Sunday, April 7, 2013

Robert Smalls, born April 5, 1839

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
Lydia had been taken from her family on the island plantation at age 9 to work as a companion to the five children of John McKee in Beaufort.

The town of Beaufort maintained a 7 p.m. daily curfew for blacks, but on many occasions young Robert ignored the bell and continued to play. Several times, he was taken into custody. McKee paid fines to retrieve him. 

Henry McKee inherited Lydia and young Robert upon his father's death in 1848.

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.

Henry McKee sent Robert to Charleston at the age of 12 to be hired out, with the money earned to be returned to his master.  Each week, he was given $1 of his wages; the rest went to McKee.  He supplemented his income by purchasing cheap candy and tobacco and reselling them.
1850 "Hire Tag" for Slave Worker
He held several jobs: he started out in a hotel, then became a lamplighter on the streets of Charleston. He worked on the wharves of Charleston in his teen years.  He became a stevedore, a rigger, a sail maker, and eventually worked his way up to being a wheelman (essentially a pilot, though blacks were not called pilots). He became very knowledgeable of the Charleston harbor.
Selling Sweet Potatoes in Charleston
Robert met an enslaved hotel maid, Hannah Jones; he sought permission to marry and live with her in an apartment in Charleston.  They married on December 24, 1856, when he was just under 18 years old. Hannah , at 32, was 13 years older and already had a daughter at the time. Hannah and Robert had their first child, Elizabeth Lydia, in February 1858. In 1861 they had another child, Robert Jr., who died in 1863.

He sought to purchase his wife and their children from Samuel Kingman, a planter who owned them; with the price set at $800, he began making payments of $7 a month.

He was 22 years old when the Civil War began.

Beaufort, South Carolina, during the Civil War
In the fall of 1861, Smalls was assigned to steer the CSS Planter, an armed Confederate military transport. On May 12, 1862, the Planter's three white officers decided to spend the night ashore. 
The Planter
About 3:00 am on the 13th, Smalls and seven of the eight enslaved crewmen made a run for the Union vessels that formed the blockade, as they had earlier planned. Smalls dressed in the captain's uniform and had a straw hat similar to that of the white captain. The Planter stopped at a nearby wharf to pick up Smalls' wife and two children, and the relatives of other crewmen, who had been concealed there for some time. 

They made a decision that they would not be taken alive.  If they were caught, they were would ignite the explosives and die on the ship.”

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 piloted the ship past the five Confederate forts that guarded the harbor, including Fort Sumter. The renegade ship passed by Fort Sumter approximately 4:30 a.m. The sentinel at Fort Sumter answered the ship’s signal with the cry, “Pass the Planter,” and Smalls and his crew barreled ahead toward the Union blockade.

He headed straight for the Federal fleet, which was part of the Union blockade of Confederate ports, making sure to hoist a white sheet as a flag. The first ship he encountered was  the USS Onward, which was preparing to fire until a sailor noticed the white flag. When the Onward's captain boarded the Planter, Smalls requested to raise the United States flag immediately. Smalls turned the Planter over to the United States Navy, along with its cargo of artillery and explosives intended for a Confederate fort.

Because of his extensive knowledge of the shipyards and Confederate defenses, Smalls provided valuable assistance to the Union Navy. He gave detailed information about the harbor's defenses to Admiral Samuel Dupont, commander of the blockading fleet.

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).

Harper's Weekly, June 14, 1862

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.)

Smalls met Abraham Lincoln in late May 1862 and gave the President his personal account of their exploits.
Abraham Lincoln

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?

Samuel Kingman, the planter in South Carolina, who owned Smalls wife and children, filed a claim with the Planters & Merchants Bank of South Carolina regarding the loss of his property. Kingman listed his lost property as “one woman (the wife of the Ringleader Robert) a grown Girl and two Children.”  Identified in order as Hannah, Clara, Lizzie, and Beauregard Smalls were the wife and children of Robert Smalls. Kingman wrote that the property was lost when the slaves “went off in the Steamer Planter from the harbor of Charleston.” He further adds an accounting of the value of each slave. Edward T. Hughes, a notary public, and Mrs. Hester Kingman provided their testimony to the truth of Kingman’s claim as well as indicate in further detail how the slaves “absconded, with all their clothing.”

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.

Daniel Hunter
Smalls served as a pilot for the Union Navy. In the fall of 1862, Planter had been transferred to the Union Army for service near Fort Pulaski. 
Bunks at Fort Pulaski
Smalls was later reassigned to the USS Planter, now a Union transport. On April 7, 1863, he piloted the ironclad USS Keokuk in a major Union attack on Fort Sumter. The attack failed, and Keokuk was badly damaged. Her crew was rescued shortly before the ship sank.

