Robert Smalls was born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother, Lydia Polite, was a slave who was owned by Henry McLee, who likely was Smalls’ father; as a result, young Robert received favoritism and worked in the house. His mother had grown up in the fields, and while she now worked in the house, she feared Robert would grow up without knowing the plight of the slaves forced to work in the fields. His mother requested that he be sent to work in the fields. It was her intentions to illustrate to Robert the full horror of slavery, and for him to witness whippings of the field hands, which was a common occurrence in their world. After seeing the brutality of the institution, the injustice drove Robert to defiance, frequently finding himself in the Beaufort jail. His mother began to fear for his safety, so she arranged with McLee to send Robert to Charleston, where he would work as a laborer. At the age of twelve, Smalls was sent to Charleston, making only one dollar a week, with the rest of his wage sent back to his master.
Smalls worked many jobs while in Charleston, most around, and on, the Charleston harbor. On December 14, 1856, Robert married Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel maid. With permission, they were able to move in together. The couple had two children , Elizabeth Smalls, and Robert Smalls Jr. His marriage and their children would lead him into a personal rebellion. Smalls saved his life’s fortune and attempted to buy the freedom of his wife and children; however, her owner demanded eight-hundred dollars when Robert had barely saved one hundred. Robert knew if he and his family were in chains, they could not be sure of a future together, and it would have taken him decades to save that much money. Smalls told his wife they would one day escape from slavery.
After the war broke out, Robert was assigned to the CSS Planter, a Confederate military transport. Smalls piloted the Planter throughout Charleston harbor, gaining the confidence and trust of the crew and the white Confederate officers. Knowing the crew trusted him, Smalls devised a plan of escape. He convened with other slaves on board and they agreed to rebel against their Confederate owners. One night when the Confederate Officers left to sleep on the shore, Smalls and the crew took the ship. They sailed to another dock and picked up Smalls’ and the other members of the crew’s families. Robert copied the captain’s manners and even wore a similar big straw hat to fool officials at Confederate harbor forts. When out of range of cannon fire, he replaced the rebel flags on board with white bed sheets and captained the ship to the Union blockade. Robert surrendered the Planter and its cargo to the United States Navy. He immediately volunteered his knowledge about Charleston’s defense to the Union. Smalls’ understanding of the Charleston defenses proved invaluable, as Smalls’ intel directly led to the capture of Coles island a week after his escape. Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont wrote to the Navy Secretary in Washington, Robert “is superior to any who have come into our lines — intelligent as many of them have been.”
From Harper's Weekly publication detailing Smalls' exploits
The people of the North widely celebrated Robert and his crew. Congress awarded Smalls and his crewman half of the value of the Planter. Smalls briefly served in the US Navy under Admiral Du Pont, but only as a civilian, he later traveled to Washington to meet with President Abraham Lincoln. Smalls hoped to persuade Lincoln to permit black men to serve for the Union army. Soon after the meeting, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton officially permitted 5,000 black Americans to fight for the Union. Afterward, Smalls became a pilot of a Union ship, the USS Crusader, and later the restored Planter. He was later promoted to captain, the first black man to achieve this rank. While, the US government later disputed that he was ever a member of the Navy at all, as he had not been officially commissioned. In 1897, by an act of Congress Smalls was granted a pension equal to that of Navy captain, confirming his service.
After the war, Smalls returned to his native South Carolina. When he returned, he bought his former master’s plantation and home, as Union tax authorities had seized it. In 1868, after the passage of 14th amendment, Smalls was elected to the South Carolina House of Representative and later to the South Carolina Senate. In 1874, Smalls was elected to the US House of Representatives. As a member of Congress, he fought against the disenfranchisement of black voters in South Carolina and the whole of the South. He represented South Carolina’s fifth congressional district from 1875 to 1879 and from 1882 to 1883. Smalls served South Carolina’s seventh congressional district from 1884 to 1887. In the 1890s he was offered a colonelcy in the Spanish American war and was offered the post of minister in Liberia, he turned down both offers. Smalls was an essential leader in the community even into his old age.
Robert Smalls died of malaria and diabetes in 1915. This remarkable individual witnessed slavery, emancipation, the right of African American men to vote, and even rose in the ranks of the US government. W.E.B. Dubois said on the history of freedom that, “The slave went free; stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” Smalls was lucky to live in that moment in the sun. He died as the South worked to recreate a form of slavery through the black codes and Jim Crow. Despite this, Smalls died refusing to engage in pessimism, leaving one message on his tombstone about the future of his country and his race, it reads, “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. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”