Robert Smalls: Escaped slave, war hero, Republican congressman, BADASS
Robert Smalls wood engraving

Robert Smalls: Escaped slave, war hero, GOP congressman, BADASS

Posted August 26, 2017 09:09 AM by Chris Pandolfo Robert Smalls wood engraving
Harper’s Weekly | Library of Congress
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Meet Robert Smalls. A recent viral tweet by YouTube commentator Matt Jarbo regarding this escaped slave, Civil War hero, and former Republican congressman from South Carolina piqued our interest to learn more.

It is undoubtedly an impressive resume. But the meme doesn’t do Smalls nearly the justice. So here are five things you should know about former Congressman Robert Smalls, R-S.C., an original American badass.

1) Robert Smalls was born a slave

Smalls was born into slavery on April 5, 1839 in Beaufort, S.C. His mother, Lydia Polite, was the house slave of plantation owner John McKee. According to The Washington Post, though his father’s identity was unknown, it was widely believed to be McKee’s son, Henry.

As a child, Robert had the favor of the McKees in many aspects and grew up in the main house. Worried that Smalls’ privileged status would rob him of knowing the true horrors of slavery, his mother tried exposing him as much as possible to the reality of plantation life for blacks.

At age 12, McKee — at Polite’s urging — rented him out to work in Charleston, where he was permitted to keep just $1 of his weekly wages for himself. Beginning as a day laborer on the waterfront, he first became a rigger, and then a skilled sailor. In 1856, at age 18, he married Hannah Jones, a slave hotel maid, and started a family, with the knowledge they could be separated at any moment.

His mind turned to escape.  

2) His escape from slavery is the stuff of legends

In 1861, Smalls began work on the “Planter.” As a deckhand on the steam ship, the 23-year-old Smalls developed an in-depth knowledge of the Planter and for navigating the harbor. When a Union blockade surrounded Charleston. It was the perfect opportunity for escape.

On the night of May 12, 1862, the trusting white officers on the Planter took an unapproved furlough into town, leaving the slave sailors behind. Smalls seized the opportunity, and seized the ship. Garbed in the captain’s coat and signature straw hat, Smalls collected the men’s families from a rendezvous point. Flying the Confederate flag, the Planter began its trek toward the Union blockade.

The danger to Smalls, to his family, and to the crew cannot be understated — the ship would have to pass through Confederate checkpoints in the wee hours of the morning. The 1863 Naval Committee report described the plan as “hazardous in the extreme.” If discovered, the crew agreed they would not be taken alive and prepared to defend themselves with the arms on the ship and to use explosives to sink it.

The explosives weren’t necessary. Smalls not only looked the part of the captain, but he learned the proper Confederate coding signals at sea. The Confederates were duped, as the Planter successfully navigated the checkpoints without incident. The ship arrived at the Union blockade — at freedom —in the dawn’s early light, flying a white flag of surrender.

“Good morning sir,” Smalls called out to the USS Onward. “I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!”


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3) His heroism inspired Abraham Lincoln

The New York Times described the Planter’s escape as “one of the most heroic acts of the war.” In recognition of Smalls’ bravery, Congress passed a private bill on May 30, 1862 authorizing the Navy to appraise the Planter and award the crew half the proceeds for “rescuing her from the enemies of the Government.”

Robert Smalls quickly became a celebrity in the North, as his exploits at sea challenged the popularly held and racist opinion that blacks were too dull-witted and lacking in courage to serve as soldiers in the Union army. Impressed, President Abraham Lincoln invited Smalls to the White House. Historian Orville Vernon Burton recounts that at Smalls’ visit, “Lincoln turned to him and said, ‘why would you risk your life, even your families and these men, to try to escape out of Charleston with this boat?’”

Robert Smalls’ one-word answer: “Freedom.”

A “new birth of freedom” was the theme President Lincoln would advance in the Gettysburg Address and for the rest of the war. Smalls’ heroism helped lead the president to authorize free African-Americans to serve in the Union military — to fight for the reunification of their country alongside their fellow white Americans.

Smalls proceeded to serve as sea captain of the Planter and went on to fight 17 nautical battles for the Union.

4) He founded the Republican Club of South Carolina and was elected to Congress

Following the war, Robert Smalls was commissioned as a brigadier general in the South Carolina militia. Using the $1,500 awarded to him by Congress, Smalls purchased his former master’s house in Beaufort, S.C., taking in some of the McKee family (which was, at that point, destitute). Gifted with an entrepreneurial spirit, Smalls started a general store, a school for black children, and a newspaper before turning his attention to politics.

In the spring of 1867, Smalls helped to form the first Republican Club in the state of South Carolina. He was a delegate to the post-war South Carolina constitutional convention and was eventually elected to both houses of the state legislature. Between 1874 and 1879, Smalls served non-consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives as one of the first African-American congressmen and a Reconstruction-era Republican.

As a congressman, Smalls is noteworthy for opposing the removal of U.S. troops from the South, in fear for the vulnerable black lives. He also worked on racial integration issues, becoming the second-longest-serving black Republican in Congress until the mid-20th century.

Following his years in office, Smalls served as an unflinching civil rights champion for black Americans. “My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country,” he said. “It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”

5) His legacy lives

Robert Smalls’ history and heroism may be unknown to most all Americans, his legacy lives on. “The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls” is a traveling exhibition that visits American history museums throughout the nation. The McKee/Smalls home in Beaufort is now called the Robert Smalls House and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2004, the U.S. named a vessel for Robert Smalls, becoming the first Army ship named after an African American.

The state of South Carolina has featured Smalls in an educational video, and a monument and statue to his honor resides at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort. There is also a statue of Smalls in the U.S. National Museum of African American History.

But seriously, this American badass deserves a movie.

Chris Pandolfo is a staff writer and type-shouter for Conservative Review. He holds a B.A. in politics and economics from Hillsdale College. His interests are conservative political philosophy, the American founding, and progressive rock. Follow him on Twitter for doom-saying and great album recommendations @ChrisCPandolfo.