USS Keokuk
Robert Smalls was promoted to full captain around the birth date of his second daughter (Sarah Voorhees, on December 1, 1863)

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.

That same month, Smalls returned to Beaufort and the McKee house on Prince Street, which he had purchased in a tax sale, using part of a $1,500 appropriation he received for taking the PlanterHis mother Lydia lived with him for the remainder of her life. He allowed his former master's wife, Jane Bond McKee, who was elderly and apparently suffering from senility to move back in the home prior to her death.  The Smalls family put her up in the bedroom that had been her bedroom before the Civil War.

In 1866,Smalls went into business in Beaufort with Richard Howell Gleaves, opening a store for freedmen. 

Richard Howell Gleaves
That same year in April, the "radical" Republicans who controlled Congress overrode President Andrew Johnson's vetoes and passed a Civil Rights Act, along with ratifying the 14th Amendment, extending citizenship to all Americans regardless of their race.

He was a delegate at several Republican National Conventions and participated in the South Carolina Republican State conventions.

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.
Robert Smalls
Smalls backed progressive causes, like equal travel accommodations for African Americans, redistribution of land confiscated by the Federal government and full legal protection for children of mixed race. He sought money to restore the Beaufort Library, whose collection had been confiscated during the Civil War and later destroyed in a fire.

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
In a letter written by Robert Smalls on August 24, 1876, to South Carolina Governor Daniel Chamberlain reporting on a strike in the Rice Districts of the state, Smalls noted that the strikers were not receiving money for their services, and were being overcharged for the goods and services needed to live. A resolution to the conflict came when the planters agreed to pay cash to their employees. Smalls ends his letter by asking Governor Chamberlain to end the system of checks, and assures him that by doing this, he will help restore peace to the Rice Districts of his state.
Letter from Robert Smalls to Daniel Chamberlain, 1876
From 1882 to 1883 he represented South Carolina's 5th congressional district in the House. The state legislature gerrymandered to change the boundaries, including Beaufort and other heavily black, coastal areas in South Carolina's 7th congressional district, making the others with high white majorities.  Small was elected from the 7th district and served from 1884 to 1887. He was a member of the 44th, 45th, and 47th through 49th U.S. Congresses. 

During consideration of a bill to reduce and restructure the United States Army,  Smalls introduced an amendment that “Hereafter in the enlistment of men in the Army . . . no distinction whatsoever shall be made on account of race or color.” The amendment was not considered by Congress. 

He is the last Republican to have been elected from the 5th district until 2010.

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. 

His wife, Hannah, died in 1883.  At the age of 51, Smalls married his second wife, 32-yeard old Annie Elizabeth Wigg, a school teacher, in 1890. They had one son, William Robert Smalls.  Annie died in 1895.

Benjamin Tillman
By 1895, Benjamin Tillman and the “Redeeming” Democrats in South Carolina had succeeded through violence, terror, and election fraud to reduce the number of African American registered to vote in the state from 81,000 in 1868 to less than 10,000 in 1894.

Tillman called for a constitutional convention in 1895 to rewrite the state constitution of 1868 and to take away the right to vote of African Americans in South Carolina. In 1868, seventy-six of the 124 delegates elected to the constitutional convention were African Americans; in 1895 only six African Americans were elected to serve. 

Five of the delegates were from Robert Smalls’ power base, Beaufort County, South Carolina. Robert Smalls was one of these five delegates, and he was the only African-American delegate who had also attended the 1868 convention. He did his best to represent his constituency and to fight against their disfranchisement. After giving one of the most important speeches of the convention on November 2, he was forced to leave the convention and return to Beaufort for several days because of the illness, and eventual death, of his second wife, Annie Wigg Smalls. 

On November 14, he returned to the convention and refused to sign the new constitution that changed South Carolina’s suffrage requirements and essentially disfranchised African Americans.

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.

He was director of the black-owned Enterprise Railroad and publisher of the Beaufort Standard, an African-American newspaper.
Robert Smalls Home
Smalls continued to live as owner of the house in which he had been a slave.He and his descendants occupied the property for approximately ninety years. As he continued to buy property, Smalls owned most of the block he lived on. The 1870 Census set the value of his real estate at $6,000 (about $83,000 in current value).
Robert Smalls

Plagued for the last two years of his life by malaria, rheumatism and diabetes, Smalls died in his sleep at home on February 23, 1915, at the age of 75. 
Robert Smalls, late in his life
He was survived by his two daughters and a son.
Elizabeth Smalls
He was buried in his family's plot out Tabernacle Baptist Church in downtown Beaufort.

Tabernacle Baptist Church
The Robert Smalls House Beaufort has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Elizabeth Lydia Smalls Bampfield celebrated her 100th birthday in 1858

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