No Small Victory
Updated: Aug 2
Prior to the end of legalized slavery in the South in 1865, there were many brave souls who took matters into their own hands to escape bondage on their own schedule. One particular Lowcountry hero lived a life that reads like a Hollywood blockbuster as he--along with family and friends--escaped to a life of freedom right under the Confederate Navy's nose.
Born into Bondage
Born into slavery in 1839, Robert Smalls and his mother were house servants for the McKee family of Beaufort, SC. When young Robert reached the age of 12, McKee sent him to Charleston to hire out as a laborer for one dollar a week, with the rest of the wage paid to his master. After stints as a hotel steward and a lamplighter, Smalls found work as a longshoreman on Charleston's docks, eventually becoming a ship's wheelman. When he married an enslaved hotel maid in 1856 and started a family of his own, Smalls hoped to take the money he had saved to purchase freedom for them all. Alas, while he had managed to save $100 over the years--a huge sum for enslaved persons of the time--he realized it would take him decades to accumulate the $800 required to free his family. Escape was the answer.
Escape to Freedom
Charleston was a center of Confederate activity once the Civil War began there in April, 1861. By May, 1862, Smalls had been assigned to steer a lightly-armed Confederate military transport called the CSS Planter, and saw this boat as his way out of bondage. When the steamer's three white officers disembarked to spend the night ashore in Charleston on the night of May 12, the 23-year-old Smalls and several other enslaved crew members snuck their families aboard. Dressed in the captain's uniform and a straw hat similar to the captain's, Smalls piloted the ship past all five forts in the Confederately-held harbor, giving all of the correct signals at each checkpoint.
Once past Fort Sumter and clear of Charleston Harbor, Smalls steered the ship straight toward the Union Navy fleet anchored offshore. His wife, Hannah, replaced the steamer's Confederate flag with a white sheet she had brought from home, alerting the Union that they came in peace. Pulling close just as the sun arose, Smalls is said to have greeted the Northern officers by shouting, "Good morning, sir! I've brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!" In the hold of the CSS Planter were several large guns (cannons) intended for a Charleston fort and over 200 pounds of ammunition. Perhaps more valuable to the Union, though, was the captain's code book and a map of the mines laid in Charleston Harbor. Along with his family and friends, Robert Smalls had found freedom. But the story gets even better from there.
A Humble Hero
After his escape, Smalls went to Washington, D.C. and helped persuade President Lincoln to allow Black men to serve in the Union Army. After this change occurred, Smalls himself served as a pilot for the Union Navy. After the war ended in 1865, he returned to his hometown of Beaufort, where he learned to read and write. He served five elected terms in Congress, introducing the concept of compulsory education for all.
But here's the cherry on top of this incredible story: when Robert Smalls returned to Beaufort, he came as a fairly wealthy man. He had earned a substantial reward from the U.S. government for the capture of the CSS Planter, and had earned a fine salary while serving in the Union Navy. So he returned to Beaufort and purchased his childhood home on Prince Street--the house in which he and his mother had been enslaved (see photo above). He became the man of that house and lived there for the rest of his long life, providing his mother with one of the best rooms in the house. And--get this--he also welcomed his former master's widow, Mrs. McKee, to live in his home until her death several years later.
Traveling between Beaufort and Hilton Head Island today, you will find yourself driving past Robert Smalls International Academy on Robert Smalls Parkway. Several books have been written about this man's brave adventures in recent years, and a stage play is currently in production. For a more hands-on exploration of this inspirational man and his story,
you can visit his gravesite in the churchyard of Beaufort's Tabernacle Baptist Church (see photo above). You can also see his house at 511 Prince Street, which has recently been incorporated into the Reconstruction Era National Historic Network of the National Park Service, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As the house is located in a residential area, please be courteous of neighbors. Robert Smalls would have wanted that.