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Robert Smalls was an African American slave who secured his freedom during the American Civil War by commandeering a transport ship from the Confederates and sailing to Union-controlled waters. His service persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to allow African-American soldiers to serve in the United States Navy and Army. He went on to become a seaman, captain, and politician, founding the Republican Party of South Carolina and serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Youth and Marriage

Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, on April 5, 1839, as a slave to John McKee. He owned Smalls’ mother, Lydia Polite, and may or may not have been Smalls’ father. Other possibilities include McKee’s son, Henry, or the manager of the plantation, Patrick Smalls. The McKee’s favored the boy and his mother grew concerned he would not understand the true horror of slavery, so she asked him to be put to work in the fields and to watch slaves being whipped.

When Smalls turned 12, McKees sent him to Charleston to work as a hired laborer.[1] Smalls sent all the profits made back to the plantation. He worked in a hotel and as a lamplight before becoming a dockworker, rigger, sailmaker, and eventually a wheelman, or a ship pilot, out of Charleston Harbor.[2] At age 18, McKee allowed Smalls to keep a dollar from his wages every week.[3]

Robert Smalls married another slave who worked as a hotel maid named Hannah Jones on December 24, 1856, in Charleston. She was five years older than him with two daughters. In February 1858 they bore their first daughter together, Elizabeth Lydia Smalls, and then a son three years later, Robert, Jr., who died at only two years old.[4]

Escaping Slavery

The U.S. Civil War started in 1861 near Charleston. Robert Smalls sailed the CSS Planter, a Confederate transport ship commanded by Brigadier General Roswell S. Ripley. They surveyed waterways, laid mines, and delivered troops, supplies, and dispatches from South Caroline down to the Georgia and Florida coastlines.[5] Smalls could see the Union blockade line only seven miles away from the harbor. In April 1862, he began planning how to reach it with other trustworthy crew members.[6]

Robert Smalls used his extensive knowledge of the Confederate Navy to escape to freedom with his family.

On May 12, 1862, the ship picked up four guns, 200 pounds of ammunition, and 20 firewood cords while crew family members made their way to a nearby wharf to hide.[7] In the evening, the white officers spent the night on land with Smalls and the slave crew on the ship.[8] Around 3 in the morning on May 13, Smalls and the seven crew members and their families escaped past the Southern Wharf and then picked his and other families along the way. They passed five Confederate forts without suspicion since Smalls knew all the correct signals, dressed like the Captain, and copied his mannerisms to fool the Confederates. The USS Onward noticed their white flag and it’s captain, John Frederick Nickels accepted Smalls’ surrendering of the ship and goods to the U.S. Navy. [9]

The Planter contained the big guns, ammunition, the captain’s code book with Confederate military signals, and a map of torpedoes and mines in the area. Robert Smalls recounted the defenses in Charleston to Admiral Samuel Dupont and revealed other facts, like the correct number of Confederate troops, to the Union officers.[10] This led to the capture of Coles Island and Stono Inlet, which remained under Union control until the end of the war.[11]

Facts About Robert Smalls and His Union Service

Robert Smalls initially wanted to raise money for former slaves in New York, but Admiral DuPont preferred Smalls to serve in the Union Navy. In August 1862, Major General David Hunter encouraged Smalls to go to Washington, D.C. and persuade President Lincoln and the Secretary of War to accept black soldiers for the Union. The First and Second South Carolina Regiments (Colored) formed and, after joining the army in March 1863, Smalls fought in 17 military battles.

While serving under Captain James Nickerson on December 1, 1863, Smalls took control of the Planter after Nickerson fled his post under fire from Confederate ships. His success led to his promotion to captain and he was given command of the Planter. The army discharged him on June 11, 1865.[12]

Post-Civil War

After the war, Robert Smalls purchased the McKee’s house.[13] His mother and McKee’s wife lived in the house with them until their deaths. He spent the first nine months learning to write and read and started a school for African-American kids. Smalls opened a store with Richard Howell Gleaves in 1866, started the Enterprise Railroad in 1870, and published a newspaper in 1872.[14]

Biography of Robert Smalls’ Political Career

Robert Smalls’ military and political career showcased just how much an African-American man could accomplish in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Robert Smalls served as a Republican delegate to the South Carolina Constitutional Convention in 1868. He argued for S.C. to provide free and compulsory education for all children in the state. He was elected to the State House of Representatives the same year. He helped pass the Homestead Act and advocated for the Civil Rights Bill.

Smalls filled in for Senator Jonathon Jasper Wright in 1870 and won the election for the position in 1872. He joined the Finance Committee and chaired the Public Printing Committee.[15] Smalls served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1875-1879, from 1882-1883 for S.C’s 5th district, and from 1884-1887 for the 7th district.[16]

Family and Death

Robert Smalls’s first wife, Hannah, died on July 28, 1883. He remarried on April 9, 1890, to Annie E. Wigg, a school teacher from Charleston, who produced one son, William Robert Smalls in 1892. She died on November 5, 1895. Robert Smalls died on February 23, 1915, in Beaufort, S.C. from diabetes and malaria. He is buried in the Tabernacle Baptist Church graveyard.[17] He features in the movie by PBS, Robert Smalls: A Daring Escape.[18]



Brennan, P. (1996). Secessionville: Assault on Charleston (2nd ed.). United States: Savas Woodbury Publishers,U.S.

Civil War Trust. Robert Smalls. Civil War Preservation Trust: Civil War Figures As Examples of Character and Leadership.

Gates, H. L. (2013, January 13). Which Slave Sailed Himself to Freedom? PBS - The African Americans - Many Rivers to Cross.

Reef, C. (2003). African Americans in the Military. New York, NY: Facts On File.

Simmons, W. J., & Turner, H. M. (2011). Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Westwood, H. C. (2008). Black Troops, White Commanders and Freedmen during the Civil War. New York, NY, United States: Southern Illinois University Press. 
Winter, E. (2015). Smalls, Robert (1839-1915). The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed.


  1. Gates, 2013
  2. Winter, 2015
  3. Gates, 2013
  4. Civil War Trust, n.d
  5. Brennan, 1996
  6. Westwood, 2008
  7. Brennan, 1996
  8. Westwood, 2008
  9. Simmons & Turner, 2011
  10. Brennan, 1996
  11. Westwood, 2008
  12. Westwood, 2008
  13. Westwood, 2008
  14. Reef, 2003
  15. Reef, 2003
  16. Westwood, 2008
  17. Reef, 2003
  18. PBS (2013, November 5). Robert Smalls: A Daring Escape. PBS.

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