Robert Smalls Biography


Birthday: April 5, 1839 (Aries)

Born In: Beaufort, South Carolina, United States

Robert Smalls was an American politician, businessman, and publisher. He served as a civilian in the ‘Union Navy’ and the ‘Union Army.’ He was born into slavery and started working as a slave at a tender age. He was a slave until his daring escape on the ‘Confederate’ steamer ‘U.S.S. Planter.’ Along with his family, other trustworthy slaves, and their respective families, Smalls stole the ‘Planter’ and then piloted it to escape. He hoodwinked the ‘Confederate Navy’ and sneaked out of their waters with the ship, eventually surrendering it to the ‘Union Navy.’ Later, his skills were used by the ‘Union Navy’ and the ‘Union Army’ to fight the ‘Confederate’ forces. After the civil war, he ventured into business and politics. He also worked toward improving the conditions of the people of color and providing them better infrastructure, good quality supplies, education, and civil rights.

Quick Facts

Died At Age: 75


Spouse/Ex-: Annie E. Wigg (m. 1890), Hannah Jones (m. 1856)

mother: Lydia Polite

children: Charlotte Jones, Clara Jones, Elizabeth Lydia Smalls Bampfield, Robert Smalls Jr., Sarah Smalls Williams, William Robert Smalls

Born Country: United States

Business People Political Leaders

Died on: February 23, 1915

place of death: Beaufort, South Carolina, United States

U.S. State: South Carolina

Childhood & Early Life

Smalls was born on April 5, 1839, in a cabin behind Henry McKee's house, at 511 Prince Street, in Beaufort, South Carolina, U.S., to Lydia Polite. His father’s identity is not known.

Lydia was a slave employed with Henry McKee, who stayed at 511 Prince Street.

Smalls was raised in the city. Since he was not exposed to the harsh realities of slaves in the fields, his mother insisted that he be sent to work in the fields, so that he could learn about the true conditions of slaves.

At the age of 12, he was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, to work as a laborer for one dollar a week, on his mother’s insistence.

He initially worked at a hotel. Later, he worked as a lamplighter on the streets of Charleston.

Passionate about the seas, he found jobs at the harbor in Charleston. He was employed as a longshoreman, a rigger, and a sail maker. He eventually became a wheelman, equivalent to a pilot.

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Escape on the U.S.S. Planter

The American Civil War began in April 1861, with the Battle of Fort Sumter, in the nearby Charleston Harbor. In the latter part of the year, Smalls was asked to pilot the ‘U.S.S. Planter,’ a lightly armed ‘Confederate’ military steamer.

Steering the ship, Smalls and his crew became more familiar with the waters of the harbor. In April 1862, he hatched a plan to escape along with a few more men.

On May 12, 1862, the plan was put into motion. As all the white crew members disembarked, Smalls and his trusted crew stayed on board.

At 3 a.m. the following day, they sailed from the wharf where it was docked. They reached the pier where his family members (and those of his men) were hiding.

Smalls outsmarted the checkpoints manned by the ‘Confederate’ authorities by impersonating the manners and attire of the steamer’s captain, C.J. Relyea.

At 4.30 a.m., after they went out of the reach of the ‘Confederate’ firing range, Smalls replaced the ‘Confederate’ flag with a white bedsheet that his wife had brought along with her upon his instructions.

As they approached the ‘Union’ ships, their ship was spared because of the bedsheet. The ‘U.S.S. Onward’ accepted them. Overnight, Smalls became a hero in the North. He was awarded $1,500 for the brave act and for surrendering ‘Planter’ and its cargo to the ‘Union Navy.’

After his escape, he joined the ‘Union Navy’ and piloted the ‘U.S.S. Crusader.’ As a slave in the ‘Confederacy,’ he had planted mines in the waters of Charleston Harbor, but he later worked with the ‘U.S. Navy’ to defuse them.

He served in the ‘Union Navy’ and piloted other steamers such as the ‘U.S.S. Keokuk’ and the ‘U.S.S. Isaac Smith.’

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He convinced the U.S. government to recruit 5,000 colored soldiers, which eventually led to the creation of the ‘1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment (Colored)’ on January 31, 1863. He was commissioned to this regiment. The same year, after the ‘Planter’ was transferred to the ‘Union Army’ by the ‘Navy’ (which, by then, was recommissioned and renamed ‘U.S.S. Planter’),Smalls was appointed as the captain of the ship. He was thus the first black person to command a U.S. ship.

