Smalls, Robert

Smalls, Robert

(1839–1915) Civil War hero, sailor, U.S. representative; born in Beaufort, S.C. His mother was an African-American slave, but as he grew up learning the trade of sailmaker and rigger, he became a familiar figure on the Charleston waterfront. Having gained considerable skill at piloting boats along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, he was forced by the Confederates to pilot the Planter, a transport boat that had a crew of African-Americans with a few white officers. On May 13, 1862, with the white officers ashore, he persuaded its African-American crew to sail the ship out of Charleston harbor and then turned it over to the Union navy; its cargo was estimated to be worth several million dollars. Immediately celebrated as a hero in the North, he was hired by the Union army as a pilot and participated in several engagements. In October 1862 he went to New York City to try to get support for a colony of freed slaves at Port Royal, S.C.; he spent nine months in Philadelphia to get a basic education; in June 1864 he attended the Republican Party Convention as part of a delegation of free blacks. After the war he served in the South Carolina legislature and then in the U.S. House of Representatives (Rep., S.C.; 1875–79, 1882–87); struggling constantly against obstacles placed in his way by colleagues, he worked to gain some measures of equity for African-Americans. He was also an officer in the South Carolina militia, rising to the rank of major general. He ended his career as the Federal collector of the port in his native town of Beaufort, S.C. (1889–1913).
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.