Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls was an enslaved South Carolinian pressed into service as a ship’s pilot for the Confederate Navy who became a hero for the Union forces.

Born a slave, Robert Smalls taught himself to read, and was later briefly allowed to attend school. In his early 20s he was assigned to work as a deckhand on a small cargo ship, and within two years he was the ship's pilot.

As the American Civil War raged, Robert Smalls led a plot that stowed his family and twelve other slaves aboard the confederate ship Planter, and steered the ship toward Union waters. Smalls donned the captain’s broad-brimmed straw hat and assumed the captain’s typical stance, arms akimbo, in the pilot house. As he passed each rebel fort he gave the correct whistle signal and was allowed to pass. Onward, the nearest Union blockading vessel, was preparing to fire on the approaching ship when Smalls raised a white flag and surrendered.

Surrendering to Union authorities, Smalls and the other slaves were freed, the ship was used to transport Union troops and supplies. Smalls enlisted in the Union Navy, serving as a pilot. Smalls and his crew of 12 slaves were welcomed as heroes. He was honored at the White House and became a captain in the Union Navy.

After the war, Smalls was granted a small fortune by Congress for his heroics, and purchased his former owner's home in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he opened a general store. He was elected to the South Carolina House, then the State Senate, and to the US House of Representatives in 1874.

During his career, Smalls authored South Carolina legislation that created the first free and compulsory public school system in America. Robert Smalls also founded the Republican Party of South Carolina, and successfully convinced President Lincoln to accept African American soldiers into the Union army. He is notable as the last Republican to represent South Carolina's 5th congressional district until 2010.

Robert Smalls was born in 1839 in a slave cabin behind his master's house on 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, SC. He would grow up in Beaufort as a house slave, also known as Swonga, under the influence of the Lowcountry Gullah Culture that his mother was raised in. Smalls' mother, Lydia, was a slave owned by John McKee.

Robert was sent to Charleston in 1851 to work for his new master Henry McKee, where he held several jobs. He started out in a hotel, then became a lamplighter on the streets of Charleston. His love of the water, evidenced in his childhood at Beaufort, led him to work down on the docks and wharfs of Charleston in his teen years. He became a  dockworker, a rigger, a sail maker, and eventually worked his way up to a wheelman (essentially a pilot, though blacks were not called pilots). He became very knowledgeable of the Charleston harbor.

Robert met a hotel maid, Hannah Jones, and married her on December 24, 1856. Hannah was fourteen years his senior and had an adolescent daughter when she met Robert. Hannah and Robert had their first child, Elizabeth Lydia, in February 1858. In 1861 they had another child, Robert Jr., who would die in 1863.

Click on the links below for detailed information and photos on African American veterans who rose to the top of their field

Revolutionary & Civil War

The Revolutionary War set precedents for black military service. Both Africans and African Americans fought on both sides of this war, often as a means for a black slave to win his freedom.

World War I

When World War I broke out, there were four all-black regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry.

World War II

African Americans made up over one million of the more than 16 million U.S. men and women to serve in World War II. Some of these men served in infantry, artillery, and tank units.

Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the United States armed forces.

Vietnam War & Iraq

The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of blacks ever to serve in an American war. During the height of the U.S. involvement blacks, who formed 11 percent of the American population, made up 12.6 percent of the soldiers in Vietnam.


Don't miss a single page. Find everything you need on our complete sitemap directory.


Listen or read the top speeches from African Americans. Read more


Read about the great African Americans who fought in wars. Read more


African Americans invented many of the things we use today. Read more


Thin jazz, think art, think of great actors and find them here. Read more


Follow the history of Black Americans from slave ships to the presidency. Read more


Olympic winners, MVPS of every sport, and people who broke the color barrier. Read more

Civil Rights Activists

These men and women risked and sometimes lost their life to fight for the cause. Read more


Meet the people who worked to change the system from the inside. Read more