Black History Month: Robert Smalls
On May 13, 1862, a crew composed of slaves, slipped a cotton steamer (The Planter) off a dock in Charleston, South Carolina, picked up family members at a rendezvous point, then slowly navigated their way through the Charleston harbor. Robert Smalls, a South Carolina born slave who doubled as the captain, from the knowledge he developed from his work, responded with the proper coded signals at two Confederate checkpoints, including Fort Sumter, and other Confederate defense positions. In less than a few hours, Robert Smalls had done something unimaginable: In the midst of the Civil War, this black male slave had commandeered a heavily armed Confederate ship and delivered its 17 black passengers (nine men, five women and three children) from slavery to freedom.
Smalls navigated the ship to the Union Blockade outside of the Charleston harbor, where he then surrendered the Planter to the lieutenant and captain of the Union Blockade ships. To White Confederates, the Union ships blocking their harbors were another example of the North’s enslavement of the South; to actual slaves like Robert Smalls, these ships signaled the tantalizing promise of freedom. Under orders from Secretary Gideon Welles in Washington, Navy commanders had been accepting runaways as contraband since the previous September.
The US Congress passed a private bill authorizing the Navy to appraise the Planter and award Smalls and his crew half the proceeds. Smalls received $1,500 personally, though according to the later Naval Affairs Committee report, his pay should have been substantially higher. Smalls was seen as a hero and lobbied the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to begin enlisting black soldiers. After President Lincoln’s acts a few months later, Smalls recruited 5,000 soldiers alone. In October 1862, he returned to the Planter as pilot as part of Admiral Du Pont’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. According to the 1883 Naval Affairs Committee report, Smalls was engaged in approximately 17 military actions, including the April 7, 1863, assault on Fort Sumter and the attack at Folly Island Creek, S.C. Smalls was promoted to the rank of captain, and from December 1863 on, earned $150 a month, making him one of the highest paid black soldiers of the war.
After the war, Smalls continued to push the boundaries of freedom as a first-generation black politician, serving in the South Carolina State Assembly and Senate, and for five nonconsecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1874-1886) before watching his state roll back Reconstruction in a revised 1895 constitution that stripped blacks of their voting rights.
Smalls died in Beaufort on February 22, 1915, in the same house behind which he had been born a slave.
Robert Smalls: “My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”
Written by: Lawrence Pittman