Robert Smalls: Sailing to freedom

Black History Month

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – Hundreds of thousands of malnourished, beaten, shackled Africans stepped foot off of ships and onto Gadsden’s Wharf between 1670 and 1808. Many died during the brutal passage, but many of those who survived planted roots in the Lowcountry that are still strong to this day.

Michael Bouleware Moore can trace his family’s roots back more than a century, to his great great grandfather, Robert Smalls.

Congressman James Clyburn (R-SC) credits Smalls with being the most consequential South Carolinian — black or white — in history.

Born a slave:

Smalls was born in Beaufort, but ended up in Charleston because, Moore says, “during colonial times [Charleston] was the richest city in America — because of the slavery, because of the profitability of the rice industry.”

Smalls’ mother asked their master to send Smalls to work in Charleston. The higher wages appealed to the master, and Smalls’ mother knew that the new environment would be good for him:

“Robert needs a change in scenery or something more serious will happen.”

Smalls was “a Gulluh Geechee boy who grew up on the water,” which got him a job working on the CSS Planter, a steamboat chartered by the Confederate Army.

It was on that ship that Smalls planned and executed a stunt so risky, but so significant, it turned the tide of the Civil War in the Union’s favor.

Voyage to freedom:

On May 13, 1862, Confederate crewmembers disembarked for an evening in Downtown Charleston. Smalls seized the opportunity, disguising himself as the captain and navigating the Planter through the Charleston Harbor.

He made it through the Confederate checkpoints, whistling all of the correct signals and codes, thankful to be alive after each one:

“They knew that if they tried this and got caught that they would not just be killed but executed in a very vicious and public way to dissuade others from doing that they all agreed that this was a life or death and that if they got caught they would blow themselves up.”

Finally, Smalls and his crew reached their destination: The USS Onward, a Union ship stationed off the coast.

As the story goes, Smalls hoisted a white flag then boarded the Onward. He told the crew “I brought this boat, I thought old Uncle Abe could use it.”

He was free.

Smalls was hailed as a hero. US Secretary of War Edwin Staton arranged for a meeting between Smalls and President Abraham Lincoln. Smalls is credited with persuading Lincoln to allow African Americans to fight in the Union army.

“That feat, historians say, added an additional 200,000 men to the effort and really was material in the Union prevailing in the Civil War.”

A life of service, not servitude:

Small’s fight for equality didn’t end there. He returned to Beaufort after the Civil War and was elected to the state legislature: both the House and the Senate.

Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress

He wrote legislation creating South Carolina’s public school system, the first free compulsory statewide school system in America.

Then, he was elected to the US House of Representatives, serving five terms through the Reconstruction era and beyond .

Smalls also delivered a speech at the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1895, delivering a speech opposing segregation.

In 1915, Smalls died at his home in Beaufort, on the same property where he was born a slave.

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