Robert Smalls: From a Slave to a Congressman

 Robert Smalls: From a Slave to a Congressman

By: Matt K, A Student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, as part of Heather Nelson’s Service Learning Academy class

April 5, 1839 – February 23, 1915

The story of Robert Smalls is a truly extraordinary and American one. Robert Smalls was born as a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina. He grew up working with naval ships and eventually became a crew member of the CSS Planter during the Civil War. One night, after commandeering a Confederate transport ship, he sailed his crew and their families into Union waters to freedom. His actions caught the attention of President Lincoln, who after hearing of his actions, allowed for African Americans to register in the Union Army. After the War during Reconstruction, Smalls ran as a Republican for South Carolina and was elected to the United States House of Representatives.

Major Accomplishments:

  • Freed his family and the families of his crew members by commandeering a Confederate ship disguised as a Confederate Captain.
  • Robert’s actions encouraged President Lincoln to allow African Americans to serve in the Union Army.
  • Went on a speaking tour recruiting African Americans to join the army, gathering troops for the war effort.
  • He conducted 17 missions as a Union Navy Captain on the Planter and USS Keokuk
  • He dedicated his time after the war to help the Beaufort community, opening up a school for black children, a general store, and even a newspaper, the Beaufort Southern Standard. 
  • He served as a member on the South Carolina House of Representatives 
  • Smalls served as a Republican for the United States House of Representatives for several terms where he fought for desegregation and the rights of African Americans. 
  • After political office, he served as the Collector of the Port of Beaufort for about twenty years.


Robert Smalls was born a slave on April 5, 1939 in Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother, Lydia Polite worked as a nanny, and while his father is unknown. it has long believed that the property owner, John McKees, was his father. He was twelve when he was sent away to work with ships in the Charleston area. Through his vast array of jobs including foreman, rigger, sailor, sail maker etc., he learned to navigate ships through the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. On December 24, 1856, when Smalls was just 17, he married Hannah Jones, who was still a slave and worked as a Charleston hotel maid. They would go on to have two daughters, Sarah and Elizabeth, as well as a son, Robert Jr., who sadly died of smallpox when he was just two. He had made several attempts to buy his and his family’s freedom but to no avail.

Civil War Hero:

The Civil War began in 1861 and at this point Robert Smalls was helping piolet the CSS Planter, a Confederate steamboat turned transporter that sailed along the Florida, Georgia, Carolina coasts delivering ammunition and supplies. One night on May 13, 1862, once the Confederate officials and crew members had left to spend a night on the shores. He told his eight other crewmen to gather his and their families for they would make a break for freedom. His wife had known about the plan before hand and after the shock of the plan had died down on the others, they set sail for Union Waters. Smalls disguised himself using the captain’s uniform and straw hat. During the early hours of the morning, having studied the signals and codes for months on the ship and imitating the body movements of Captain Charles C. J Relyea, he was successfully able to trick the Confederate soldiers on shore and travel past five Confederate checkpoints. The final checkpoint was Fort Sumter and while eventually the alarm was sounded it was too late with Planter too far out of firing range. Using the bed sheet Small’s wife brought as a white flag, they surrendered to the USS Onward right before they were fired upon by the Union ship.

His daring escape did more than just free himself and the crew, it helped ensure Union naval victories. On board were several large guns and ammunitions but most importantly the Captain’s book of codes that detailed essential information that helped in the war effort and would later lead to the recapture of a base. His heroics would be one of the major encouragements that made President Lincoln decide to let African Americans into the Union Army. As a private citizen he used his remaining years in the war as a spokesman for recruiting black soldiers and piloting (also the unofficial captain) of the Planter and USS Keokuk. He engaged in several naval maneuvers across the South Carolina Islands. 

Post war:

Though Smalls had already proved himself a war hero, he showed himself to be a policy changer as well. Firstly, in 1864, when the war was still on and the Planter was being repaired, Smalls and a white colleague of his attempted to take a streetcar in the city. He was told he had to stand at the front platform of the streetcar in the rain or he could not ride. He refused and instead walked with his colleague through the city in the rain. But due to his growing celebrity in the north as a war hero, the incident would cause one of the first mass boycotts of segregated public transportation and eventually in 1867 integration of street cars was enacted. 

Shortly after the war, with the commissions he had made, bought the house back in Beaufort which he last left as a slave. He even went as far as to allow the elderly wife of the former owner, Mrs. McKees, to live in her former home when her health began to decline. 

Robert Smalls also opened up a general store to serve newly freedmen and those in the Beaufort community. He also started his own school for African American children as well as his own newspaper, The Beaufort Southern Standard. 

Political Life:

Due to his involvement in the community, his education, and fluency of the sea island Gullah dialect, he was popular among the locals, earning him his first elected office with a term in the state house of representatives in South Carolina from 1870 to 1874. He eventually would serve for several terms in the US House of Representatives in the 44th, 45th, 47th, 48th and 49th Congresses where he fought for the equal representation and treatment of African Americans in the United States. 

#RobertSmalls #ThePlanter #CaptainSmalls #SlavetoCongressman #CivilWarHero #CongressmanSmalls 

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Blog Sources:

“Robert Smalls (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 

“SMALLS, Robert.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, 

Timmons, Greg. “Robert Smalls.”, A&E Networks Television, 19 Jan. 2021,