- Born Beaufort, S.C.; mother, Lydia, a house slave; father, an unknown
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.
- Hired in Charleston as deck hand on Planter, a
Confederate transport steamer; made pilot of the vessel March 1, 1862.
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.
1862 - President Lincoln signed a Congressional bill awarding
prize money to Smalls and his associates. Smalls was awarded $1500.
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.
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."
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Served in South Carolina House of Representatives.
- Commissioned as lieutenant colonel in the South Carolina state
militia; 1871, promoted to brigadier general; 1873, promoted to major
- Served in South Carolina State Senate.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- A private relief bill, passed by Congress, and signed by President
Harrison, restored Smalls to Navy pension rolls.
- After several unsuccessful attempts for more equitable compensation
for the capture of Planter, Congress passed a bill awarding Smalls an
23, 1915 - Died. Buried at Tabernacle Baptist Church after
what was called the largest funeral ever held in the city.