Robert Smalls: From slave To U.S. Congressman

Published: Feb. 13, 2019 at 6:23 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - From slave to four term U.S. congressman; that’s just a small part of the remarkable life Robert Smalls. The Beaufort native’s courage is still being celebrated more than century after his death. He overcame what many would consider insurmountable odds to make a lasting impression on American history.

The courageous adventure of Robert Smalls during the Civil War reads like a Hollywood movie. In 1862, Smalls developed a plan to capture a Civil War Ship, ‘The Planter’, and turn it over to union forces.

“What Robert Smalls observed was many of the white officers who were over ‘The Planter’ would go inland and spend the night with their families or in comfort and leave the crew on the vessel. So he plotted and when the time is right, he just took advantage of it,” said Rev. Kenneth Hodges, historian and owner of the LyBensons Gallery in Beaufort, SC.

It’s an amazing story because Smalls not only had to get the ship, but he also had to make sure that he outsmarted a lot of people. A black man during those days commandeering a ship was very unusual sight to see.

“The Confederate soldiers had occupied Fort Sumter. ‘The Planter’ was in the harbor of Charleston. In order for Smalls to reach the Union forces, he had to pass the Confederate fort. He had to disguise himself as the captain of the vessel and once he got passed Sumter that the Confederates occupied. Once he passed the fort, he was still in danger of coming in contact with the union forces. He had a vessel, but they didn’t know he was coming. It could have been a military vessel coming to bomb them. As they were going, he remembered that his wife had a white sheet or blanket on board and they hoisted that. When they got to the union forces, he said to them ‘I have a present for uncle Abe’. This can be of help to him. That was the ship. All of a sudden, they discovered how much information he had. He was very knowledgeable about the fortifications and weapons. Even though the ship itself was valuable, the information that he brought Robert Smalls and the crew had was almost invaluable,” added Hodges.

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 U.S. For his heroic acts, Smalls became a national hero and is often called the first hero of the Civil War.

Months later, Smalls was invited to meet President Abraham Lincoln. The president awarded him a cash prize for capturing ‘The Planter’. He used that money to buy his former slave owner’s home while his mother was still a servant there. The slave owner had passed away, but his wife was still living there. Smalls never let on that she didn’t own the property and allowed the woman know to live in the home until she passed away.

“That says a lot about Robert Smalls. He was a servant. He served people and it didn’t matter what race. That’s Robert Smalls – character, drive and commitment.”

Smalls went on to serve the Lowcountry people as member of the SC House of Representatives, the SC senator and then served 4 terms as a US Congressman in the late 1800’s. “Robert Smalls was all about building his community and the country as a whole. He did a lot even to help the Confederates who lost their property regain some of the property after the war,” explained Hodges.

Robert Smalls believed in and fought for equality for all. On November 1, 1895, he said, “My people need no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal to people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.

If you’d like to learn more about Robert Smalls, click here.

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