Robert Smalls: A Civil War Hero’s Fight for Racial Equality
One day, some years after the Civil War, a frail, elderly woman came to the house at 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, South Carolina, and as she had done innumerable times before, went in. She was Jane Bold McKee, and she had lived in this house with her husband, Henry McKee, for many years.
But by this point in her life, Jane McKee was afflicted with dementia. She didn’t remember that before the war her husband had sold the property. During the war it was seized by the Federal Government from the new owner, who had become a colonel in the Confederate army, for non-payment of taxes. When the war ended in April of 1865, the house once again changed hands, bought by a man who was already intimately familiar with the place.
The new owner was Robert Smalls, a Union war hero who had been born, on April 5, 1839, in a two-room shack behind the McKee house. And he had once been Henry and Jane McKee’s slave.
A Debt Repaid
Although they never freed him, the McKees had treated young Robert with extraordinary favor (it was rumored that Henry McKee was his father). Far from harboring any bitterness toward his former owners, Smalls saw the appearance of Jane McKee on his doorstep as an opportunity to give back. He opened his home to her, and she would spend the rest of her life living in the house she had loved, protected and provided for by the man who used to be her slave.
VIDEO: A real estate agent's tour of the Robert Smalls House
It would be interesting to know if Jane McKee ever understood that the man who sometimes brought meals to her room was one of the most celebrated and influential men in all of South Carolina, and indeed, the nation.
A Civil War hero
Robert Smalls had first achieved national acclaim because of the daring exploit that brought him and 15 other slaves to freedom. As the pilot on a Confederate transport ship, the Planter, Smalls had organized the other black crew members to take over the ship and deliver it, along with the crew and their families, into the hands of the U. S. Navy.
Pretending to be the white captain, Smalls had coolly stood on deck and guided the ship through Charleston harbor, right past the big guns of Fort Sumter. He knew that if any alert sentry detected the imposture and gave the alarm, the ship would either be stopped and recaptured, or blown out of the water. In either case, everyone on board, including the crew members’ wives and children, would almost certainly die.
Only after getting beyond the range of the guns of Sumter did Smalls turn the Planter toward the mouth of the harbor, where the Union Navy had stationed warships to enforce the shipping blockade imposed on the Confederacy by President Lincoln. After almost being fired on as a Confederate ship on the attack, Smalls pulled alongside the USS Onward, telling the startled captain, “I thought the Planter might be of some use to Uncle Abe.”
Capturing the Planter was a courageous, bold, and extremely dangerous feat that caught the imagination of the Northern public, and conferred upon Robert Smalls a hero status he would retain for the rest of his life. The Confederates, however, were not quite so enthusiastic. They offered a $4000 reward for his capture which, fortunately, was never paid.
[ For the complete story of Robert Smalls and the Planter, see How Robert Smalls Seized A Ship To Escape From Slavery To Freedom ]
To Serve With the Navy, Smalls Becomes an Officer in the Army
In his handling of the Planter, and in his debriefing by the Navy afterwards, Smalls demonstrated his extraordinary knowledge and skill as a ship’s pilot. Admiral Samuel Francis DuPont, commander of the Union blockade fleet, realized that Smalls was too great an asset to lose, and moved immediately to enlist him as a U. S. Navy pilot. But there was a hitch.
In the Navy, ship’s pilots were required to complete a naval training curriculum. But Robert Smalls, having been until then a slave, had never been allowed to learn to read or write. Unwilling to lose a man of Smalls’ demonstrated abilities, Admiral DuPont came up with a work-around. The U. S. Army had no formal literacy requirement. So, Smalls was enlisted in the Army and commissioned a Second Lieutenant, assigned to Company B, 33rd Regiment, USCT (U. S. Colored Troops). He was then detailed (lent out) for duty with the Navy.
(Smalls would remedy his lack of literacy in 1864, hiring tutors to teach him to read and write).
But though he was not officially a naval officer during the war, the U. S. Navy considered Robert Smalls one of their own. At the end of the war he was officially inducted into the Navy by a special act of Congress signed into law by President Lincoln. This made Smalls eligible for a Navy pension, at the pay grade of a Captain, which he began receiving in 1897.
Robert Smalls Again Demonstrates His Heroism
Smalls served aboard ship in 17 naval battles. He was the pilot on board the USS Keokuk on April 7, 1863, when it participated in a Union attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. During that action the Keokuk suffered 96 direct hits from Confederate artillery batteries, many of them striking below the water line. Even for an iron-clad, that was too much. The ship was mortally wounded, and sank early the next morning. Robert Smalls displayed great bravery, leaving the ship just before she went down. During the battle he was wounded in his face, sustaining an eye injury that would bother him for the rest of his life.
Smalls Becomes the First Black Captain of a Ship in U. S. Military Service
On December 1, 1863, Smalls was the pilot aboard his old ship, the Planter, under a white Captain named Nickerson. Suddenly the ship was enveloped in an intense cross-fire from Confederate artillery batteries on shore, and from another ship. Captain Nickerson panicked, and was on the brink of surrendering the Planter to the rebels. That’s when Robert Smalls stepped in.
