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Robert Smalls’, American Hero

Robert Smalls
Robert Smalls 1862 (Navy Historical Center)

Robert Smalls was born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina on April 5, 1839. His mother, Lydia, worked in the house of their master, John K. McKee, whom some historians suspect was Smalls' father although this is not known for certain. As a child, Robert was known for his kindness and keen intelligence.

By the time he was twelve, Robert was hired out for a series of jobs in Charleston including laborer, steward at Charleston's Planter's Hotel, lamplighter and stevedore at the city docks. He was eventually hired as a shipyard rigger in the winter and a sailor on steamboats during the calm warm weather months. Smalls had a degree of freedom not always available to slaves and his master permitted him to keep a portion of his pay. At the age of 19, he married Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel maid. Robert began to save money with which to purchase freedom for his wife and their newborn .

In July 1861, Robert Smalls took work as a deck hand on the steamer Planter. Planter, owned by John Ferguson, was used in the cotton trade between Charleston and Georgetown. During this period, Robert learned to navigate his way through the shallow creeks and rivers along coastal South Carolina. Soon after the beginning of the Civil War, Planter was chartered by the Confederate government to carry messages and survey the waterways. Smalls had by this time become “wheelman” for the Planter. Essentially second in command on the ship, he was the steersman and the person who transmitted the captain's orders to the crew.

On the evening of May 12, 1862 Planter had returned to Charleston from a mission to take on four cannon and a gun carriage from an outlying island . The white Confederate officers had planned to deliver them to Fort Ripley, at Charleston's Middle Ground, the next morning but they stopped off in Charleston to attend a ball. While they were gone, Smalls and most of the slave crew put into action a plan they had long conceived. At 3 AM on May 13, Smalls directed the crew to steam to the Southern wharf and to take on his wife and children and several other crewmembers’ relatives. With the Confederate flag flying, Planter steamed out into the harbor. His back to the Confederate forts and wearing the captain's straw hat, Smalls blew the steam whistle at the appropriate check points and fooled the sentries into believing that Planter steaming out on business as usual.

Robert Smalls
Robert Smalls 1870 (Library of Congress)
By the time the Confederates realized they had been duped, Planter was out of range. Robert delivered the ship and its cargo to the Union navy. Not only did he provide a valuable cargo of cannons, but he provided detailed knowledge of Confederate military plans, codes and fortifications. Admiral Du Pont of the U.S. Navy was impressed with Robert’s bravery and considered the newly self-liberated slave an American hero. He could easily have been executed had he been captured.

Planter, with Smalls now as its pilot, was initially retained by the U.S. Navy. However, Robert was immediately identified as a potential black leader due to his notoriety across the North. He sent to Washington, D.C. to meet Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and prominent black leaders to encourage the government to permit the enlistment of African-American soldiers in the U.S. Army.

Robert found himself pulled in several directions by political and military leaders. Back in South Carolina, Admiral Du Pont felt the loss of Smalls’ crucial knowledge of the waters as Robert was sent on public speaking engagements in New York and around unionized South Carolina.

By November 1862 Smalls was assigned as a pilot on several navy ships operating around coastal South Carolina. On April 7, 1863 he served as pilot aboard the ironclad USS Keokuk as it accompanied a number of ships in an attempt to enter Charleston harbor. Hit by at least 90 shells, Robert navigated the sinking ship outside of the range of rebel guns. He later claimed that his eyes were wounded from the cannon fire.

Meanwhile, the Navy was not equipped to support wood-burning engines of steamers like Planter, so they transferred it to the U.S. Army Quartermaster. By December 1863 he was back on board as pilot under a Captain Nickerson as they came under enemy fire during a mission to move supplies between Folly and Morris Islands. The Rebel fire was so intense that the captain ordered Smalls to beach Planter and then hid below decks. Refusing the order, Smalls brought Planter safely to Morris Island where the commanding general immediately dismissed the captain for cowardice and appointed Robert Smalls as the ship's captain. Smalls became the first African American to be appointed a ship's master in the U.S. military.

In May 1864, Smalls was ordered to take Planter to the Philadelphia Navy Yard for a complete refit. While there, politics again called and he was sent as a delegate to represent Beaufort at the National Republican Convention at Baltimore. A much reported event occurred in Philadelphia in which he was evicted from a streetcar by the conductor because of his race.

Robert continued to command Planter until the end of the Civil War. His and Planter's presence were much commented upon during the grand ceremony to raise Fort Sumter's flag on April 14. Smalls captained a full ship of black dignitaries to witness the symbolic event. Robert Smalls continued in service as the Planter was ordered to support the Freedman's Bureau transporting ex-slaves to camps at Hilton Head Island. In his final action in command of Planter, Smalls was ordered to transport her to Baltimore for final disposition. Planter was sold on September 18, 1866 and Robert Smalls returned to Beaufort to embark on the next phase of his remarkable career.

More information on Robert Smalls can be found here.

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The Robert Smalls Commemorative Weekend May 12-13, 2012

You are cordially invited to "The Robert Smalls Commemorative Weekend" in Charleston, South Carolina on May 12-13, 2012. Join us for a weekend of historic exhibits, lectures, dedication of historic markers, a panel discussion, a film on the life and times of Robert Smalls, a bus tour and concluding with a boat tour that follows the water route that Robert Smalls used as he gained his freedom.

Click here to view the full schedule and more.


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