By: Friedrich Seiltgen
Copyright © 2022
Robert Smalls was born into slavery in 1839. Smalls and his mother, Lydia Polite, lived in a small cabin behind the house of Henry McKee, a local planter in Beaufort, South Carolina where she was enslaved as a housekeeper.
When Smalls was 12 years old, McKee sent him to Charleston to be hired out. He worked as a waiter in a hotel before eventually being sent to the city’s docks. In Charleston, he met an enslaved woman named Hannah Jones who he married in 1856.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Smalls was a crewmember on a Confederate transport ship, the CSS Planter, operating out of Charleston Harbor. The ship’s owners contracted the vessel to the Confederate army and Smalls found himself as a Helmsman on board the ship, although slaves were not allowed to officially hold that title.
Smalls longed to be a free man. He planned to escape with fellow enslaved crew members, except one that he did not trust. On the night of May 12, 1862, the white crewmembers of the Planter went ashore in Charleston. Before the officers departed, Smalls asked the captain if the crews’ families could visit. The captain approved on the condition that all family members depart before curfew. When the families arrived, Smalls and the ship’s crew revealed the plan to them. Later in the evening the family members left the ship pretending to go back home but they went to the North Atlantic wharf and hid waiting for pickup.
Around 3 a.m., Smalls and his crew sailed to the wharf and picked up the waiting family members. From there, Smalls guided the ship past five Confederate harbor forts without incident, as he gave the correct signals at checkpoints. The CSS Planter had been commanded by Captain Charles C. J. Relyea, and Smalls copied Relyea’s manners and straw hat on deck to fool Confederate lookouts on shore and in forts. Smalls sailed the group out to the Union naval blockade and turned the CSS Planter over to the United States Navy. Robert Smalls, his family, and all the families were free!
In addition to turning the Planter over to the United States Navy, Robert Smalls provided valuable intelligence on Confederate operations around Charleston Harbor. Using his knowledge of the waterways, Smalls served as a pilot on several naval vessels operating in action against Confederate forces. Due to missions such as one against the Keokuk, an ironclad that was sunk by enemy fire in April 1863, in which Smalls was injured, he was eventually promoted to captain and given command of the Planter.
Smalls loved Beaufort and returned whenever he was able. By January of 1864, using prize money from the capture of the Planter, he purchased the mansion of Henry McKee – the man who had once enslaved him. Suddenly this former slave found himself not only a war hero, but the property owner of the mansion owned by his former slave master.
Post war, Smalls began his career in politics. In 1864 he served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention – the start of his political career through the Reconstruction. In 1868, he served as a delegate to the South Carolina state convention that wrote a new state constitution. That same year he was elected to the state House of Representatives, then to the state Senate in 1872. In 1874, the citizens of Beaufort elected Robert Smalls to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served five terms between 1875 – 1887.
At the time of Robert Smalls death in February 1915, Democrats had completely retaken the political landscape of the south and instituted harsh segregation policies.
In 2017, Small’s story was honored at the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park located just a few blocks away from both Robert Smalls’ home and his final resting place at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort.
That’s all for now folks! Please keep sending in your questions, tips, and article Ideas. And as always – “Let’s Be Careful Out There.”
Friedrich Seiltgen is a retired Master Police Officer with 20 years of service with the Orlando Police Department. He conducts training in Lone Wolf Terrorism, Firearms, and Active Shooter Response. His writing has appeared in RECOIL, Floridajolt.com, Soldier of Fortune, The Counter Terrorist Magazine, American Thinker, Homeland Security Today, and The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International. Contact him at email@example.com