Smalls, Robert

Life Span
    Full name
    Robert Smalls
    Place of Birth
    Birth Date Certainty
    Death Date Certainty
    Sectional choice
    Slave State
    No. of Spouses
    No. of Children
    Lydia (mother), Hannah Jones (first wife, 1856), Annie Wigg (second wife, 1890)
    Other Occupation
    Harbor pilot
    Relation to Slavery
    Slave or Former Slave
    Union Navy

    Robert Smalls (Appleton’s)

    SMALLS, Robert, member of congress, b. in Beaufort, S. C., 5 April. 1839. Being a slave, he was debarred from attending school, and was altogether self-educated He removed to Charleston in 1851, worked at the riggers trade, afterward led a seafaring life, and in 1861 was employed as a pilot on “The Planter,” a steamer that plied In Charleston harbor as a transport. In May, 1862, he took this vessel over Charleston bar, and delivered her to the commander of the U. S. blockading squadron. After serving for some time as pilot in the U. S. navy, he was promoted captain for gallant and meritorious conduct, 1 Dec., 1863, and placed in command of “The Planter,” serving until she was put out of commission in 1866. He returned to Beaufort after the war, was a member of the State constitutional convention in 1868, was elected a member of the state house of representatives the same year, and of the state senate in 1870, and was re-elected in 1872. He was elected to the 44th congress from South Carolina, has been re- elected to every succeeding congress except the 46th, for which he was defeated, and served, with this exception, from 6 Dec., 1875, till 1888. He has been major-general of state troops.
    James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, eds., “Smalls, Robert,” Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888), 5: 553-554.

    Robert Smalls (Congressional Biographical Directory)

    SMALLS, Robert, a Representative from South Carolina; born in Beaufort, S.C., April 5, 1839; moved to Charleston, S.C., in 1851; appointed pilot in the United States Navy and served throughout the Civil War; member of the State constitutional convention in 1868; served in the State house of representatives, 1868-1870; member of the State senate 1870-1874; delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1872 and 1876; elected as a Republican to the Forty-fourth and Forty-fifth Congresses (March 4, 1875-March 3, 1879); unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1878 to the Forty-sixth Congress; successfully contested the election of George D. Tillman to the Forty-seventh Congress and served from July 19, 1882, to March 3, 1883; unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1882; elected to the Forty-eighth Congress to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Edmund W.M. Mackey; reelected to the Forty-ninth Congress and served from March 18, 1884, to March 3, 1887; unsuccessful for reelection in 1886 to the Fiftieth Congress; collector of the port of Beaufort, S.C., 1897-1913; died in Beaufort, S.C., February 22, 1915; interment in the Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery.
    “Smalls, Robert,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774 to Present,

    Robert Smalls (American National Biography)

    In 1861 Smalls began working as a deckhand on the Planter, a steamer that operated out of Charleston Harbor. By 1862 he was the craft's pilot…When he learned of the Federal occupation of Beaufort, Smalls determined with several other slave sailors to guide the Planter to Union waters. Secretly loading their families on board, the men rushed the vessel out of Charleston Harbor under cover of darkness and surrendered it to the U.S. Navy…Smalls entered politics as a delegate to South Carolina's constitutional convention of 1868 and in the same year won election as a Republican to the state's general assembly. He served in that body until 1875, first as a representative and later as a state senator. In 1874 Smalls was elected congressman from South Carolina's Fifth District, which included Beaufort…Effectively excluded from local politics by the Democrats' electoral fraud and the state's disfranchisement of African Americans in 1895, Smalls remained active in the Republican party at the national level. Those contacts gained him appointment as collector of customs for the Port of Beaufort in 1889, a post he lost with the Democratic national victory of 1892. He regained the office in 1898 with the return of a national Republican administration. He served until 1913, despite growing lily-white sentiment in the Republican party and the difficulties of discharging his duties in now-segregated Beaufort…Smalls died there, disillusioned by the reversal of the African-American political gains for which he had worked in Reconstruction.
    Glenda E. Gilmore, "Smalls, Robert,” American National Biography Online, February 2000,

    Robert Smalls (Notable Americans)

    SMALLS, Robert, representative, was born in Beaufort, S.C., April 5, 1839; son of Robert and Lydia Smalls. He was a slave until May, 1862, when he procured his freedom, began the rigger's trade in Charleston, and soon drifted into a seafaring life, sailing about the coasts of South Carolina and Florida and acquiring a knowledge of the various inlets and harbors which he used to the advantage of the Federal army and navy in 1862-65. In 1861 he entered service on the Confederate steamboat Planter of Charleston Harbor, and May 13, 1862, while the officers were absent in the city, Smalls, in charge of the crew of eight colored men, ran the vessel down the bay and delivered her to the Federal authorities. He was pilot of the U.S. monitor Keokuk in the famous attack on Fort Sumter in April, 1863, when she was struck by Confederate balls 96 times. 19 shots passing through her; she sank next morning off Light House inlet. Smalls, with her commander, Ryan, after a narrow escape, was taken aboard the Ironsides. He was pilot of the U.S. navy until July, 1863, when General Gilmore took charge of the department of the south and Smalls was taken into the quartermaster's department and made pilot in charge of Light House and Stono inlets. On Dec. 1, 1863, when the steamer Planter, Captain Nickerson, loaded with supplies for the troops on Morris Inland, was coming through Folly Inland creek the Confederates from Secessionville opened fire upon her. Captain Nickerson deserted his post, and Smalls, who was on board as pilot, taking her through the creek, assumed command and carried her safely out of reach of the guns. For this act he was promoted to the rank of captain by order of General Gilmore, who had witnessed the attack from Morris Island, and placed in command of the Planter, which was used as a supply boat along the coast until September, 1866, when she was taken to Baltimore, put out of commission and sold. He was a member of the state constitutional conventions of 1868 and 1895; a member of the South Carolina house of representatives, 1868-70; of the state senate, 1870-75, and a Republican representative from South Carolina in the 44th, 45th, 47th, 48th and 49th congresses, 1875-79 and 1881-87. He was a Republican delegate to several Republican national conventions; was in the South Carolina state militia, 1865-77, rising from lieutenant-colonel to major-general, and he organized, 1879, and was captain of the Beaufort light infantry. He was appointed collector of the port of Beaufort in 1889 by President Harrison, in 1898 by President McKinley, and in 1903 by President Roosevelt.
    Rossiter Johnson, ed., “Smalls, Robert,” The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, vol. 9 (Boston: The Biographical Society, 1904).
    Chicago Style Entry Link
    Cooper, Michael L. From Slave to Civil War Hero: The Life and Times of Robert Smalls. New York: Lodestar Books, 1994. view record
    Dray, Philip. Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. view record
    Dunkelman, Mark H. "A Bold Break for Freedom." American History 34, no. 5 (1999): 22-28. view record
    Miller, Edward A. Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. view record
    Uya, Okon Edet. From Slavery to Public Service: Robert Smalls, 1839-1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. view record
    How to Cite This Page: "Smalls, Robert," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College,