Black History: Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls
Robert Smalls
The Planter
The Planter

By Dawn Baker email | bio

BEAUFORT, SC (WTOC) - Robert Smalls was a Beaufort native who was born a slave, but became a leader of free men. Robert Smalls is a very familiar name around these parts. In Beaufort County, there's a memorial, a parkway and a school named after him.

The story of the life of this courageous man's adventures read like a Hollywood movie.

In 1839, Robert Smalls was born a slave, but always knew he wouldn't die one. As an adult, he eventually worked out a deal with his master and bought his wife and daughter's freedom.

When the Civil War began, Smalls became a pilot on a Confederate steamer called the Planter in Charleston. On May 13, 1862, he seized the opportunity when the white captain and crew broke the rules and went ashore. He commandeered the vessel and picked up his family and about a dozen other slaves and they headed out to sea.

As they made a dash to the Union blockading squadron, Smalls posed as the captain. As he passed each rebel fort, he gave the correct whistle signal and they allowed him to pass.

"While he was in the ship, he kept the southern flag up until he got into the waters near the Union navy. He he was eventually able to turn that ship over to the Union navy," explains Kitty Green, owner of Gullah-n-Geechie Mahn Tours.

In December 1863, the Planter came under fire. The captain hid below the deck and Smalls took command and brought the vessel to safety. After the battle, the navy dismissed the captain and appointed Smalls in his place making him the first black captain of a vessel in service of the US.

The Union press called him a national hero and President Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional bill that awarded Smalls and his associates prize money.

In 1866, Smalls returned to Beaufort and set his sights on the home that his slave master once owned.

"He ends up owning this house and also taking care of his former slave master's wife. We hear that she never knew that she no longer owned this house. He was very kind to her the rest of her life she was able to remain in this house," adds Green.

His actions are a real testament to the kind of man he was. As a free man, he could have made sure she knew she no longer owned the house and had her removed, but he proved in spite of what happened on this property as a slave, he was the bigger, better man.

Smalls went on to become a Major General in the South Carolina militia and served several terms in the South Carolina State Senate and as a US Congressman.

In 2004, the US Army inducted and launched a ship named for Robert Smalls. It is the first Army ship named after an African-American.

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