At the age of 17, Bro. Smalls married Hannah Jones, an enslaved Hotel maid. She was 22 and already had two daughters. Their first child together, Elizabeth Lydia Smalls, was born in February 1858. They had a son three years later, Robert Jr, who passed away at the age of two. Robert was determined to pay for their freedom by purchasing them outright, but at the cost of $800 dollars (roughly $22,764 in today’s currency), it would take him decades to reach that goal. He had only managed to save $100 dollars.
In April 1861, the American Civil War began with the Battle of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. In the fall of 1861, Bro. Smalls was assigned to work as a wheelman on the CSS Planter, a lightly armed military transport ship. The Planter’s duties were to deliver orders, troops, supplies, to survey waterways, and to lay mines. Smalls was entrusted to pilot the Planter throughout the Harbor, as well as on area rivers and along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coastlines. Smalls could see the line of Union ships blockading the Harbor seven miles away and began to hatch an escape plan.
On May 12, 1862, the Planter travelled 10 miles southwest to Coles Island, which was home to a confederate post that was being dismantled. The ship picked up 4 large cannon and returned to Charleston where the crew loaded 200lb of ammunition and 20 cord of firewood onto the ship. The evening of May 12, 1862, the Planter’s three confederate officers disembarked to spend the night in Charleston, leaving Bro. Smalls and the crew on board. Before the officers departed, Smalls requested permission to allow the crew’s families to visit them, which was approved provided that the families left before curfew.
When the families arrived, Smalls and the crew revealed the plan to them. Smalls had discussed the plan with his wife beforehand, to which she said: “It is a risk, dear, but you and I, and our little ones must be free. I will go, for where you die, I will die.” The other women were not informed and were frightened at executing the plan. They started to cry out of fear. The men attempted to quiet them with mixed success. At curfew, the family members returned home with the instructions to be at Southern Wharf and another wharf to be picked up for the escape attempt. Around 3am, Smalls put on a captain’s uniform and wore a straw hat similar to the captain’s and the Planter departed. After stopping to pick up his and the other crew member’s families, Smalls piloted the Planter past five confederate forts with no issue, as he gave the correct signals at checkpoints as Smalls had copied the captain’s mannerisms along with wearing his straw hat, it was enough to fool the soldiers manning the various checkpoints. Around 4:30 am, Smalls approached Fort Sumter.
The crew started to be afraid, asking Smalls to give wide berth to the Fort. Smalls told them that such behavior might raise suspicion of the soldiers manning the guns at the Fort. He piloted the ship along the normal course at a slow cruising speed, pretending as if they were just out for a leisurely cruise. When the Fort gave the challenge signal, Smalls responded with the correct hand signals. There was a long pause and Smalls started to think he’d soon be on the receiving end of a cannon barrage. However, the Fort replied back with the all-clear and the Planter continued on its way. Rather than turn east towards Morris Island, Smalls steered the ship straight towards the Union ships blockading the Harbor. Smalls ordered all the confederate flags lowered and replaced them with white bedsheets that his wife had brought with her. This raised the alarm that something was amiss, but the Planter was already outside of Cannon range.
The Planter was seen by the USS Onward, which began to ready its cannons to fire upon the Planter. Luckily, a crewmember on the USS Onward noticed the white flag of surrender flying on the Planter. The Captain of the USS Onward, John Fredrick Nickels, boarded the Planter at which point Smalls asked for a United States Flag to fly. Smalls surrendered the Planter to Nickels, exclaiming "Good morning, sir! I've brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!" Smalls escape proved especially beneficial to the union navy. Along with the artillery pieces that the Planter was hauling, the captains codebook with the signals for each check point, along with maps of the mines laid in Charleston Harbor were invaluable, as was Smalls expertise of the surrounding waters. The United States also learned that Coles Island had been abandoned by Confederate forces, which allowed the United States to capture the island
Word of Smalls escape quickly spread throughout the North via newspapers accounts. In the South, the Newspapers demanded disciplinary action for the officers who left Smalls and his crew alone aboard the ship. The U.S. Congress passed a bill awarding Smalls and his crew prize money for CSS Planter. Smalls was awarded 1500 dollars (roughly $38415 in today’s currency). Smalls was sent to Washington DC to help persuade President Lincoln and War Secretary Stanton to allow men of color to fight for the Union. Due to Smalls effort, Stanton signed an order allowing 5000 African Americans to serve the union at Port Royal, and they were organized into the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Regiments (Colored).
Smalls quickly started serving the Union Navy out of Port Royal, South Carolina and piloted many navy vessels, until he was transferred to the Army in March 1863. Smalls took part in 17 major engagements during the war. Some of his heroic actions include: He was made pilot of the ironclad USS Keokuk and took part in the attack on Fort Sumter on April 7, 1863. The Keokuk took major damage and sank the next morning. Smalls and much of the crew moved to the USS Ironside and the fleet returned to Hilton Head. On Dec. 1, 1863, Smalls was piloting the Planter on Folly Island Creek when Confederate gun batteries at Secessionville fired upon the vessel. The captain, James Nickerson, fled the pilot house for the coal bunker, but Smalls stayed at his post and piloted the ship to safety.
In May 1864, Smalls was an unofficial delegate to the Republican National Convention in Baltimore. Later that spring, he was in Philadelphia while the Planter was getting overhauled. While in Philadelphia, Smalls was in a streetcar and was ordered to give up his seat to a white passenger. Rather than ride on the open overflow platform, Smalls left the streetcar. The humiliation of Smalls, a heroic veteran, was referenced in a debate that resulted in the State legislature’s passing a bill which integrated public transport in Pennsylvania in 1867.
After the civil war, Smalls returned to Beaufort. There he became a property owner, and purchased several properties, including a two-story building to be used as a school for African-American children. He also opened a store with a Philadelphia business man, which served the needs of freedmen. He was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1868, moving to the Senate in 1870 after being elected to fill a vacancy. In 1874, Smalls was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served from 1875 to 1879 and then from 1882 to 1887 all while being threatened by the South Carolina “Red Shirts” which was a branch of the Klu Klux Klan. His political career was centered on promoting children’s welfare, education and African-American rights. He famously said in 1895: “My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere, all they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”
Smalls passed away in 1915 at the age of 75 due to malaria and diabetes. In 2004, the Defense Department named a ship for Smalls. The USAV Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls is a Kuroda-class logistics support vessel operated by the U.S. Army. It is the first Army ship to be named after an African-American. Robert Smalls was a member and a Past Master of The Sons of Beaufort Lodge #36 PHA in Beaufort, South Carolina.