Robert Smalls | History of SC Slide Collection

Robert Smalls

A former slave who became a state legislator and U.S. Congressman, Robert Smalls (1839-1915) was born in Beaufort, and moved with his master to Charleston in 1851. During the Civil War, he was pressed into service by the Confederates, and was assigned to the crew of the "Planter," a transport steamer in Charleston Harbor. After having learned to navigate, he smuggled his wife and two children aboard while the ship's officers were absent. He then took command of the ship and its crew of 12 slaves, and sailed it past Confederate fortifications protecting the coast to seek refuge with the blockading union naval force. The exploits of Smalls and his crew made them heroes. He became a pilot in the U.S. Navy, and in 1863, after more daring displays of courage, was promoted to the rank of Captain and given command of the "Planter." He held this rank until 1866 when his ship was decommissioned. In 1866, Smalls returned to Charleston to enter politics. Elected to the state House of Representatives in 1868 and to the state Senate in 1870, in 1875, Smalls began the first of five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Before his first term in Congress was completed, Smalls had become a Major General in the state militia, which he had joined in 1866. Convicted of accepting a bribe while he was in the state Senate, Smalls was sentenced, and ultimately pardoned. After his last term in Congress ended in 1887, he returned to private life, and in 1889 was appointed Collector of the Port of Beaufort. He was the leader of the Beaufort County delegation to the 1895 Constitutional Convention that denied the franchise to African-Americans, refusing to sign the resulting constitution (see The Constitution Of 1895).

Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library.

More in this Series