|Birth Day:||April 5, 1839|
|Death Date:||Feb 23, 1915 (age 75)|
As per our current Database, Robert Smalls died on Feb 23, 1915 (age 75).
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During his late childhood and early teenage years, Smalls (who was, at the time, still in slavery) learned the rigging and sail-making trades. It was through his dockside and sailing work that he eventually managed to commandeer the CSS Planter.
Robert Smalls was born in 1839 to Lydia Polite, a woman enslaved by Henry McKee, who was most likely Smalls's father. She gave birth to him in a cabin behind McKee's house, at 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, South Carolina. He grew up in the city under the influence of the Lowcountry Gullah culture of his mother. His mother lived as a servant in the house but grew up in the fields. Robert was favored over other slaves, so his mother worried that he might grow up not understanding the plight of field slaves, and asked for him to be made to work in the fields and to witness whipping.
At age 17, Smalls married Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel maid, in Charleston on December 24, 1856. She was five years his senior and already had two daughters. Their own first child, Elizabeth Lydia Smalls, was born in February 1858. Three years later they had a son, Robert Jr., who later died at age two. Robert aimed to pay for their freedom by purchasing them outright, but the price was steep, $800 (equivalent to $22,764 in 2019). He had managed to save up only $100. It could take decades for him to reach $800.
With his first wife Hannah Jones Smalls, whom he married on December 24, 1856, Robert Smalls had three children: Elizabeth Lydia (1858–1959; m. Samuel Jones Bampfield, nine living children); Robert Jr. (1861–1863), who died at the age of two; and Sarah Voorhies (1863–1920, m. Dr. Jay Williams, no children). Hannah Jones Smalls had two daughters before she met and married Robert Smalls: Charlotte Jones (m. Willie Williams) and Clara Jones (m. James Rider). Smalls and his family were affiliated with the Baptist Church and attended Berean Baptist Church when living in Washington, D.C. Smalls was a Prince Hall mason as a member of Sons of Beaufort Lodge #36.
In April 1861, the American Civil War began with the Battle of Fort Sumter in nearby Charleston Harbor. In the fall of 1861, Smalls was assigned to steer the CSS Planter, a lightly armed Confederate military transport under the command of Charleston's District Commander Brigadier General Roswell S. Ripley. Planter's duties were to deliver dispatches, troops and supplies, to survey waterways, and to lay mines. Smalls piloted the Planter throughout Charleston harbor and beyond, on area rivers and along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts. From Charleston harbor, Smalls and the Planter's crew could see the line of federal blockade ships in the outer harbor, seven miles away. Smalls appeared content and had the confidence of the Planter's crew and owners, and at some time in April 1862, Smalls began to plan an escape. He discussed the matter with all the other slaves in the crew except one, whom he did not trust.
On May 12, 1862, the Planter traveled ten miles southwest of Charleston to stop at Coles Island, a Confederate post on the Stono River that was being dismantled. There the ship picked up four large guns to transport to a fort in Charleston harbor. Back in Charleston, the crew loaded 200 lb (91 kg) of ammunition and 20 cord (72 m) of firewood onto the Planter.
Smalls, having just turned 23, quickly became known in the North as a hero for his daring exploit. Newspapers and magazines reported his actions. The U.S. Congress passed a bill awarding Smalls and his crewmen the prize money for the Planter (valuable not only for its guns but low draft in Charleston bay); Southern newspapers demanded harsh discipline for the Confederate officers whose joint shore leave had allowed the slaves to steal the boat. Smalls's share of the prize money came to US$1,500 (equivalent to $38,415 in 2019). Immediately after the capture, Smalls was invited to travel to New York to help raise money for ex-slaves, but Admiral DuPont vetoed the proposal and Smalls began to serve the Union Navy, especially with his detailed knowledge of mines laid near Charleston. However, with the encouragement of Major General David Hunter, the Union commander at Port Royal, Smalls went to Washington, D.C., in August 1862 with Rev. Mansfield French, a Methodist minister who had helped found Wilberforce University in Ohio and had been sent by the American Missionary Association to help former slaves at Port Royal. They wanted to persuade Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to permit black men to fight for the Union. Although Lincoln had previously rescinded orders by Hunter and Generals Fremont and Sherman to mobilize black troops, Stanton soon signed an order permitting up to 5,000 African Americans to enlist in the Union forces at Port Royal. Those who did were organized as the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Regiments (Colored). Smalls worked as a civilian with the Navy until March 1863, when he was transferred to the Army. By his own account, Smalls was present at 17 major battles and engagements in the Civil War.
He was made pilot of the ironclad USS Keokuk, again under captain Rhind, and took part in the attack on Fort Sumter on April 7, 1863, which was a preamble to the Second Battle of Fort Sumter later that fall. The Keokuk took 96 hits and retired for the night, sinking the next morning. Smalls and much of the crew moved to the Ironside and the fleet returned to Hilton Head.