He reminded Nickerson that though he as a white man could expect to be treated as a prisoner of war, the rest of the crew, all black, would be given far harsher treatment. There would be no surrender! As a demoralized Captain Nickerson left his post and sought safe haven in the coal bunker of the ship, Smalls took command, and successfully maneuvered the Planter out of reach of the enemy’s guns.
As a result of this incident, Nickerson was dishonorably discharged for cowardice, and Robert Smalls was promoted to the rank of Captain. He would continue as the commanding officer of the Planter for the rest of the war. His pay rate of $150 per month was more than ten times that of a private in the Union Army.
The culmination of Robert Smalls’ military service came on April 14, 1865, four years to the day from the surrender at Fort Sumter that started the Civil War. The victorious Union held a gala ceremony to re-raise over the fort the U. S. flag that had been lowered when it surrendered. Robert Smalls and the Planter, her decks brimming with hundreds of joyous freed slaves, were there to participate in the festivities. One observer watching Smalls handle his ship during the ceremony described him as:
A prince among them [the freedmen], self-possessed, prompt and proud, giving his orders to the helmsman in ringing tones of command.
After the war, Smalls served in the South Carolina state militia. He was commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel in 1870, promoted to Brigadier General in 1871, and promoted again to Major General in 1873.
From the moment the story of his commandeering the Planter right from under the noses of the Confederates hit Northern newspapers, Robert Smalls gained a high public profile that he never relinquished for the rest of his life. He immediately began putting that profile to use in obtaining equal opportunities and equal treatment for African Americans.
In August of 1862 Smalls met with President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to urge the enlistment of blacks into the Union Army in South Carolina. This resulted in the establishment of the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteer regiments.
The next month Smalls was sent on a speaking tour of New York, where he was awarded a gold medal by “the colored citizens of New York as a token of our regard for his heroism, love of liberty, and his patriotism.”
Overturning Streetcar Segregation in Philadelphia
In 1864 Smalls made a major, though initially unintended, contribution to equal treatment for African Americans. He had been ordered to Philadelphia for a complete overhaul of the Planter, a job that would take months.
One rainy day he got on a streetcar and took a seat. The conductor ordered him to get up from the seat and stand on the outer platform of the car, as Philadelphia law required African Americans to do. Instead, Smalls left the car and walked to his destination in the rain. He then, long before the Civil Rights-era efforts in Montgomery and Birmingham, helped lead the first effective boycott to desegregate public transportation in the nation’s history.
The story of how Philadelphia’s petty racism had humiliated a national war hero was widely publicized in newspapers, contributing to the momentum for changing the policy. By 1867 seating on the city’s streetcars was fully integrated.
Smalls Is Elected to Office
When the war ended, Robert Smalls returned home to Beaufort. With the $1500 bounty he had received from the government for his role in capturing the Planter, he purchased the former McKee property at a tax sale, and also became a partner in a general store. In 1870 he was listed as owning $6000 in real estate and $1000 in personal property, substantial sums in those days. By 1872 he was also publishing a newspaper, the Beaufort Southern Standard.
In 1867 this former illiterate was a member of the Beaufort County School District Board, and, according to his son, contributed land to establish a school in the city. Education would be his focus throughout his long political career. Looking back in 1903, he said in a letter to Frederick Douglass, "I am deeply interested in the common school system, because it was the first public act of my life to work for the establishment of this at Beaufort."
Elected as a Republican to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1868 and to the state Senate in 1870, Smalls authored legislation that provided his state with the first system of free and compulsory public education in the nation.
In 1875 Robert Smalls was elected to the first of five terms in the United States Congress. In addition to public education, full civil rights for African Americans (and, by the way, for women – he advocated for women’s suffrage) was his focus. In 1876 he offered an amendment to an army reorganization bill that provided, "Hereafter in the enlistment of men in the Army... no distinction whatsoever shall be made on account of race or color." The amendment was not adopted, and the U. S. military would remain segregated until 1948.
VIDEO: Introduction to Robert Smalls' life and career
A Vicious, Racist Backlash
Robert Smalls’ commitment to racial equity did not go unnoticed in the state that, by being the first to secede from the Union, had brought on the Civil War. At the close of the war, South Carolina had a population of 400,000 blacks, and only 275,000 whites. Naturally, a fair electoral system would mean that the state’s former slaves would have a dominant impact on public policy. But the state’s white supremacists, who had formed a Ku Klux Klan-like organization called the Red Shirt militias, were determined to prevent that happening. Robert Smalls became one of their most prominent targets.
During the 1876 campaign Smalls attended a rally in Edgefield, South Carolina. Former Confederate general Matthew Butler, leading a group of Red Shirts, attempted to disrupt the meeting and intimidate the attenders. He publicly threatened Robert Smalls’ life. But the Red Shirts soon discovered what Smalls’ son, William Robert Smalls, would later say of him:
My father was fearless. Not afraid of anybody or anything. He was never intimidated until his dying day.
Not having succeeded in intimidating Smalls through violence, his opponents had to find another way to drag him down.
