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ROBERT SMALLS – 1839 – 1915


Although born and raised a slave, Robert Smalls became the most famous African-American Charlestonian during the Civil War. Robert was born slave in Beaufort, S.C. and went on to become a most talented ship pilot. His talents were needed in Charleston during the Civil War and his owner, a Mr. McKee, sent Robert to work as a pilot aboard the C.S.S. Planter hauling supplies to the various forts in Charleston harbor.

After apparently gaining the trust of the 3 Confederate officers on the Planter, Robert arranged to have his family waiting at the wharves on the evening of May 12, 1862 while he piloted the ship on its delivery of supplies to the Confederate forts. After docking, the 3 officers went to their abodes in Charleston and at about 2:00 a.m. on the morning of May 13, Smalls fired the engines of the Planter, picked up his family, as well as the families of some of the other slaves on the vessel, and passed by 5 Confederate forts, including Fort Sumter, and approached the United States naval ships which were part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. After he passed Ft. Sumter he raised a white flag in order to surrender the Planter and gain his and his family’s freedom before emancipation had become an aim of President Lincoln.

Lincoln wanted to meet Robert Smalls after the Planter was surrendered to the Federal fleet and he went to Washington. Congress voted an award of $1,500 to Smalls and he was made captain of the U.S.S. Planter. During the war he was instrumental in encouraging the enlistment of black troops and labored hard toward that end.
Before the war ended, Robert returned to Beaufort and bought the plantation house where he had served as a slave. After the war he served in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1870s and 1880s. He was one of the founders of the Republican Party in South Carolina. Robert passed away in 1915 and his grave is at the Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery in Beaufort.

The “Robert Smalls House” in Beaufort, S.C. was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1974.

The information for this blog came from a variety of sources, mostly (but not totally) from Robert Rosen’s Confederate Charleston: An Illustrated History of the City and the People During the Civil War

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