Robert Smalls, whose courage and sailing expertise gained freedom for himself and other slaves during the Civil War, died at his home in Beaufort, South Carolina, at the age of 75. Smalls had been born into slavery in that city in 1839. When he was 12, his master sent him to Charleston to work there as a laborer. The money earned by Smalls for working in South Carolina’s largest city was paid to his master. Smalls initially worked in Charleston at a hotel and then served as a lamplighter.
During his teenage years, Smalls developed a strong enthusiasm for the sea. This enthusiasm led him to work instead on Charleston’s docks and wharves. Smalls’ tasks in this setting included loading and unloading ships in the harbor and making sails. He steadily acquired a formidable set of maritime skills, eventually learning how to steer ships throughout Charleston Harbor. While this navigational role was similar to that of a marine pilot, slaves were not legally allowed to hold that title; Smalls was therefore characterized as a wheelman instead.
In April 1861, the Civil War started with the Battle of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. That fall, Smalls was assigned to steer the Confederate transport ship CSS Planter. This vessel was used for delivering military dispatches, troops, and supplies; surveying waterways; and laying mines. Smalls piloted the Planter within Charleston Harbor and also on local rivers and along the coasts of Georgia and Florida.
Over time, Smalls decided to use his sailing abilities and access to the Planter to escape the shackles of slavery. His golden opportunity for this escape took place in May 1862, when he was on board the Planter in Charleston Harbor while the ship’s white officers were spending the night on shore. Smalls, donning a captain’s uniform, maneuvered the Planter out of the harbor. Most of the other slaves serving on board the ship sailed along with him. The men stopped at a wharf in the area to pick up their families and then all of them sailed through Confederate-controlled waters during the remaining hours of the night to get to the Union Navy fleet. Smalls even safely guided the vessel safely past several Confederate checkpoints; his ability to provide the correct signals at those locations prevented anyone from suspecting that a waterborne exodus of slaves was underway. The escape was successful, with Smalls and those sailing with him winning their freedom once they reached Union lines.
Smalls’ daring escape via the Planter made him a hero in the North, and helped convince President Abraham Lincoln to allow more African-Americans to serve in the military. As for Smalls, he spent the remainder of the war helping the Union Navy and (starting in March 1863) the Union Army in their campaigns against the enemy along the Confederate coastline. During the course of this service, Smalls operated several vessels for the Union. Among other activities, he played a key role in finding and removing mines that he had helped place as a slave.
Notwithstanding his status as an ex-slave bravely and effectively using his maritime experience on behalf of the Union cause, Smalls ran up against harsh treatment in the North from time to time. One such incident occurred in Philadelphia in 1864, when he was ordered to give up his seat on a streetcar for a white passenger. Instead of moving to a less desirable section of the streetcar, Smalls opted to disembark. His treatment that day helped persuade the city to eventually ban racial discrimination on streetcars.
During the Reconstruction Era that followed the Civil War, Smalls served in the South Carolina state legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives. One of his chief priorities involved strengthening economic development in the Palmetto State’s Charleston-Beaufort region. As one way to achieve this goal, he helped establish the 18-mile (29-kilometer) horse-drawn Enterprise Railroad to transport both passengers and cargo between Charleston’s wharves and inland depots. This enterprise was operated primarily by African-Americans. In 1897, a special act of Congress officially acknowledged Smalls’ wartime contributions by granting him a pension equal to that of a U.S. Navy captain.
Following his death due to the combined effects of malaria and diabetes, Smalls was buried in a cemetery at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort. A monument to Smalls in this churchyard features a statement that he made to the South Carolina state legislature in 1895. “My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere,” this inscription reads. “All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”
During World War II, a Navy training station for African-Americans at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois was named after Smalls. One of those who trained at Camp Robert Smalls, as a matter of fact, was his great-grandson Edward Estes Davidson. In 2004, the Army officially named a new logistics support ship after Smalls. It was the first Army vessel named after an African-American. In addition, there is part of a highway in Smalls’ home state that bears his name. Robert Smalls Parkway, which is a five-mile (8.1-kilometer) section of South Carolina Highway 170, crosses Port Royal Island and leads into Beaufort.
For more information on Robert Smalls, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Smalls and https://www.hagley.org/research/digital-exhibits/plans-escape