Few life stories tell as well as the life story of Mr. Robert Smalls. One of our most revered sons in history, the courage shown by Mr. Smalls during his life is the stuff of legend and has inspired so many over the past 150+ years.
Robert Smalls was born enslaved on April 5, 1839 in a cabin behind the main house of the McKees at 511 Prince Street in Beaufort. As a young teen, the McKees would rent him out to work in Charleston and he took up boating and learned the local waters around Charleston as a teenager.
After the Civil War broke out, Charleston was smack-dab in the middle of it, and Mr. Smalls was a crew member aboard a Confederate supply vessel, the Planter.
Just before dawn on the morning of May 13, 1862, Mr. Smalls and a crew composed of fellow enslaved men slipped The Planter off of the dock. Following a plan, they picked up family members at a rendezvous point then slowly navigated their way through the harbor.
Mr. Smalls was wearing the white ship Captain’s wide brimmed straw hat to help hide his identity. He knew the proper Confederate coded signals and was able to get through defense positions and even two checkpoints along the way.
Being cleared, Smalls sailed into the open ocean, and directly into freedom. Once outside of Confederate-held waters, Mr. Smalls and his crew raised a white flag and surrendered The Planter to the Union fleet that was blockading the harbor.
His story was so enormous that he toured the North and was met by crowds of well-wishers everywhere. His escape was symbolic of the Union cause, and the publication of his name and former enslaved status in northern propaganda was big.
Mr. Smalls spent the remainder of the war balancing his role as a spokesperson for enslaved African Americans with his service in the Union Armed Forces. He piloted both The Planter, which was outfitted as a troop transport, and later the ironclad Keokuk. Mr. Smalls used his intimate knowledge of the Sea Islands of the Lowcountry to advance the Union military campaign in nearly 17 engagements.
After the Civil War
After he returned home to Beaufort, he was then elected to 5 terms as a Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives and was the Customs Officer in the city and had his office right next to the Beaufort Bank on downtown’s Bay Street.
Mr. Smalls also purchased the house he was enslaved in, and he was generous to the economically devastated McKee family. He took care of Mrs. McKee until the day she passed away, right there in the house, like the good man that he was.
Mr. Smalls also died right there in the house at 511 Prince Street, on February 23, 1915.
His funeral was said to have been the largest funeral in the history of Beaufort, South Carolina.
He’s buried in the yard at the Tabernacle Baptist Church on Craven Street. The space next to his burial site will also be the site of the much anticipated Harriet Tubman Monument, when erected.
That’s one very special life story about one very special man.