A misconception about enslaved people in the United States is that they were all accepting of their bondage. Throughout the history of slavery, there were numerous instances of revolts and resistance. Many were carried out by the slaves themselves, like the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina or Haiti’s revolt led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Robert Smalls is a figure exalted for his courage to free others from bondage. He’s also one of the first African American members of Congress during Reconstruction.
Born in Beaufort, South Carolina, on April 5, 1839, Smalls worked as a house slave until he was 12. His owner, John K. McKee, sent him to Charleston to work and collected all of his earnings. This continued until Smalls was 18. He later negotiated to keep most of his monthly pay, allowing him to save money. Smalls used the saving to buy his wife and daughter’s freedom.
In 1861, Smalls worked as a deckhand on the Confederate transport steamer, Planter, a ship that delivered weapons and equipment to Confederate forts.
On May 13, 1862, Smalls was tasked to guard the ship when the crew went ashore for the evening. Instead, Smalls loaded his wife, children and 12 other slaves and sailed to an area of the harbor where Union ships formed a blockade. They would pass five forts, and Smalls provided the whistle indicating they were a Confederate ship. He eventually presented the Planter before a Union blockade ship and raised the white flag of surrender. He turned over all charts, a Confederate naval code book, and weapons, as well the ship itself, over to the Union Navy. Smalls’ actions is credited, partly, with persuading a reluctant President Abraham Lincoln to consider allowing African Americans into the Union Army.
Smalls went on to recruit black soldiers across the North for the war effort. By late 1863 he was the pilot the Planter, which was now a Union war vessel. In December 1863 he was promoted to captain , becoming the first African American to hold that rank in the U.S. Navy.
When the Civil War ended, Smalls entered politics. He was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives and then to the South Carolina Senate. He was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving between 1868 and 1889.
He didn’t stop there. After his last term, Smalls moved back to his birthplace to become the U.S. Collector of Customs. He bought the home he once lived in as a slave. Smalls died in Beaufort on Feb. 22, 1915.