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.