Smalls Is Arrested, Convicted, and Sentenced on a Charge of Accepting a Bribe
In 1877 Robert Smalls was set to begin his second term in the U. S. Congress. But in July the South Carolina state government, controlled by his political opponents, charged him with having taken a $5000 bribe years earlier while he was a state senator. Smalls was quickly tried, convicted, and sentenced to three-years in prison. After spending three days in jail, he was released on $10,000 bail pending his appeal to the state Supreme Court. That appeal would fail. Robert Smalls’ conviction would never be overturned by any South Carolina court.
Newspaper accounts at the time reflected how the conviction of Robert Smalls was seen outside the South. For example, the December 17, 1877 edition of the New York Times carried an article with the headline:
ROBERT SMALLS' TRIAL. A SAMPLE OF SOUTHERN JUSTICE…CONVICTED ON THE UNSUPPORTED TESTIMONY OF A CONFESSED CRIMINAL.
Then, after Smalls’ appeal had been denied, the Times followed up on December 7, 1878 with an article headlined:
THE PERSECUTION OF MR. SMALLS. HIS EFFORTS TO ESCAPE PUNISHMENT ON THE TRUMPED-UP CHARGE WHICH THE SOUTH CAROLINA COURTS SUSTAINED.
Eventually, in 1879, Democratic Governor William Simpson pardoned Smalls in exchange for the Federal Government agreeing to drop charges against Democrats accused of violating election laws.
Years later, after Smalls spoke eloquently at the 1895 South Carolina Constitutional Convention, the Charleston News and Courier, a paper not usually sympathetic to African American aspirations, editorialized: “We believe it safe to say that [Smalls] could not be convicted before a jury of impartial white men anywhere on the same evidence today.”
What Smalls’ constituents thought of the charges against him is demonstrated by the fact that they elected him to three more terms in Congress.
South Carolina Disenfranchises Its Black Citizens
In 1895 former South Carolina governor and then Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman called for a state constitutional convention. The openly avowed purpose of that assembly would be to revise the state’s constitution so as to strip African Americans of their ability to vote.
The negro must remain subordinate or be exterminated ... We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting]. We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.— South Carolina Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman
In the final public act of his long political career, Robert Smalls was a delegate to that convention.
Once devices such as poll taxes, literacy requirements, and tests of esoteric knowledge were inserted into the new constitution to curtail African American voting rights, Smalls, along with the few other black delegates, refused to sign it. When it was moved that delegates who did not sign should not be paid their per diem and travel expenses, Smalls declared that he would walk home to Beaufort rather than sign such a document. He was paid, and rode home on the train.
But African American voting rights in South Carolina would not be effectively restored until 1965.
Ultimately, Robert Smalls was unable to preserve African American civil rights in South Carolina. Does that mean his career was a failure?
During the constitutional convention, Robert Smalls spoke to defend the right of African Americans to be treated the same as other citizens using arguments one observer characterized as “masterpieces of impregnable logic… His arguments were simply unanswerable.”
One example of Smalls’ biting logic is shown in his response to a starkly racist provision of the constitution that made it illegal for a white person to marry anyone having “one-eighth or more of Negro blood.”
Smalls Eloquently and Forcefully Defends Equal Rights
Smalls turned the obvious intent of that provision on its head, offering an amendment that said:
and any white person who lives and cohabits with a Negro, mulatto, or person who shall have one-eighth or more of Negro blood, shall be disqualified from holding any office of emolument or trust in this State, and the offspring of any such living or cohabiting shall bear the name of the father, and shall be entitled to inherit and acquire property the same as if they were legitimate.
In explanation of his amendment, Smalls declared:
If a Negro should improperly approach a white woman, his body would be hanging on the nearest tree, filled with air-holes, before daylight next morning, and, perhaps, properly so. If the same rule were applied on the other side, and white men who insulted or debauched Negro women were treated likewise, this convention would have to be adjourned sine die for lack of a quorum.
What an uproar that caused!
A Charleston newspaper spoke of Smalls having thrown “his bomb” into the proceedings. A Northern paper called it a “brilliant moral victory,” while another cited it as a demonstration that “it is not negro ignorance, but negro intelligence that is feared.”
The amendment was voted down by every single white delegate.
A Legacy That Does Not Fade
Unable to refute Smalls’ arguments, Ben Tillman attacked and belittled him personally. In reply Robert Smalls declared with profound dignity:
I stand here the equal of any man… I fought in seventeen battles to make glorious and perpetuate the flag that some of you trampled under your feet, [and] no act of yours can in any way blur the record that I have made at home and abroad.
When Tillman scornfully demanded that he explain why African Americans deserved to vote, Robert Smalls was up to the challenge. He responded with words that still ring with truth and conviction today:
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.
Those words, spoken to refute the racism of Pitchfork Ben Tillman and all his kind, are inscribed on the monument to Robert Smalls at his grave site. He died on February 22, 1915 at the age of 75.
Of all the magnificent accomplishments that marked the life of Robert Smalls, those words, as true now as they were then, are perhaps his greatest legacy.
© 2014 Ronald E Franklin