the navy, under the command of our true friend, Rear Admiral Dupont, where we wish to serve till the Rebellion and Slavery are alike crushed out forever.” — Robert Smalls, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, August 27th, 1862.
Congress quickly awarded Smalls with a $1,500 cash prize after his escape, and he went on a speaking tour, recounting his story, and recruiting African Americans to serve in the Union Army. He quickly became a national phenomenon and alongside Frederick Douglas, successfully convinced President Abraham Lincoln to accept free African Americans to serve in the Union military. During the rest of the war, Smalls worked as spokesperson and Union Navy captain on the Planter and the ironclad USS Keokuk where he successfully conducted 17 missions in and around Charleston.
After the war, Smalls became a brigadier general in the South Carolina military. In a sweet twist of faith, he purchased his former owner’s house in Beaufort, South Carolina and even took in some of his owners’ family who were destitute.
He also started a general store, a school for African American children and a newspaper. His success soon catapulted him into politics, where he served as a delegate to the state’s constitutional convention. He was elected to both the South Carolina House of Representatives and the State Senate and served in the United States House of Representatives in 1874 and 1879.
Sadly, Smalls was accused of taking a $5,000 bribe while in the state Senate and was convicted of the offence in 1877 with a three prison sentence. He was however pardoned by the governor in 1879 but by then, his name had already been erased from the history books.
The U.S. government is now trying to make amends about Smalls’ contribution, recently honoring him with a two-day event in Charleston, South Carolina in 2012. In the local newspaper, they wrote,
This weekend we begin to make amends for a century of lost history. A two-day observance of Robert Smalls’ life and work will be held in Charleston, marking the 150th anniversary of his heroic feat aboard the Planter. A historic marker will be placed on the Battery near the spot where Smalls seized the boat. It will be one of the few historical markers in the Holy City dedicated to an African American.
May Smalls’ story and contributions never be forgotten.