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Robert Smalls - Overview and Early Life

Biography Biography:

Robert Smalls lived a fascinating life full of hardship, courage, and accomplishment. He was born into slavery in South Carolina where, despite his humble beginnings, he eventually became a ship's pilot. During the Civil War, Robert hatched a plan to steal a Confederate ship, risking his life to escape to freedom along with his family. He then joined the Union Army and fought for the freedom of the rest of his people. After the Civil War, Robert returned to South Carolina where he was elected to the United States House of Representatives.

Portrait of Robert Smalls
Robert Smalls
Source: Harper's Weekly

Born Enslaved

Robert Smalls was born on April 5, 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother, Lydia Polite, was enslaved by Henry McKee. Robert grew up working as an enslaved worker for the McKee family. He lived with his mother in a small cabin behind the large McKee house. As a boy, Robert spent his time tending to his enslaver Henry McKee. McKee liked Robert and treated him well, however, Robert's mother made sure he understood the reality of slavery. Despite how he was treated, Robert could be sold at any time. He was considered the property of Henry McKee.

Becoming a Boat Pilot

As Robert grew older, his master began to hire him out. Robert would work jobs around Beaufort, and his owner would get the money. Robert loved the sea and eventually found a job working on the docks and ships at the Port of Charleston. Robert was smart and worked hard. Over time, he became an expert navigator of the Charleston Harbor and the surrounding rivers and coastline. He earned the position as the wheelman of a boat. This job had essentially the same responsibilities as a boat pilot, but the enslaved were not allowed to have the "pilot" title. It was an important and somewhat prestigious job.

Drawing of the gun-boat Planter
The gun-boat "Planter"
Source: Harper's Weekly

In 1856, at the age of seventeen, Robert fell in love. He married an enslaved woman named Hannah Jones who worked as a maid in a Charleston hotel. Hannah already had two daughters when they were married, but the couple soon had a third child of their own. Robert had built himself a good life. He had a good job and a family he loved, but he knew his life was fragile. His family were enslaved. They were owned by other people and his children could be sold and sent away at any moment. Robert began to plan his escape.

The Civil War Begins

The Civil War began in April of 1861 at the Battle of Fort Sumter, not far from where Robert and his family lived in Charleston. As an experienced pilot, the Confederate Army assigned Robert to a military transport ship named the Planter. Smalls quickly gained the confidence of the white officers of the ship and was promoted to wheelman. He expertly piloted the ship along the coastline and rivers around Charleston laying mines, transporting ammunition, and delivering Confederate troops and messages.

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Robert Smalls Biography Contents
  1. Robert Smalls - Early Life
  2. Escape from the South
  3. Politics and Interesting Facts
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