February is Black History Month. Visit the National Archives website for more information and resources on African American History. Today’s Facial Hair Friday post about Robert Smalls comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.
Robert Smalls was an American boat pilot, politician, and businessman whose daring heroism during the Civil War could have made a good movie.
Born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1839, Smalls worked in his enslavers’ home in Beaufort throughout his youth. In 1851 Smalls moved to his enslavers’ Charleston home, where he was hired out on the waterfront in a number of maritime occupations, including sailmaker, rigger, and sailor.
In 1856 he married Hannah Jones, an enslaved woman, and the couple had two daughters, Elizabeth and Sarah. Like many urban enslaved people who were hired out, the Smalls lived separately from their enslavers but sent their enslavers most of their income. During these years as a sailor and stevedore foreman, Smalls became an expert at navigating the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia.
The Confederacy adopted widespread conscription of enslaved people to meet its labor needs, and after the start of the Civil War, Smalls was conscripted into service aboard the CSS Planter as a pilot. The Planter was a steam-powered cotton ship that had been lightly armed by the Confederate Navy to deliver dispatches, troops, and supplies and to lay mines. Smalls piloted the Planter along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts, where he could see the Union ship blockade several miles offshore. After taking several of the other enslaved men into his confidence, he concocted a daring escape plan.
On May 12, 1862, the Planter traveled to a fort southwest of Charleston that was being dismantled to pick up four large guns to transport to a fort in Charleston harbor. In Charleston the crew loaded several hundred pounds of ammunition and firewood into the hold.
That evening the ship’s three White officers disembarked to spend the night ashore as usual, leaving Smalls and the crew on board. Before the officers departed, Smalls asked the captain if the crews’ families could visit, and when the families arrived, the men revealed the escape plan to them.
Around 3 a.m. on May 13, Smalls and seven of the eight enslaved crewmen made their escape to the Union blockade. Smalls put on the captain’s uniform and wore a straw hat similar to the captain’s and sailed the ship out into the harbor, stopping first to pick up his wife and children, and the families of some other crewmen.
Smalls guided the ship past the five Confederate harbor forts without incident, giving the correct signals at checkpoints. Planter sailed past the final fort, Fort Sumter, around 4:30 a.m. Once he was out of the range of Fort Sumter’s guns, Smalls hoisted a white flag and steered the Planter to the USS Onward. When she pulled in neatly behind the ship’s stern, he called out, “Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!”
Smalls surrendered the Planter and its cargo to the United States Navy. In addition to the ship’s guns and the guns and ammunition they were transporting, the captain’s code book and Smalls’ extensive knowledge of the Charleston region’s waterways, fortifications, military deployments, and mines proved invaluable to the Union. With these, the Union was able to capture Coles Island outside of Charleston Harbor without a fight. Smalls was described as “superior to any who have come into our lines—intelligent as many of them have been.”
Smalls spent the remainder of the war serving the Union Navy with his intimate knowledge of the South Carolina Sea Islands, first by piloting the Planter—re-outfitted as a troop transport—and then the ironclad ship USS Keokuk.
In 1874 Smalls was elected to the United States House of Representatives, serving from 1875 to 1879, 1882 to 1883, and 1884 to 1887 in different districts. After his time in Congress ended, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Smalls to be collector of the Port of Beaufort in 1889, and he held the position until 1913 (except during the Presidency of Grover Cleveland).
In 1897, after a lengthy fight, a special act of Congress granted Smalls a pension of $30 per month for his service to the U.S. Navy during the Civil War—a sum equal to the pension for a Navy captain. Smalls died of malaria and diabetes in 1915 at the age of 75.
In 1942, when the U.S. Navy was still segregated by race, Camp Robert Smalls was established inside the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois to train African American seamen. Robert Smalls’s great-grandson, Edward Estes Davidson, was one of African American sailors who went through training at Camp Robert Smalls.