Robert Smalls was born in 1839 into slavery, in a cabin behind the house of his master John McKee in Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother, Lydia Polite, was a housekeeper in the city home of John K. McKee, owner of the Ashdale Plantation on Lady’s Island, one of the Sea Islands. Though he never knew the identity of his father, it was widely believed that Robert was the child of John McKee’s son, Henry.
|Birthplace of Robert Smalls|
in Beaufort, South Carolina
When he was 10, his mother sent him to the plantation to learn the reality of slave life. He worked on the plantation picking cotton, rice, and tobacco in the fields from sun up to sun down. He came back defiant, not willing to comply, as she had hoped.
|1850 "Hire Tag" for Slave Worker|
|Selling Sweet Potatoes in Charleston|
|Beaufort, South Carolina, during the Civil War|
The Planter had as cargo four valuable artillery pieces, besides its own two guns. Perhaps most valuable was the code book that would reveal the Confederate's secret signals, and the placement of mines and torpedoes in and around Charleston harbor. Smalls used proper signals so the Confederate soldiers would not know he was escaping in the ship.
|Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor|
Smalls quickly became famous in the North. Numerous newspapers ran articles describing his daring actions. Harper's Weekly devoted an illustrated feature article to Robert Smalls and the capture of The Planter on June 14 (just one month after the incident).
Congress passed a bill, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, that rewarded Smalls and his crewmen with the prize money for the captured Planter. Smalls' own share was $1,500 ($34,000 adjusted for inflation in 2007 dollars), a huge sum for the time. (This award undervalued the Planter: The crew was entitled to half of the ship's true value of $75,000, erroneously appraised at $15,000. Years later, when North Carolina Congressman James E. O'Hara tried to secure fair compensation for the crew and to place Robert Smalls on the retired navy list as a captain, his measures were blocked by a hostile Congress.)
In the Confederacy, the story was a bitter pill to swallow. “Our community was intensely agitated Tuesday morning,” reported the Charleston Daily Courier on May 14. Smalls had deprived the upstart nation of precious commodities — 17 former bondspeople and a gunboat — while providing the Union Navy with essential intelligence about the waterways surrounding Charleston. More generally, the Planter incident offered an unsettling answer to a question that Southern slaveholders had been wrestling with for much of the 19th century: Were slaves faithful servants or enemies in their midst?
Smalls' actions became a major argument for allowing African Americans to serve in the Union Army. Smalls served under the Navy until March 1863, when he was transferred to the Army. He was never enrolled in either branch of service but served as a civilian. By his personal account, Smalls served in 17 different engagements during the Civil War.
With the encouragement of General David Hunter, the Union commander at Port Royal, Smalls went to Washington, D.C., with Mansfield French in August 1862, to try to persuade President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to permit black men to fight for the Union. He was successful and received an order signed by Stanton permitting up to 5,000 African Americans to enlist in the Union forces at Port Royal. These men were organized as the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.
|Bunks at Fort Pulaski|
On December 1, 1863, the Planter was caught in a crossfire between Union and Confederate forces. The ship's commander, Captain Nickerson, decided to surrender. Smalls refused, fearing that the black crewmen would not be treated as prisoners of war and might be summarily killed. Taking command, Smalls piloted the ship out of range of the Confederate guns. For his bravery, Smalls was named to replace Nickerson as the Planter's captain.
Smalls returned with the Planter to Charleston harbor in April 1865 for the ceremonial raising of the American flag upon Fort Sumter.
In 1866,Smalls went into business in Beaufort with Richard Howell Gleaves, opening a store for freedmen.
|Richard Howell Gleaves|
During the Reconstruction era, Smalls was elected a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1865 and 1870, and the South Carolina Senate between 1871 and 1874.
In 1874, Smalls was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served from 1875 to 1879.
|Letter from Robert Smalls to Daniel Chamberlain, 1876|
|Letter from Robert Smalls to Daniel Chamberlain, 1876|
After the Compromise of 1877, the federal government withdrew its forces from South Carolina and other southern states. White Democrats used violence and election fraud to regain control in the state legislature. As part of wide-ranging Southern white efforts to reduce African-American political power, Smalls was charged and convicted of taking a bribe five years earlier in connection with the awarding of a printing contract. He was pardoned as part of an agreement in which charges were also dropped against Democrats who had been accused of election fraud.
Smalls was appointed U.S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort, serving from 1889–1911 with only a short break in service. He secured this political appointment from President Benjamin Harrison and held the position for nearly twenty years. He lost the appointment during the presidency of Grover Cleveland (1893 - 1897), but President William McKinley reappointed him to the post in 1898, and he served until 1912. In that year, the state’s two Democratic Senators, Benjamin Tillman and Ellison D. Smith, blocked Smalls’ reappointment. President Woodwork Wilson, a Southerner, was elected in 192 and segregated Federal government positions.
|Robert Smalls Home|