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Major General Robert Smalls (1839-1916)

b/w of Robert SmallsRobert Smalls (pictured right, circ. 1776) was born a slave on Ashdale Plantation at Beaufort, SC
on April 5, 1839.  His mother was Lydia, a house slave, and his father an unknown white man. 

At age 12, Smalls' owner sent him to Charleston to hire himself out.  He worked as a waiter,
lamplighter and dock-worker, and was allowed to retain $1.00 per month of his pay.  He taught
himself to read and write.  At age 18, he negotiated with his owner and thereafter retained all
but $15.00 per month of his pay. 

Robert and Hannah SmallsHe was hired as a deckhand on the rebel steamer PLANTER in 1861 and
later became its pilot.  On Christmas Eve of 1858, he married Hannah Jones (pictured left), a hotel
slave maid, and had three children.

He mastered the seafaring art, and as the de facto pilot of the PLANTER, he transported
guns and ammunition for the Confederate cause.

circa 1861 loaded with cottonOn the morning of May 13, 1862, long before sunrise and while the ship's white officers still slept in Charleston, the 23-year old slave pilot Robert Smalls smuggled his wife and three children aboard the PLANTER (pictured right, circa 1861 loaded with cotton) and took command. 

With his crew of 12 slaves, Smalls donned the clothing of the PLANTER's confederate captain, hoisted the Confederate flag and with great daring sailed the PLANTER past the other Confederate ships and out to sea.

Robert SmallsOnce beyond the range of Confederate guns, he hoisted a flag of truce and delivered the PLANTER to the commanding officer of the Union fleet.  Smalls explained that he intended the PLANTER as a contribution by black Americans for the cause of freedom.

The ship was received as contraband, and Smalls and his black crew were welcomed as heroes.  Later President Lincoln received Smalls in Washington and rewarded him and his crew $1500 for their valor.

 

Letter

 

THE PLANTER

Built for commercial use at Charleston in 1860, the PLANTER (pictured right) was a 300-ton side-wheel steamship.  She was armed with a 24-pound howitzer, a 32-pound pivot gun, a 7-inch rifle and 4 smooth-bore cannons.The Planter

The PLANTER had served as headquarters ship for General Ripley.  She was a valuable ship because she could carry as many as 1,000 troops, and her shallow draft gave her freedom throughout the coastal waters.

The Keokuk ironcladRobert Smalls was transferred to the ironclad KEOKUK (pictured left) for an ill-fated attack at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 7, 1863.  KEOKUK suffered almost 100 shell hits at or below the water and sunk to the bottom.

Smalls survived the KEOKUK attack and was transferred back to the PLANTER.  He was given official command of the PLANTER and made a captain in the US Navy.  He served in this position throughout the war.

line engraving of ironclads and sail fleet off Ft Sumter 1863

Above, a line engraving published in "Harper's Weekly", January-June 1863, pages 264-65, depicting the Federal fleet off the harbor mouth at the time of the ironclads' attack on Fort Sumter, 7 April 1863.

U.S. Navy ships specifically identified include NEW IRONSIDES (second from left in the ironclad formation) and KEOKUK (ironclad furthest to the right).

Smalls c. 1871  After the war, Smalls (pictured right, circ 1871) returned to South Carolina to enter politics. He served in
the South Carolina Senate from 1868 to 1870. In 1875 he was elected to the US Congress for the first
of five terms.

Smalls' record as a congressman was progressive. He fought for equal travel accommodations
for black Americans and for the civil and legal protection of children of mixed parentage. He was one
of six black members of the South Carolina constitutional convention of 1895. 

After leaving Congress, Smalls served as U.S. Collector of Customs 1889-1911 in Beaufort, SC. 
He lived in Beaufort as owner in the house in which he had been a slave.

Smalls c. 1900He retained his interest in the military and became a major general in the
South Carolina militia.  In 1879 he was restored to Navy pension rolls
by a private congressional relief bill signed by President Harrison. 

bust of Smalls in Beaufort, SCIn 1900, he was awarded an additional $5,000 in prize money for PLANTER
because the ship had been undervalued during the war.

Robert Smalls died of smallpox on Feb 22, 1916, and is buried in the
churchyard of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort, SC.  There is a
memorial bust of him in front of the African Baptist Church in Beaufort.

 

 

 


 

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