After the Civil War

Since he lacked proper documentation and since he was not a graduate of a naval academy, his rank, payment, and pension were in jeopardy. However, things were sorted out much later, and he was paid a pension of $30.

Immediately after the war, Smalls returned to Beaufort. He bought the house at 511 Prince Street and began staying there. Later, McKee, the earlier owner of the house and his former employer, sued him. However, McKee failed to regain possession. This became a landmark case for similar lawsuits later.

In 1866, he ventured into a business partnership and opened a store. Four years later, he formed a partnership and created ‘Enterprise Railroad.’

In 1872, he launched and supported the black-owned newspaper known as the ‘Beaufort Southern Standard.’

Political Career

Smalls was a loyal member of the ‘Republican Party.’ After being discharged from the ‘U.S. Army’ in 1868, he plunged into politics.

From November 24, 1868, he served as the member of the ‘South Carolina House of Representatives’ from Beaufort County. He worked in the capacity for the next 2 years. He worked toward making education free and compulsory for all children in South Carolina. He was also instrumental in passing of the ‘Homestead Act’ and the ‘Civil Rights Act.’

Between November 22, 1870, and March 4, 1875, he was a member of the ‘South Carolina Senate’ from Beaufort County. During this period, he was appointed as the lieutenant-colonel of the ‘Third Regiment, South Carolina State Militia.’

In 1874, he was elected as a member of the ‘U.S. House of Representatives’ from South Carolina’s 5th congressional district.’ He served in the capacity till 1879. He represented the same district between 1882 and 1883.

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He became a member of the ‘U.S. House of Representatives’ from South Carolina’s 7th congressional district in 1884 and served till March 3, 1887.

This period was a roller-coaster ride, as he was accused in a bribery scandal. Though he was let off as part of the ‘Compromise of 1877,’ his political image was tainted.

He tried to convince the blacks not to migrate to Liberia.

He was appointed as the collector of the Port of Beaufort in 1890 and remained in this position until 1913. During this time, he, along with other influential black politicians, strongly opposed the disenfranchisement of blacks after the reconstruction era in the Southern states.

Family, Personal Life, & Death

On Christmas Eve 1856, Smalls, then 17, married Hannah Jones. Jones had earlier been enslaved as a hotel maid.

Back then, Jones was 22 years old and a mother of two daughters, Charlotte Jones and Clara Jones.

The couple’s first daughter, Elizabeth Lydia, was born in 1858. Their first son, Robert Jr., was born in 1861. However, Robert died in 1863. The same year, their second daughter, Sarah Voorhies, was born.

The Smalls were Baptists and attended the ‘Berean Baptist Church’ when they stayed in Washington D.C.

On July 28, 1883, Elizabeth died.

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He married Annie E. Wigg on April 9, 1890. Annie taught in a school in Charleston. They had a son, William Robert.

Smalls was diabetic and succumbed to malaria on February 23, 1915, at the age of 75. He was buried at the cemetery of the ‘Tabernacle Baptist Church’ in Beaufort.


The fort built by freed African–Americans on McGuire’s Hill, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was named ‘Fort Robert Smalls.’

The ‘Robert Smalls House’ has been declared a “National Historic Landmark.”

A monument and a statue have been installed at his burial site.

Two schools, namely, the ‘Robert Smalls School’ in Cheraw, Chesterfield County, South Carolina, and the ‘Robert Smalls Middle School’ in Beaufort County, have been named in his honor.

On April 21, 1942, ‘Camp Robert Smalls’ was established on the ‘Great Lakes Naval Training Center’ in Illinois, U.S., to train African–American soldiers for the Second World War.

An exhibit of Smalls can be seen at the ‘Verdier House Museum’ in Beaufort.

The ‘USAV Major General Robert Smalls,’ operated by the ‘U.S. Army,’ was the first ship named in honor of an African–American person.

Ceremonies and special events were conducted on May 12 and 13, 2012, to commemorate the 150th year of Smalls’s escape on the ‘Planter.’

The 5-mile-long ‘Robert Smalls Parkway’ is part of the state highway named the ‘South Carolina Highway 170.’

The U.S. ‘National Museum of African American History’ in Washington, D.C. has a statue of Smalls.

See the events in life of Robert Smalls in Chronological Order

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