There was nothing small about Robert Smalls. He was born a slave in Beaufort South Carolina in 1839 behind the house of his master. When he was twelve his master leased him out to work in Charleston. He started out working in a hotel, then as a lamplighter, and eventually while in his teens he became a dockworker, rigger, sail maker and finally a wheel man on a ship. Which is essentially a pilot, although blacks were not officially allowed to be pilots. He learned Charleston Harbor like the back of his hand. Robert met and married a hotel maid who was five years his senior. She already had a daughter and the couple had two children together, but one would die in infancy. In the Fall of 1861, early in the American Civil War, Smalls became the pilot of the CSS Planter, an armed Confederate transport. On May 12, 1862 the Planters three white officers decided to stay on shore for the night. Smalls hatched a plan to escape. At 3:00 AM on the 13th he dressed in a Captains uniform and hat. He and seven black crewmen pulled in to a nearby wharf and picked up Smalls family along with the relatives of the other crewmen who had been concealed. The ship was armed with two cannon along with four cannon that were part of the cargo, along with ammunition and explosives. The most valuable item was a book that gave information on the layout of the harbor listing the location of harbor defenses and torpedoes or water mines as they were called then. As he steamed by the five harbor forts he gave the proper signals and raised no suspicion. He passed Ft. Sumter at 4:30 AM and steamed straight for a Union ship that was part of the Union Naval blockade. Smalls was flying a white flag but the Union ship nearly fired on the Planter. Luckily at the last moment a Union sailor noticed the white flag.
Smalls became a hero overnight in the North and was offered the prize money for the ship of 1,500 dollars, about 34,000 dollars in today's currency. He gave valuable assistance to the Navy because of his knowledge of Charleston Harbor. As a civilian Smalls served both the Army and Navy, participating in 17 battles. He was very instrumental in convincing Lincoln to allow black soldiers to fight in the war. He would personally help raise the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, which were all black regiments. Smalls became a pilot of a U.S. Ironclad that was sunk attacking Ft. Sumter but Smalls and his crew was rescued. His old ship the Planter was involved in a battle in December 1863 in which his boat was caught in a crossfire between Confederate and Union gunboats. The White Captain wanted to surrender but Smalls realized that he and the other black crewmen would probably not be treated as prisoners of war but summarily shot. He took command and piloted the ship out of danger. For his bravery he replaced the white Captain as commander of the ship. Following the war he returned to Beaufort South Carolina and bought the former house of his white master. His mother lived with him for the rest of her life and incredibly he allowed his white masters wife, who was elderly and penniless to live in the house. Smalls went into business and opened a store for Freedmen. In 1868 after the passage of the 14th Amendment extending citizenship to the former slaves he decided to run for political office.
There was a period between 1865 and 1877 that blacks enjoyed more freedom than they would after 1877 when the former Confederates and the Democratic Party regained control of the state governments. As most blacks identified with the Republican Party as late as the early 1960's this is what Smalls said about the Republican Party. " The party of Lincoln which unshackled the necks of four million human beings". In his campaign speeches for Congress he said, " Every colored man 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 a bubble coming from the spot where the burial took place" Later in life he said " I can never lose sight of the fact that had it not been for the Republican Party, I would have never been an office-holder of any kind---from 1862---to present". He served as a South Carolina State Congressman and Senator. He was also appointed as the commander of the South Carolina State Militia. He was elected to the U.S. Congress and served from 1875 until 1887 in several districts. The one dark spot on his record was that he was convicted of taking a bribe but was pardoned as part of a deal that would drop election fraud charges against other Democrats. In 1895 he fought the passage of a state constitution that would disenfranchise black citizens but he was unsuccessful. After this until the 1960's and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act most black people in South Carolina and other Southern States could not hold office or vote. Robert died in 1915 at the age of 75. His story is not just the story of a former slave but the story of what America is all about. An American that took advantage of the opportunities presented to him both as a slave and as a free man and was able to rise as far as his talents would take him.
|The CSS Planter|