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Black History Month Profile: The Incredible Robert Smalls

by David Engle | Feb 04, 2021 | 4 min read

February is Black History Month, a time to honor and commemorate the important events, amazing accomplishments, and inspirational people who contributed–and continue to contribute–to African American history. Last February, we published a four-part, in-depth series of articles that looked at key events and people throughout Black history, from 1619 through 1970. You can find each article here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Having covered so many of the prominent names in Black history last year (Harriet Tubman, Dred Scott, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jackie Robinson, Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X, to name some), we’re going to take a different approach this year. Throughout February, we’ll be posting articles about some lesser-known Black heroes, pioneers, and role models who are just as vital to Black history as their more famous peers. Our first part of this series is dedicated to the incredible story of Robert Smalls.

Robert Smalls

Mr. Smalls’ saga begins on a ship on May 13, 1862. The cotton steamer is helmed by a White captain and his two mates–or should we say was helmed by the White captain and his two mates. But we’ll get to that in a moment. First, some back story on the steamer. The C.S.S. Planter had been making its customary cotton runs to supply various islands over the span of two weeks before returning to dock in Charleston, South Carolina. Left to dock overnight before making its way out again the following morning, the White crew make the questionable–and potentially illegal–decision to disembark the ship and leave its eight Black slave crew members alone.

Leading this group is Robert Smalls, then 22 years old, a master navigator who serves as the ship’s “virtual pilot,” though he’s designated as a “wheelman” since only White men can hold ranking positions. Unbeknownst to anyone, including his fellow slaves, Robert Smalls has been creating a plan that he intends to execute now that the opportunity has presented itself. On the night of May 12, 1862, after the White officers decided to leave the ship, Mr. Smalls finally shares his plan–commandeer the ship and make an escape…or die trying. The steamer is loaded with weapons, and Mr. Smalls plans to use as much of it as is necessary if anyone tries to block him from freedom. Two of the slaves are worried about the risks of this plan and decide to stay behind. At 2:00 am on the morning of May 13, Mr. Smalls hoists the ship’s Confederate flag (as a decoy) and sets sail. Shortly thereafter, they stop to pick up a handful of people, among them Robert Smalls’ wife and children.

His experience on the ship has equipped him with the knowledge of all the right Navy signals to use and where to use them. So, he sounds the ship’s whistle as they steam past Confederate forts; he even goes so far as to wear the White captain’s straw hat and assume his folded-arms stance as he passes by onlookers in the predawn darkness. As daylight approaches, the ship sails out of the range of Rebel guns and heads for a Union blockade. At this time, the Rebel flag is taken down and replaced with a white bed sheet brought by Mr. Smalls’ wife so the Planter would not be mistakenly fired upon by Union ships. As his ship cruises past the U.S.S. Onward, a Union Navy clipper, Mr. Smalls calls out, “Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!” And with that, Robert Smalls, his family, and the rest of the slaves aboard the C.S.S. Planter are now free.

Mr. Smalls was greeted as a hero by the North. He used his newfound status to personally advocate for the enlistment of Black soldiers to the Secretary of War. President Abraham Lincoln made that a reality just a few months later, and from there, it’s said that Robert Smalls recruited 5,000 soldiers on his own. Ironically, Mr. Smalls found himself back on the Planter that October, this time as its official pilot. From there, he was personally involved in 17 military engagements, including the 1863 attack on Fort Sumter. By December of that month, Mr. Smalls was promoted to the rank of captain, becoming one of the highest-paid Black soldiers in the Civil War. In a fitting end to his incredible adventure, Robert Smalls was aboard the Planter in Charleston Harbor (where his story started) when the war ended.

Post-war, Mr. Smalls made the bold choice to purchase the home where he grew up as a slave owned by the McKee family. But this wasn’t an act of retribution; rather, Mr. Smalls compassionately took in some members of the McKee family when they had nowhere else to stay. During this time, he opened his own general store, created a school for African American children, and founded a newspaper. His success in business paved the way to a career in politics, and he became one of the first Black politicians, serving in the South Carolina state assembly and senate as well as in the U.S. House of Representatives for five consecutive terms between 1874 and 1886. Upon his departure from Congress, Robert Smalls remained active in politics until he passed away in 1915 at the age of 75.

The implausible journey from slave to politician in the span of just over a decade is absolutely remarkable. The courage shown by Robert Smalls to literally break away from slavery and make a successful dash toward freedom is not only heroic, but it still seems like a nearly impossible feat to pull off. Yet there was Robert Smalls, dancing on the deck of the C.S.S. Planter on the morning of May 13, 1862 as a free man.

We hope you enjoyed this underappreciated story of the courage of an unheralded African American hero to kick off Black History Month. Stay tuned for more!
In the meantime, check out Elephango for some informative and engaging lessons related to Black History Month!

David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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