In June 1863, David Hunter was replaced as commander of the Department of the South by Quincy Adams Gillmore. With Gillmore's arrival, Smalls was transferred to the quartermaster's department. Smalls was pilot of the USS Isaac Smith, later recommissioned in the Confederate Navy the Stono in the expedition on Morris Island. When Union troops took the south end of the Island, Smalls was put in charge of the Light House Inlet as pilot.
On December 1, 1863, Smalls was piloting the Planter under Captain James Nickerson on Folly Island Creek when Confederate batteries at Secessionville opened. Nickerson fled the pilot house for the coal-bunker. Smalls refused to surrender, fearing that the black crewmen would not be treated as prisoners of war and might be summarily killed. Smalls entered the pilothouse and took command of the boat and piloted it to safety. For this, he was reportedly promoted by Gillmore to the rank of captain and made acting captain of the Planter.
Smalls's position in the Union Army and Navy has been disputed and Smalls's reward for the capture of the Planter has been criticized. During Smalls's life, articles about Smalls state that when he was assigned to pilot the Planter, the Navy did not allow him to hold the rank of pilot because he was not a graduate of a naval academy, a requirement at that time. To assure he received proper pay for a captain, he was commissioned second lieutenant of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers (later re-designated as the 33rd US Colored Infantry) and detailed to act as pilot. Many sources also state that General Gillmore promoted Smalls to captain in December 1863 when he saved the Planter when it was under attack near Secessionville. Later sources state that Smalls did receive a commission either in the Army or the Navy, but he was likely officially a civilian throughout the war.
Immediately following the war, Smalls returned to his native Beaufort, where he purchased his former master's house at 511 Prince St, which Union tax authorities had seized in 1863 for refusal to pay taxes. Later, the former owner sued to regain the property, but Smalls retained ownership in the court case. The case became an important precedent in other, similar cases. His mother, Lydia, lived with him for the remainder of her life. He allowed his former master's wife, the elderly Jane Bond McKee, to move into her former home prior to her death. Smalls spent nine months learning to read and write. He purchased a two-story Beaumont building to use as a school for African-American children.
In May 1864, he was voted an unofficial delegate to the Republican National Convention in Baltimore. Later that spring, Smalls piloted the Planter to Philadelphia for an overhaul. In Philadelphia, he supported what was known as the Port Royal Experiment, an effort to raise money to support the education and development of ex-slaves. At the outset of the Civil War, Smalls could not read or write, but he achieved literacy in Philadelphia. In 1864, Smalls was in a streetcar in Philadelphia and was ordered to give his seat to a white passenger. Rather than ride on the open overflow platform, Smalls left the car. This incident of humiliating a heroic veteran was cited in the debate that resulted in the legislature's passing a bill to integrate public transportation in Pennsylvania in 1867.
In December 1864, Smalls and the Planter moved to support William T. Sherman's army in Savannah, Georgia, at the destination point of his March to the Sea. Smalls returned with the Planter to Charleston harbor in April 1865 for the ceremonial raising of the American flag again at Fort Sumter. Smalls was discharged on June 11, 1865. Other vessels Smalls piloted during the war include the Huron and the Paul Jones. He continued to pilot the Planter, serving a humanitarian mission of taking food and supplies to freedmen who lost their homes and livelihoods during the war. On September 30, the Planter entered the service of the Freedmen's Bureau.
In 1866 Smalls went into business in Beaufort with Richard Howell Gleaves, a businessman from Philadelphia. They opened a store to serve the needs of freedmen. Smalls also hired a teacher to help him study. That April, the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress overrode President Andrew Johnson's vetoes and passed a Civil Rights Act. In 1868, they passed the 14th Amendment, which was ratified by the states to extend full citizenship to all Americans regardless of race.
In 1868, Smalls was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. He was very effective, and introduced the Homestead Act and introduced and worked to pass the Civil Rights bill. In 1870, Jonathan Jasper Wright was elected judge of the South Carolina Supreme Court and Smalls was elected to fill his unexpired time in the Senate. He continued in the Senate, winning the 1872 election against W. J. Whipper. In the senate he was considered a very good speaker and debater. He was on the Finance Committee and chairman of the Public Printing Committee.
Smalls invested significantly in the economic development of the Charleston-Beaufort region. In 1870, in anticipation of a Reconstruction-based prosperity, Smalls, with fellow representatives Joseph Rainey, Alonzo Ransier and others, formed the Enterprise Railroad, an 18-mile horse-drawn railway line that carried cargo and passengers between the Charleston wharves and inland depots. Except for one white director ("Carpetbagger" newspaper editor legislator and county treasurer Timothy Hurley), the railroad's board of directors was entirely African American. Richard H. Cain was its first president. Author Bernard E. Powers describes it as "the most impressive commercial venture by members of Charleston's black elite." Smalls owned and helped publish a black-owned newspaper, the Beaufort Southern Standard starting in 1872.
He was a delegate to the National Republican Conventions in 1872 in Philadelphia, which nominated Grant for president; in 1876 in Cincinnati, which nominated Hayes; and in 1884 in Chicago, which nominated Blaine—and then continuously to all conventions until 1896. He was also elected vice-president of the South Carolina Republican Party at their 1872 state convention.
