The Fantastic Story of Robert Smalls

We took a horse drawn carriage tour of lovely Beaufort, South Carolina today. The pre-Civil War era homes, the moss hanging from the oak trees lining the quiet streets of the historic district belie description. To say the town is lovely does not do it justice. We were riding past one of the homes on the tour, 511 Prince Street, a home constructed in 1834. The tour guide pointed out that it had been the McKee home prior to the Civil War. Where had I heard the McKee name in relation to Beaufort? As I was thinking about the significance of that name, the tour guide said that slave by the name of Robert Smalls was born in a small slave cabin behind the home. It hit me like a ton of bricks! The story of Robert Smalls is truly an amazing story, one worth of a book or a movie.

Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1839, in a cabin behind the McKee mansion on 511 Prince Street. According to historians, the identity of Robert’s father is rather dubious. Some suspect it was plantation owner John McKee, some suspect it was John’s son Phillip. Because of his lineage, Robert was favored more than the other males slaves on the plantation and learned to read and write. Concerned that Robert would not know what life was really like being a slave, his mother made arrangements with the McKee’s to have Robert work in the fields where he witnessed firsthand the brutal mistreatment that slaves had to endure. Small’s granddaughter indicated that the experience had a profound effect on Robert and he became “rebellious”. After a couple of stints in the Beaufort jail, Robert’s mother became concerned for his safety and asked the McKee’s if Robert could be sent somewhere else. The McKee’s sent him to Charleston, South Carolina.

Arriving in Charleston at the age of 12, Smalls would spend his teen years initially performing a number of jobs for the City of Charleston. Within a few years, Smalls would find himself working the wharves on the Charleston waterfront. On Christmas Eve, 1856, Robert married Hannah Jones, a slave who worked as a hotel maid. Hannah was 22 years old with 2 children from a previous marriage, Robert was 17. Robert and Hannah would have 2 more children together.

By 1862, the Civil War is in its 2nd year and Smalls has worked his way from longshoreman, to deck hand to eventually becoming a highly respected pilot of the Conferderate gunboat/freighter CSS Planter sailing the inter coastal waterways from its base in Charleston, SC, down to Savannah, GA. However, because Smalls is black, and a slave, he is prohibited by law from being recognized as a ships officer and is officially on the roster as “Wheelman”.

Becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility of his wife and children being sold by their owner and sent far away, Robert attempts to buy them. He has managed to save $100 to purchase their freedom, but their owner is demanding $800. Robert is despondent knowing that it would take him a very long time to save that much money, however he keeps a brave face to the Confederate officers of the Planter and continues to discharge his duties faithfully. Secretly, Robert has begun to develop a plan for he and his family to escape the bonds of slavery. Travelling the inter-coastal waterways between Charleston and Savannah, Robert and the other enslaved crew members can see the Union fleet that is blockading the outer Charleston harbor. Freedom is so close, but yet so far away.

On May 12, 1862 the CSS Planter is returning to port in Charleston after picking up four gun barrels, gun powder and firewood for a fort that was being dismantled. All of the white crew members disembark the ship to spend time in town, leaving the black crew members to secure the cargo and the ship for the evening. The Captain, First Officer and (official) Pilot of the CSS Planter do not return to the ship. At 3:00 AM on the morning of May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls makes his move. Smalls dons the Captain’s long white coat, straw hat and gloves and steers the Planter out into the harbor. He slowly cruises to another wharf where his wife and children, along with families of the 8 other enslaved crew members are huddled in wait. Loading the families and their belongings onto the Planter, Robert begins to steam towards freedom. He has to pass several Rebel occupied picket boats and Fort Sumter. In his career as a pilot, Robert is aware of all of the signals that are required to pass the picket boats and the Fort, and he blasts the signals. Robert had become a keen observer of the mannerisms of the Planter’s Captain Relyea, he folds his arms the same way, nods and waves in the same manner. In the darkness, he appears to be Captain Relyea.

The Planter passes Fort Sumter, which is the last obstacle. Robert turns up the steam and begins chugging as fast as the ship can go towards the Union fleet. The theft of the Planter is discovered, but the boat is well out in the harbor and it will take some time before Fort Sumter can be notified to turn its guns on the runaway steamer. The Planter is fast approaching the U.S.S. Onward of the the blockading fleet. To make the Union ships aware that the Planter is not attacking the blockading fleet, Robert has his crew run up one of his wife’s largest white bed sheets to indicate that they are surrendering. The crew of the Onward has been tracking the approach of the steamer and initially did not see the white sheet flying from the masts. The crew was prepared to open fire when one of the crew members spots the white sheet. The gun crews stand down. Robert slows the speed of the Planter and now slowly approaches the stern of the Onward. The Planter stops. Robert Smalls steps forward and shouts up to the officers gathered on the stern “Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!” Robert Smalls plan is a success. The members of his crew and their families have steamed to freedom. Word of Robert Smalls daring escape from slavery spreads like wildfire. Because of his familiarity with the the inter-coastal waterways and harbors, he is employed as a Pilot for a Union ironclad. He also receives a tidy sum of $1500 prize money for the captured Planter – that is equivalent to $38,000 in 2020 dollars.

After the Civil War, Robert becomes a successful business man in his home town of Beaufort, SC, opening a store. He becomes a prominent South Carolina politician, serving in the State House of Representatives, eventually moving on to serve as a congressman in Washington D.C. He also invested heavily in the recovery and commercial development of Beaufort after the Civil War. Robert Smalls would purchase the Beaufort home that he was born behind. He discovered that the family (the McKee’s) that he was enslaved to was living in squalor on the outskirts of town. He purchased a small home for them where they lived until the death of John McKee. McKee’s widow began to suffer from dementia after her husband’s death. Robert discovered Mrs. McKee in the foyer of the house one day demanding to know when her bedroom was going to be ready. Robert moved Mrs. McKee into her former bedroom where she remained until her death. Robert Smalls died in 1915.


I knew of the dramatic escape of Robert Smalls, having read about it many years ago in an issue of Civil War Times Illustrated. The escapades and later life of Robert Smalls are worthy of a greater biographical endeavor and, really, a movie.

A young Robert Smalls
The C.S.S. Planter. The steamer Robert Smalls piloted to freedom.
Robert Small later in life: businessman and Congressman.
511 Prince Street, Beaufort, SC. Robert Smalls home.

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