Robert Smalls, (born April 5, 1839, Beaufort, South Carolina, U.S.—died February 23, 1915, Beaufort), American war hero and politician who, during the American Civil War, commandeered a Confederate ship to escape from the South and later became the first Black captain of a vessel in U.S. service. He served multiple terms (1875–79, 1882–83, and 1884–87) as a congressman from South Carolina during Reconstruction.
Smalls’s mother was enslaved, and his father was an unknown white man. In 1851 Smalls was taken by his enslaver to Charleston, South Carolina, where he was hired out to work as a hotel waiter, hack driver, and rigger. In 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, he was forced to work aboard the steamship CSS Planter, which operated as an armed transport and dispatch vessel, carrying guns and ammunition for the Confederate army. On May 13, 1862, Smalls and other enslaved people on board took control of the ship in Charleston Harbor; he picked up his wife and children and others, succeeded in passing through Confederate checkpoints, and turned the ship, its cargo of weapons, and several important documents over to a Union naval squadron blockading the city. Smalls and the others on the Planter gained their freedom, and Smalls became famous as a war hero throughout the North.
In 1863, when he was piloting the ironclad USS Keokuk during the Union’s bombardment of Fort Sumter, the vessel took many hits and was eventually sunk. Smalls’s bravery was rewarded with command of the USS Planter later that year, making him the first African American captain in the U.S. Navy. He fought in numerous battles during the remainder of the Civil War. In addition, after he was removed from a streetcar in 1864 in Philadelphia because he was Black, Smalls led a boycott that led to the desegregation of the city’s transit system.
After the war, Smalls became a businessman, and he rose rapidly in politics. From 1868 to 1870 he served in the South Carolina House of Representatives and from 1870 to 1874 in the state Senate. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served from 1875 to 1879, from 1882 to 1883, and from 1884 to 1887; among his notable actions in the House were his efforts to integrate U.S. Army regiments and his support of a bill that would have required equal accommodations for Black and white people on interstate conveyances. In 1877 Smalls was convicted of having taken a $5,000 bribe while in the state Senate, and he was sentenced to three years in prison, but the case against him was clearly politically motivated. He was pardoned by South Carolina’s governor in 1879.
Smalls spent his last years in Beaufort, where he served as port collector (1889–93 and 1897–1913). In 1895 he delivered an impassioned speech before the South Carolina constitutional convention in an attempt to prevent the disfranchisement of Black voters.
In 1997 the University of South Carolina founded an annual lecture series named for Smalls. The USAV Major General Robert Smalls was commissioned in 2007; according to the U.S. Army, it is the first Army ship named for an African American.
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