Voyage Into History

Robert Smalls (1839-1915)

           Robert Smalls (1839-1915)

In celebration of Black History Month, I salute Robert Smalls (1839-1915), a man of uncommon courage who, with one bold move, altered his destiny and changed American history. Born a slave in Beaufort, SC, Smalls was greatly favored by his white owner, John McKee, who may also have been his father. Concerned that the carefree youth was being shielded from the realities of the slave world, his mother Lydia, a house servant, made certain he saw field hands toiling in the cotton fields.  Smalls was so horrified and outraged that his mother averted trouble by convincing McKee to send the twelve-year-old to work in Charleston. Hired as a lamplighter in the bustling port city, Smalls was fascinated by the waterfront and quickly developed a love for the sea. As an adult, he found work as a dockworker, rigger and sail-maker before becoming a pilot aboard the coastal steamer Planter. The ship’s captain, C. J. Relyea, recognized the young man’s potential and taught him the skills needed to navigate Charleston’s island-dotted harbor. Although of different races, the stocky pair shared a noticeable resemblance, perhaps because Smalls was mulatto and Relyea’s years at sea had burned him swarthy. It was a fortunate coincidence that would serve the restless slave well.

The C. S. S. Planter

  C. S. S. Planter in Charleston harbor.

In 1856, with slave marriages forbidden, Smalls set up housekeeping with a woman named Hannah who bore him two children. Unable to raise the $700 to buy his family’s freedom, Smalls was seeking other options when the firing on Fort Sumter triggered the Civil War and Charleston harbor was blockaded by Union ships. He continued working aboard the Planter after it was commandeered by the Confederacy and converted into an armed military transport supplying islands in the bottled-up port. He proved himself so trustworthy that on May 12, 1862, Captain Relyea and his two officers had no qualms about spending the night in town and leaving the 22-year-old Smalls in charge of the ship. It was the moment Smalls had been waiting for. Gathering his fellow enslaved crewmen, he revealed his plan to sail the Planter to freedom. Two were too fearful and scrambled ashore, but the remaining five eagerly agreed to the escape attempt. At 2 am, Smalls donned Relyea’s trademark straw hat and, by some accounts, the captain’s uniform as well, ordered the hoisting of the South Carolina and Confederate flags and, calling upon his intimate knowledge of Charleston harbor, sailed into the dark night. He made a quick stop at the West Atlantic Wharf to pick up his anxiously waiting family and eight more slaves hungry for freedom. After secreting them below, at 3:45 am he eased past Confederate Fort Johnson. Half an hour later, arms folded in a daring imitation of Captain Rylea, he ordered all the requisite signals and cleared Fort Sumter at the far reaches of the harbor. Not until it became clear that the Planter was heading for the Union blockade did the Confederates sound the alarm, but it was too late to give chase. As the U. S. S. Onward took aim at the approaching enemy vessel, Smalls hauled down his colors and replaced them with the flag of surrender– a white sheet Hannah had been told to bring aboard! As the Planter grew closer, the crew of the Onward saw decks filled not with rebel troops but jubilant slaves shouting, singing and dancing in the growing light of dawn. Smalls doffed his hat and shouted at an astonished Captain Frederick Nickels. “Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!” He offered up not only two cannons, four artillery pieces and 200 rounds of ammunition, but the far more valuable code book of Confederate signals and a map of the harbor’s mine and torpedo installations. Smalls’s bravery was a sensation in Washington where he was hailed as a national hero. Two weeks later, the U. S. Congress authorized the Navy to reward Smalls and his crew for “rescuing the Planter from the enemies of the Government.” He personally received $1500.

Robert Small House, Beaufort, SC

      Robert Small House, Beaufort, SC

Now a free man, Smalls found a new cause when he learned black soldiers couldn’t serve in the Union army. He pressured Secretary of War Edward Stanton to propose a policy change which President Lincoln signed into law. Smalls immediately joined the Navy and proved his heroism in 17 military engagements. He eventually captained his own vessel, and in April, 1865, found himself back aboard the Planter in Charleston harbor for a ceremony ending the war. Another karmic twist came when Smalls purchased the McKee home where, ever the humanitarian, he allowed his elderly, impoverished mistress to live alongside his family. His burning desire for justice was rekindled by politics. After being elected to both the South Carolina state assembly and senate, he served five terms in the U. S. House of Representatives. Undeterred by the crippling Jim Crow laws of the time, Smalls never wavered in his fight for African-American civil rights, and his words still resonate a hundred years later. “My race need no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.” Robert Smalls died in his Beaufort home, February 22, 1915, a free man only a few yards from the spot where he was born a slave. Today the house is a National Historic Landmark.



  1. Dianne Turner
    Feb 19, 2016

    Yet another excellent piece of history!

  2. Liz
    Feb 23, 2016

    Thank you so very much for this excellent piece of lost history, Michael. It certainly would make a terrific film…

  3. Yves Fey
    Apr 18, 2016

    Great story. I agree with Liz, it would make a great film.

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