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Robert Smalls: Contraband Captain and U.S. Congressman

Posted on 05/09/2011

Robert Smalls (April 5, 1839–February 23, 1915)

Born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina on April 5, 1839, Robert Smalls was eventually taken to Charleston and hired out by his master to various shipping concerns. Smalls developed into one of Charleston’s most skilled seamen and was later impressed into the service of the Confederate Navy. Smalls became the wheelsman of the Confederate steamship Planter whose crew consisted of seven other slaves and three white officers. During the Civil War, when Charleston was surrounded by a flotilla of Union ships attempting to blockade the city, Smalls and his fellow enslaved crewmen concocted a plan to take the Planter to the Union lines and escape to freedom. In the early morning of May 13, 1862, the Planter was anchored in Charleston Harbor. After the white officers left the ship for the evening, Smalls and the black crewmen cast off from the docks. They stopped at another dock to pick up their families, including Smalls’ wife and two young children. Smalls’ plan was to impersonate the Planter’s captain, who was the same height and build. By donning the captain’s coat and straw hat, he hoped to avoid being spotted by the sentries patrolling Charleston Harbor.

The Planter at Georgetown, South Carolina

As the Planter passed the fortresses that protected the Harbor, including Fort Sumter, Smalls gave the proper whistle signals that served as passwords. The ship was allowed to pass unmolested. Once on open water, the Planter’s crew lowered the Confederate flag and raised a large white sheet to signal their surrender. As their ship approached the Union blockade, it was nearly fired upon by the U.S.S. Onward, whose crew thought it was part of a Confederate attack. Seeing the white sheet, the captain of the Onward accepted the surrendered ship and the Planter was taken to the North and freedom. 

Click to read full article in PDF.  Source: Boston Daily Advertiser; Date: 05-20-1862; Boston, Massachusetts

Smalls’ exploits on the Planter made him famous in the North. For capturing an enemy ship and cannons, Smalls and the crew of the Planter received half of the ship’s value as prize money. Smalls became an advocate for African-American rights, and he helped to convince Abraham Lincoln to allow blacks to serve in the armed forces. Smalls himself worked aboard several Navy ships during the Civil War, including the Keokuk. In 1863, Smalls took command of the Planter when it came under heavy enemy fire. Smalls was named captain of the Planter, a position he held until the end of the war.

Click to read full article in PDF. Source: Albany Journal; Date: 12-15-1863; Albany, New York

After the war, Smalls became involved in South Carolina politics. A devoted member of the Republican Party, Smalls worked diligently to encourage other blacks to support the party. Smalls was elected first to the State House and then to the State Senate. In 1874, Smalls was elected to the U.S. Congress where he served several terms. As Reconstruction ended and blacks were denied their civil rights, Robert Smalls remained an advocate for his people. In 1895, he was one of six black members elected to the convention to rewrite the South Carolina constitution. Smalls argued eloquently for the equality of black citizens, but to no avail. The South Carolina constitution stripped African-Americans of voting rights and other civil liberties. Appointed Collector of Customs for his hometown of Beaufort, Smalls served faithfully in the position for many years. Robert Smalls died on February 23, 1915.

Click to read full article in PDF. Source: Cleveland Gazette; Date: 03-28-1885; Cleveland, Ohio

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