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Robert Smalls
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Robert Smalls

First African American Hero of the Civil War

 

April 5, 1839 - Born Beaufort, S.C.; mother, Lydia, a house slave; father, an unknown white man.

December 24, 1858 - At 19, married Hannah Jones, 33, a slave hotel maid; son, Robert, Jr., born 1861, died of smallpox, 1864; daughters, Elizabeth Lydia, born 1858, and Sarah Voorhees, born 1863.

July, 1861 - Hired in Charleston as deck hand on Planter, a Confederate transport steamer; made pilot of the vessel March 1, 1862.

May 13, 1862 - With his wife, children and twelve other slaves on board, Smalls took Planter from the dock in front of the Confederate commander's office and headquarters.  After passing Fort Sumter, Planter approached Onward, the nearest Union blockading vessel, which was preparing to fire on it.  After a white flag was raised, Planter was allowed to come alongside. Smalls' daring feat became a national sensation as media coverage lauded the "plucky Africans" for delivering into Union hands "the first trophy from Fort Sumter."  Equally valuable to the Union was the information on mine placement, rebel troop dispositions, and a code book of Confederate flag signals which Smalls provided to Admiral Du Pont, commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  Retained as pilot of Planter due to his intimate knowledge of local waters, Smalls served as pilot on other vessels, including Du Pont's Flagship, Wabash.

May 30, 1862 - President Lincoln signed a Congressional bill awarding prize money to Smalls and his associates. Smalls was awarded $1500.

August 20, 1862 - At the bidding of Major General Hunter, Sherman's replacement, Smalls and missionary Mansfield French met with President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton, seeking authorization to recruit five thousand black troops.  Permission was soon granted.

September 7, 1862 - Recognized as an articulate leader and spokesman for freedmen, Smalls, accompanied by his wife and infant son, was sent by abolitionists on a speaking tour of New York.  Presented with a gold medal by "the colored citizens of New York as a token of our regard for his heroism, love of liberty, and his patriotism."

April 7, 1863 - Smalls wounded in the eyes while piloting monitor Keokuk during a Union ironclad flotilla attack on Fort Sumter.  After taking 90 hits, many at or below the waterline, Keokuk sank upright the following morning.

December 1, 1863 - When Planter became caught under intense crossfire from two batteries and a ship, Captain Nickerson hid below decks.  Smalls took command of the vessel and brought it to safety.  Nickerson was dismissed for cowardice and Smalls appointed captain in his place, becoming the first black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States.  Paperwork detailing his promotion was lost during an expedition in April, 1865, preventing him from receiving a pension for many years.

1864 - While in Philadelphia awaiting repairs on Planter, Smalls was one of the first four black men chosen to attend a national party convention.  Due to military needs, he was unable to attend. Here, Smalls reportedly studied reading and writing with tutors, and spoke to black and white church groups, Freedmen's Aid Societies, and abolitionists.  While newspaper accounts of the ejection of this national hero from a segregated streetcar renewed efforts to desegregate public transportation, city streetcars were not integrated until 1867.

1866 - Returned to Beaufort, S.C., and, with his Congressional prize money, purchased the house in which he and his mother had been slaves.  The house was entered on the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic Landmark in 1975.

1867 - As member of the Beaufort County School District Board, bought land for a school in the city.  In 1903, wrote to Frederick Douglass, "I am deeply interested in the common school system, because it was the first public act of my life to work for the establishment of this at Beaufort."  With 37 other black men, helped form the Beaufort Republican Club, the first organization of the party in the state.

1868 - As delegate to the state constitutional convention, offered a resolution for a "system of common schools . . . to be open without charge to all classes of persons."  Participated in drafting the constitution of the state in which he had been born into slavery.

1868-1870 - Served in South Carolina House of Representatives.

1870 - Commissioned as lieutenant colonel in the South Carolina state militia; 1871, promoted to brigadier general; 1873, promoted to major general.

1870-1874 - Served in South Carolina State Senate.

1875-1886 - Served in 44th, 45th, 47th, 48th and 49th U.S. Congresses. During consideration of a bill to reduce and restructure the Army, introduced an amendment to integrate all regiments, and that "Hereafter in the enlistment of men in the Army... no distinction whatsoever shall be made on account of race or color."  The amendment was not considered. Introduced petitions in favor of women's suffrage.

1877 - Found guilty of taking a bribe while chairman of the state Printing Committee.  Appealed the verdict and returned to his Congressional duties.  After an appeal to the state Supreme Court was denied, he was pardoned by the governor on April 23, 1879.  His attempt to have an appeal heard by the U.S. Supreme Court failed.  Historians generally agree that the case against him was not strong and its motivation decidedly political.

1889-1911 - Served as U. S. Collector of Customs.  Wrote, in a 1913 letter to Booker T. Washington, "During the twenty odd years I have held the position of Collector, I have succeeded to so manage affairs that when I leave it, I will do so with credit to myself, my family, and my race . . .  When we go out of office we go clean.  So when the excellent history of the Tuskegee and the Negro shall be written, the Customs House at Beaufort, while conducted by colored men, can be easily attached to the top or bottom, for whatever inspiration it may be to the Race."

1897 - A private relief bill, passed by Congress, and signed by President Harrison, restored Smalls to Navy pension rolls.

1900 - After several unsuccessful attempts for more equitable compensation for the capture of Planter, Congress passed a bill awarding Smalls an additional $5000.

February 23, 1915 - Died.  Buried at Tabernacle Baptist Church after what was called the largest funeral ever held in the city.

To commemorate Robert Smalls, the city of Beaufort, S.C., named a school and a highway for him.

Below a bust of Smalls, erected near his grave, is the following inscription:

My people need no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.

November 1, 1895

 


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