In 1873, he was appointed lieutenant-colonel of the Third Regiment, South Carolina State Militia. He was later promoted to brigadier-general of the Second Brigade, South Carolina Militia, and the major-general of the Second Division, South Carolina State Militia. He held this position until 1877, when Democrats took control of the state government.
In 1874, Smalls was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served two terms from 1875 to 1879. From 1882 to 1883, he represented South Carolina's 5th congressional district in the House. The state legislature gerrymandered to change the district boundaries, including Beaufort and other heavily black, coastal areas in South Carolina's 7th congressional district, giving the others substantial white majorities. Smalls was elected from the 7th district and served from 1884 to 1887. He was a member of the 44th, 45th, 47th, 48th, and 49th U.S. Congresses.
In 1875, he opposed the transfer of troops out of the South, fearing the effect of such a move on the safety of blacks in the South. During consideration of a bill to reduce and restructure the United States Army, Smalls introduced an amendment that "Hereafter in the enlistment of men in the Army...no distinction whatsoever shall be made on account of race or color." However, the amendment was not considered by Congress. He was the last Republican elected from the 5th district until 2010 when Mick Mulvaney took office. He was the second-longest serving African-American member of Congress (behind his contemporary Joseph Rainey) until the mid-20th century.
The scandal took a political toll, and he was defeated by Democrat George D. Tillman in 1878, and again, narrowly, in 1880. He successfully contested the 1880 result and regained the seat in 1882. In 1884, he was elected to fill a seat in a different district. He was nominated for Senate but defeated by Wade Hampton in 1886. During this period in Congress he supported racial integration legislation, supported a pension for the widow of his former Major General, David Hunter, and advised South Carolina blacks to refrain from emigrating to the North and Midwest or to Liberia.
Later in his life, when Smalls sought a Navy pension, he learned that he had not been officially commissioned. He claimed he had received an official commission from Gillmore but had lost it. In 1883, a bill passed committee to put him on the Navy retired list, but in the end was halted, allegedly due to Smalls being black. In 1897, a special act of congress granted Smalls a pension of $30 per month, equal to the pension for a Navy captain.
In 1883, during discussion of the bill to put Smalls on the Navy retired list, a report stated that the 1862 appraisal of the Planter was "absurdly low" and that a fair valuation would have been over $60,000. However, Smalls received no further payment until 1900. That year, Congress passed a statute paying Smalls $5,000 less the amount paid to him in 1862 ($1,500) for his capture of the steamship. Many still felt that this was less than his due.
Hannah Smalls died on July 28, 1883. On April 9, 1890, Robert Smalls married Annie E. Wigg, a Charleston schoolteacher, who bore him one son, William Robert Smalls (1892–1970). Annie Smalls died on November 5, 1895.
In 1890, he was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison as collector of the Port of Beaufort, which he held until 1913 except during Democrat Grover Cleveland's second term. Smalls was active into the twentieth century. He was a delegate to the 1895 South Carolina constitutional convention. Together with five other black politicians, he strongly opposed white Democratic efforts that year to disfranchise black citizens. They wrote an article for the New York World to publicize the issues, but the state constitution was ratified. It and similar constitutions across the South for some time passed challenges that reached the US Supreme Court, resulting in the exclusion of African Americans from politics across the South and crippling of the Republican Party in the region.
Smalls was a loyal Republican, which, at the time, dominated the Northern States and passed laws that granted protections for African Americans, whereas the Democrats, who dominated the South, opposed these measures. After the Civil War, Republicans passed laws that granted protections for African Americans and advanced social justice; again, Democrats largely opposed these expansions of power. On August 22, 1912, he wrote to U.S. Senator Knute Nelson, "I never lose sight of the fact that had it not been for the Republican Party, I never would have been an office-holder of any kind—from 1862 to the present." In words that became famous, he described his party as "the party of Lincoln...which unshackled the necks of four million human beings." He wrote this line on September 12, 1912, in a letter expressing his anxiety over the looming presidential election. He concluded that letter, "I ask that every colored man in the North who has a vote to cast would cast that vote for the regular Republican Party and thus bury the Democratic Party so deep that there will not be seen even a bubble coming from the spot where the burial took place."
Though Smalls was not officially involved with politics on the local level, he had some influence. In 1913, in one of his final actions as community leader, he played an important role in stopping a lynch mob from killing two black suspects in the murder of a white man. He pressured the mayor, saying that blacks he had sent throughout the city would burn the town down if the mob was not stopped. The mayor and sheriff stopped the mob.
Smalls died of malaria and diabetes in 1915 at the age of 75. He was buried in his family's plot in the churchyard of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in downtown Beaufort. The monument to Smalls in this churchyard is inscribed with a statement he made to the South Carolina legislature in 1895: "My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life."
Currently, Robert Smalls is 182 years, 3 months and 24 days old. Robert Smalls will celebrate 183rd birthday on a Tuesday 5th of April 2022.
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