Robert Smalls was a true American hero.
April 5, 1839 – February 23, 1915
Most Significant Black Participant in the Civil War
First Black Captain of a U.S. Vessel
S.C. State Legislator
Major General in the S.C. Militia
Five-term U.S. Congressman
U.S. Collector of Customs
Robert Smalls mother, Lydia, descended of slaves from Guinea, was born on Ashdale Plantation on Ladies’ (now Lady’s) Island, S.C. and worked there as a field hand. While still a child she was brought to Beaufort to work as a house slave by her owner, John K. McKee. Smalls was sired by a white man – perhaps their owner, or Moses Goldsmith, a wealthy Jewish merchant from Charleston. At 49 Lydia bore Robert, her only child, in a slave cabin in the back yard of the McKee house. In Smalls’ interview with the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission he stated that he was, relatively speaking, well treated during his time as a house slave.
At 12 Smalls was sent to Charleston to hire himself out for pay. Until he was 18 his owner received all but $1 of Smalls’ pay. He worked in the city as a waiter, lamplighter, stevedore, ship rigger and sailor. At 18, he negotiated his situation with his owner and thereafter retained all but $15 per month of his pay.
On December 24, 1856, Smalls, 17, married Hannah Jones, 32, a slave hotel maid. After their daughter, Elizabeth Lydia, was born Smalls entered a contract with their owner, Samuel Kingman, to buy his wife and child for $800. A son, Robert, Jr., was born in 1861.
Smalls was hired in 1861 as a deckhand on Planter, the transport steamer serving Brigadier General Roswell Ripley, commander of the Second Military District of South Carolina. Smalls later became its pilot. In the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, while the white crew was ashore, Smalls, then 23, commandeered Planter, loaded with armaments for the rebel forts. With his wife, children and 12 other slaves aboard he gave the correct whistle signal as he passed each rebel fort. He then sailed toward Onward, the nearest Union blockading ship. As Onward prepared to fire on the approaching rebel ship, it raised the white flag of surrender. As Planter came alongside the Union ship, Smalls, elegantly dressed in a white shirt and dress jacket, raised his hat high in the air and shouted, “Good morning, sir! I have brought you some of the old United States’ guns, sir!”
Smalls was escorted to Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, commander of the blockading squadron, and gave him Charleston newspapers, a rebel naval code book and information on the location of rebel troops. In a May 22, 1862, letter Admiral Du Pont wrote, “. . . The pilot is quite intelligent and gave some valuable information about the abandonment of Stono. . .”
Union press hailed Smalls as a national hero, calling the ship “the first trophy from Fort Sumter” and its crew “the plucky Africans.” A bill passed by Congress and signed by President Lincoln awarded prize money to Smalls and his associates.
Newspaper editorials citing Smalls’ gallantry shattered stereotypes about the capability of blacks. An editorial in the New York Daily Tribune said, “Is he not also a man – and is he not fit for freedom, since he made such a hazardous dash to gain it? . . . Is he not a man and a hero – whose pluck has not been questioned by even The Charleston Courier or The New York Herald? . . . What white man has made a bolder dash, or won a richer prize in the teeth of such perils during the war? . . . Perhaps [blacks are inferior to whites] but they seem to possess good material for improvement. Few white men have a better record than Robert Smalls.”
The report of the Secretary of the Navy in President Lincoln’s report to the 37th Congress states, “Stono River and Mosquito Inlet – From information derived chiefly from the contraband pilot, Robert Smalls, who had escaped from Charleston, Flag-Officer Du Pont, after proper reconnaissance, directed Commander Marchand to cross the bar with several gunboats and occupy Stono. The river was occupied as far up as Legareville, and examinations extended further, to ascertain the position of the enemies’ batteries. The seizure of Stono Inlet and river secured an important base for future operations, and was virtually a turning of the forces in Charleston harbor.”
In August 1862 two Union generals sent Smalls and missionary Mansfield French to Washington, D.C. to meet with Secretary of War Stanton and President Lincoln. Their request to recruit 5000 black troops was soon granted. Charismatic and articulate, Smalls was sent on a speaking tour of New York to raise support for the Union cause. There Smalls was presented an engraved gold medal by “the colored citizens of New York” for his heroism, his love of liberty and his patriotism.
On April 7, 1863, Smalls was pilot of the ironclad Keokuk during a failed Union attack on Fort Sumter. Struck 19 times at or below waterline, Keokuk sank the following morning, moments after the crew was rescued. On December 1, 1863, after an act of bravery under fire, Smalls became the first black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States. Smalls’ daughter, Sarah Voorhees, was born on the same date.
Taught to read and write by tutors, after the war Smalls became a major general in the South Carolina militia and a state legislator. He participated in drafting the constitution of the state in which he had been a slave. He was the most powerful black man in South Carolina for five decades.
Robert Smalls served five terms as a U.S. Congressman during Reconstruction. For nearly 20 years he served as U. S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort, S.C., where he lived as owner in the house in which he had been a slave.
The plaque on the fence surrounding the Smalls’ house states:
THE ROBERT SMALLS HOUSE HAS BEEN DESIGNATED A NATIONAL HISTORIC LANDMARK
THIS SITE POSSESSES NATIONAL SIGNIFICANCE
IN COMMEMORATING THE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
THE DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR
Below the bust of Smalls at his grave is this quote:
My race needs no special defense,
for the past history of them in this country
proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere.
All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life
November 1, 1895
Thanks for your attention.