Legislator, congressman. Smalls was born in Beaufort on April 5, 1839, the son of Lydia Smalls, a house slave, and possibly her master, Henry McKee, or a slave named Robert Smalls. In 1851 McKee hired out twelve-year-old Smalls as a laborer in Charleston. Smalls worked as a waiter, a lamplighter, a stevedore, and eventually a ship rigger and sailor on coastal vessels. On December 24, 1856, Smalls married Hannah Jones, a slave woman fourteen years his senior. The couple had three children. After the 1883 death of his first wife, Smalls married Annie Elizabeth Wigg on April 9, 1890. They had one child.
At the start of the Civil War, Smalls was employed as a pilot on the cotton steamer Planter, which was impressed into Confederate service as an armed courier. Early on the morning of May 13, 1862, in the absence of the vessel’s white officers, Smalls led the takeover of the Planter by its slave crew, sailed past the harbor’s formidable defenses, and surrendered the vessel to the Federal blockading force. The daring act made Smalls famous, and the information he provided on Confederate defenses was valuable in planning Union operations. Congress voted prize money to the crew for their deed, with Smalls receiving $1,500.
As Smalls was a knowledgeable pilot, his services were in demand. On December 1, 1863, he was piloting the Planter near Secessionville when severe enemy fire caused the white captain to abandon his post. Smalls brought the vessel out of danger and was awarded with an army contract as captain of the Planter. He was the first black man to command a ship in U.S. service and remained captain of the Planter until it was sold in 1866. By his own count, Smalls was involved in seventeen military engagements during the war.
After the war Smalls settled in his native Beaufort, where he purchased the house of his former master. Smalls’s war-time accomplishments made him a political force in the Sea Islands, with its overwhelmingly black population. In 1867 Smalls was one of the founders of the Republican Party in South Carolina, an organization to which he remained loyal all his life. In 1868 he was a delegate to the state constitutional convention and won election to the state House of Representatives, where he represented Beaufort County until 1870. That same year Beaufort voters sent Smalls to the state Senate, and in 1873 he was promoted to major general in the militia. In the Senate, Smalls was made chairman of the printing committee, an assignment with the potential for graft. In 1877 he was tried and convicted of accepting a bribe and was sentenced to three years, but he was pardoned in an amnesty that also quashed proceedings against Democrats for election irregularities. Even Smalls’s enemies at the time said that the case against him was not strong, and it was likely part of the campaign to remove African Americans from public office.
In 1874 Smalls was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was reelected to the following Congress and served intermittently until 1886. With the return of Democratic rule in South Carolina after 1876, Smalls had increasing difficulty winning reelection. He lost to George D. Tillman in 1878 and 1880 but successfully contested the results of the latter election and took Tillman’s seat in July 1882. Two years later Smalls failed to secure renomination, losing to Edmund W. M. Mackey, who died soon after taking office. Smalls was elected to fill the vacancy and returned to Washington in March 1884, but he lost a bid for another term in 1886. While in Congress, Smalls earned a reputation as an effective speaker. He secured appropriations for harbor improvements at Port Royal and was a vocal opponent of the removal of federal troops from the South.
After returning to South Carolina, Smalls successfully lobbied his old congressional colleagues for a veteran’s pension and more compensation for the Planter. His last major political role was as one of six black members of the 1895 state constitutional convention, where he unsuccessfully opposed efforts to disenfranchise African Americans. In 1889 President Benjamin Harrison appointed Smalls as collector of customs for the port of Beaufort, an office he held, except during President Grover Cleveland’s second term, until June 1913, when he was forced out by South Carolina’s senators. Smalls died on February 22, 1915, at his home in Beaufort. He was buried in Tabernacle Baptist Churchyard.
Miller, Edward A., Jr. Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839–1915. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Uya, Okon Edet. From Slavery to Public Service: Robert Smalls, 1839–1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.