Last updated: March 18, 2022
Robert Smalls was born in 1839, enslaved by a local planter in Beaufort, South Carolina. By the time he was 23 years old, Smalls had won freedom for himself and his family, and was a famous war hero. He became a prominent leader in the community during the Reconstruction era, including service in both the state and national legislature. His story illustrates the transformative potential of Reconstruction throughout the southern United States.
Growing Up In the Lowcountry
Smalls was the son of Lydia Polite, and lived in a small slave cabin behind the home of Henry McKee at 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, South Carolina. McKee enslaved both Smalls and his mother, who served in the house in Beaufort. When Smalls was 12 years old, McKee sent him to Charleston to be hired out. He worked as a waiter in a hotel before eventually hiring out in the city’s docks. There, he met an enslaved woman, Hannah Jones, and they were married around 1856. As enslaved people, their marriage was not legally recognized by the state of South Carolina.
The Civil War and Freedom
By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Robert Smalls was an enslaved crewmember on a ship called the Planter, operating in the Charleston Harbor. The owners of the ship contracted the vessel out to the Confederate army as a transport ship, and Smalls found himself as a pilot on board the ship. In early 1862, the Confederacy had achieved numerous battlefield victories, and it seemed as if the quest to create an independent slaveholders’ republic might succeed. Robert Smalls decided not to wait and find out. He devised a plan to free not only himself, but his family as well.
On the night of May 12, 1862, the white crewmembers of the Planter went ashore in Charleston, leaving Smalls and the enslaved crewmembers unattended. Around 3 am, Smalls and his fellow freedom seekers fired up the ship’s boilers and sailed to a wharf to pick up their waiting family members. From there, the sixteen enslaved people passed the Confederate forces at Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie. Being a pilot, Smalls knew the proper signals to give, and even donned a captain’s hat to help disguise his identity as they steamed past the unsuspecting rebels. Smalls sailed the group out to the naval blockade squadron and turned the Planter over to the United States Navy. Robert Smalls and his family were free.
An Emerging Leader
In addition to turning the Planter over to the United States Navy, Robert Smalls provided valuable intelligence on Confederate operations around Charleston Harbor. Using his vast knowledge of the waters there, Smalls served as a pilot on a number of naval vessels operating in action against Confederate forces there, including the Keokuk, an ironclad which was sunk by enemy fire in April 1863, injuring Smalls in the process.
He was eventually promoted to captain and given command of the Planter. In 1864, Smalls took the Planter to Philadelphia to be overhauled and re-outfitted, and it saw service throughout the Civil War.
Throughout his military career, Smalls made an effort to return to Beaufort when he could. By January of 1864, using prize money from the capture of the Planter, he had purchased the mansion of Henry McKee - the man who had once enslaved him. He did this during a tax auction of properties belonging to white residents who had fled when the city fell into US hands in 1861. Suddenly this formerly enslaved man found himself not only a war hero and national celebrity, but the property owner of a planter’s mansion.
The military and civilian populations of Beaufort turned to Smalls as a natural leader. His status as a war hero partially endeared him to the military authorities in the Lowcountry, and his connections to the thousands of enslaved people, including those of Gullah heritage, made him a natural leader in the emerging Reconstruction era. In April of 1864, Smalls and his wife Hannah hosted, in their new mansion, the wedding of Lavinia Wilson, a formerly enslaved woman who had escaped on the Planter, to a soldier in the 33rd United States Colored Troops. In attendance was the military governor, General Rufus Saxton, and his staff - indicative of the high stature that Smalls held within the region.
It was later in 1864 that Smalls began his career in politics. While in Philadelphia he was arrested for riding in a segregated streetcar. In response, he organized a boycott that ultimately led to the desegregation of Philadelphia’s transit system in 1867. Also in 1864, Robert Smalls served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention - the start of his decades long political career through the Reconstruction.
In Beaufort During Reconstruction
Shortly after the Civil War ended, Smalls went into business with Richard Gleaves, and they opened a store for Freedmen. Smalls became an advocate for public education, including for himself. In 1868, he served as a delegate to the South Carolina state convention that wrote a new state constitution. Smalls lobbied for public education to be a key component of the new document. That same year he was elected to the state House of Representatives, and was elected to the state Senate in 1872. In 1874, as most areas of the South were falling back under white Democratic control, the citizens of Beaufort elected Robert Smalls to serve in the United States Congress. He eventually served five terms in the House of Representatives between 1875 - 1887.
Back in Beaufort, Smalls had amassed a good deal of wealth. According to the 1870 Census, when he was just 31 years old - the Smalls family had $6,000 worth of personal property and $1,000 worth of real estate - the value of his former enslaver’s mansion that he now owned. He was also a member of First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, one of the city's several historically Black churches that served as the center of political and social life during Reconstruction. Throughout downtown Beaufort, formerly enslaved people purchased and built homes, and the city became a symbol of the success of Reconstruction policies regarding education, political participation, and land ownership.
Robert Smalls and the Legacy of Reconstruction
By the time Robert Smalls died in February 1915, southern Democrats had completely retaken the political landscape of the south and instituted harsh segregation policies. The rise of the Lost Cause rewrote the history of Reconstruction, and the successes of men and women like Robert Smalls disappeared from the mainstream narrative. In the 2000s, community members in Beaufort began to lobby for the creation of a national park site to tell the story of Smalls and the importance of Reconstruction. In January 2017, President Barack Obama issued an executive order establishing Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County, noting the significance of Robert Smalls to our national story. In 2019, the park was renamed Reconstruction Era National Historical Park with a visitor center located just a few blocks away from both Robert Smalls’s home and his final resting place at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort.
- 26 minutes, 33 seconds
For this special episode of "Ranger Chats on Reconstruction," Park Rangers Victoria Smalls and Rich Condon meet with Michael Moore, the great great grandson of Robert Smalls, one of the region's most significant figures of Reconstruction. Mr. Moore shares his ancestors story and legacy as they visit sites throughout Beaufort County, South Carolina.