Robert Smalls

An American Hero

This month, let's not forget the remarkable story of Robert Smalls, a Black man born into slavery near Beaufort, South Carolina who became a national hero and a Republican icon.

Smalls labored in Charleston as a longshoreman, a rigger, a sail maker, and eventually worked his way up to become a helmsman. As a result, he knew Charleston Harbor very well.


At the start of the Civil War, Smalls was assigned to steer the CSS Planter, a lightly armed Confederate military transport. Planter's duties were to survey waterways, lay mines, and deliver dispatches, troops, and cannon. From Charleston harbor, Smalls and the Planter's crew could see the line of federal blockade ships in the outer harbor, seven miles away.


On the evening of May 12, 1862, the Planter was docked at its wharf in Charleston and its three Confederate officers disembarked to spend the night ashore as usual, leaving Smalls and the crew on board.

But Smalls had a plan. After midnight, he and the crew slipped away and rendezvoused with their families waiting on another wharf and together they attempted to sail to freedom.


Smalls guided the ship past the five Confederate harbor forts without incident because he gave the correct signals at checkpoints. He copied the manners and straw hat on deck of the ship’s owner to fool Confederate onlookers from shore and the forts.

Once out of range of Fort Sumter, Smalls headed straight for the Union Navy fleet, replacing the rebel flags with a white bed sheet brought by his wife. ThPlanter had been seen by the USS Onward, which was about to fire until a crewman spotted the white flag. As the steamer came near Smalls stepped forward, and taking off his hat, shouted, "Good morning, sir! I've brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!"

It's a great war story, but remarkably, that was just the beginning for Smalls.

Robert Smalls became a national hero and traveled to Washington, D.C. where he persuaded President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to permit Black men to fight for the Union. Immediately following the war, Smalls returned to his native Beaufort, where he purchased his former master's house and turned it into school for African-American children. At the outset of the Civil War, Smalls could not read or write, but he later achieved literacy by hiring tutors.


Smalls started a store catering to freemen and invested significantly in the economic development of the Charleston-Beaufort region. In 1870, he formed the Enterprise Railroad, an 18-mile horse-drawn railway line that carried cargo and passengers between the Charleston wharves and inland depots. The railroad's board of directors was entirely African American except for one. Smalls also owned and helped publish a Black-owned newspaper, the Beaufort Southern Standard, starting in 1872.

Smalls was a loyal Republican, which dominated the Northern States at the time and passed laws that granted protections for African Americans, whereas the Democrats, who dominated the South, opposed these measures. After the Civil War, Republicans passed laws that granted protections for African Americans and advanced social justice; again, Democrats largely opposed these initiatives.

In 1866, the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress overrode President Andrew Johnson's vetoes and passed a Civil Rights Act. In 1868, they passed the 14th Amendment, which was ratified by the states to extend full citizenship to all Americans regardless of race.


In 1874, Smalls was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served until 1887. He was the last Republican elected from South Carolina's 5th district until 2010 when Mick Mulvaney took office.

After the Compromise of 1877, the U.S. government withdrew its remaining forces from South Carolina and other Southern states. Conservative Southern Bourbon Democrats, who called themselves the Redeemers, had resorted to violence and election fraud to regain control of the state legislature.

As part of wide-ranging 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 by which charges were also dropped against Democrats accused of election fraud.

He was a delegate to the 1895 South Carolina constitutional convention. Together with five other Black politicians, he strongly opposed the dominant Democratic white delegates who wrote disfranchisement of the state's Black citizens into the proposed constitution. However, Smalls and his allies were outnumbered, and the new constitution was adopted, as were similar state constitutions across the South.

For many decades, these documents survived legal challenges that reached the US Supreme Court, resulting in both the exclusion of African Americans from political participation and the crippling of the Republican Party throughout the region.


On August 22, 1912, Smalls wrote to U.S. Senator Knute Nelson, "I never lose sight of the fact that had it not been for the Republican Party, I never would have been an office-holder of any kind—from 1862 to the present."[2] He described the Republican party as "the party of Lincoln...which unshackled the necks of four million human beings."[3]


When it looked like the segregationist Woodrow Wilson would win the 1912 presidential election, Smalls wrote, "I ask that every colored man in the North who has a vote to cast would cast that vote for the regular Republican Party and thus bury the Democratic Party so deep that there will not be seen even a bubble coming from the spot where the burial took place."[4]


Smalls died in 1915, at the age of 75. He was buried in his family's plot in the churchyard of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in downtown Beaufort. The monument to Smalls in this churchyard is inscribed with a statement he made to the South Carolina legislature in 1895:

"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."

[1]  Foner, Eric ed., Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction Revised Edition. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996). ISBN 0-8071-2082-0. p. 198.


[2] Yellin, Eric Steven (2007). Racism in the Nation's Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson's America. UNC Press Books. ISBN 978-1-4696-0720-7. p. 77.


[4] Newkirk, Pamela (2009). Letters from Black America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-1-4299-3483-1. pp. 123–4.