Robert Smalls Captain of the Gun-boat "Planter" (From Harper's Weekly, June 14, 1862, Beaufort District Collection, Beaufort County Library, SC)

Robert Smalls Captain of the Gun-boat “Planter” (From Harper’s Weekly, June 14, 1862, Beaufort District Collection, Beaufort County Library, SC)

Beaufort’s native son, Robert Smalls, was born into slavery in 1839. On the night of May 12,1862, he made a daring dash across Charleston Harbor piloting The Planter, a steamship contracted to the Confederate government. He surrendered it to Union forces thereby becoming the first African-American hero of the Civil War. He purchased the Richard Detreville Home (formerly the property of his slave master Henry McKee) at 511 Prince Street for $605 during the Tax Sales held in January 1864. When peace returned, he came home to Beaufort County, SC, embracing the rough-and-tumble daily life of the Reconstruction era. He actively participated in politics at local, state, and federal levels until the end of his life. Death overtook him on 23 February 1915 at his home on Prince Street. Some called him the “King of Beaufort.”

For a narrative about his life and times based on the Beaufort County Library’s 2007 webpage about Robert Smalls, please consult “Robert Smalls: War Hero, Public Servant, and Man of Mark, 1839 -2015.”

This selective list of materials about the life and legacy of Robert Smalls was prepared by Grace Morris Cordial, MLS, SL, CA, Manager of the Beaufort County Library’s (SC) special local history collection and archives, the Beaufort District Collection. Latest update: 28 October 2020; Original Post: 3 October 2012.

Online Resources:

Smalls, Robert” entry in the Digital South Carolina Encyclopedia (2016)

Robert Smalls was inducted into the Official South Carolina Hall of Fame in 2010. There is a short text entry and video (approx. 2 min.) about him on the Hall of Fame website.

Black Americans in Congress, 1870 – 2007” by History, Art & Archives, United States House of Representatives website

Robert Smalls: Former Slave and Civil War Hero” website by Hagley Museum & Library

The Search for Planter: The Ship that Escaped Charleston and Carried Robert Smalls to Destiny,” Report of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration investigation, 36 pp.

The Bulwark of Freedom: African-American Members of Congress & The Constitution during Reconstruction”, a presentation made by Michael Murphy, a historical publication specialist in the Office of the Historian for the U.S. House of Representatives at the Library of Congress 17 September 2020. He discussed the lives of the first African Americans to serve in the U.S. Congress during Reconstruction and the challenges they faced.

Real Estate Company owner and sales agent Edward Dukes takes viewers on a video tour of the historic Robert Smalls House and Garden located at 511 Prince Street, Beaufort, SC.

Listen to descendant Michael Moore share the story of Robert Smalls on Criminal, an award-winning podcast about true crime … stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle. (Approximately 30 minutes)

https://www.army.mil/e2/c/-images/2007/09/16/7960/army.mil-2007-09-17-065810.jpg
The USAV (U.S. Army Vessel) Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls was commissioned yesterday [16 September 2007] at a ceremony in Baltimore, Md. The first Army vessel to be named after an African American, the ship is operated by the Army Reserve’s 203rd Transportation Detachment, and is intended to transport vehicles, equipment and personnel over long distances. (Photo Credit: Don Wagner)

You can check out these materials from one of the SCLENDS consortium libraries:

Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero by Cate Lineberry, St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

“General Robert Smalls,” in The Blacks in These Sea Islands by Carline S. Robinson and William R. Dortch, Vantage Press, 1985,  pp. 33-36.

Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls by Dorothy Sterling, Doubleday, 1958.

Congressman Robert Smalls: A Patriot’s Journey from Slavery to Capitol Hill [DVD: 56 min.] by Adrena Ifill, Doubleback Productions, 2005.

Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915 by Edward A. Miller, Jr., University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Volume 3: Bridging the Sea Islands’ past and present: 1893-2006 by Lawrence S. Rowland and Stephen R. Wise, University of South Carolina Press, 2015.

The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina: Volume 2: Rebellion, Reconstruction, and Redemption, 1861-1893 by Stephen R. Wise and Lawrence S. Rowland, with Gerhard Spieler,  University of South Carolina Press, 2015.

Mary Long’s Yesteryear: Robert Smalls: Gullah Statesman [DVD:56 min.] by SCETV, 1990, 2004.

“Robert Smalls,” in African-Americans and the Palmetto State by Carol Sears Botsch et al., South Carolina State Department of Education, 1994, pp. 64-65.

South Carolina Hall of Fame: Robert Smalls, State Representative, Senator, U.S. Congressman [DVD: 11 min.] by South Carolina Educational Television, [2012].

Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and his Families by Andrew Billingsley, University of South Carolina Press, 2007.

For Young Readers:

Freedom Ship by Doreen Rappaport, Hyperion Books for Children, 2006.

The Freedom Ship of Robert Smalls by Louise Meriwether, Prentice-Hall, 1971.

From Slave to Civil War Hero: The Life and Times of Robert Smalls by Michael L. Cooper, Lodestart Books, 1994.

Robert Smalls: The Boat Thief by [Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.] Hyperion Books for Children, 2008.

Robert Smalls Sails to Freedom by Susan Taylor Brown, Millbrook Press, 2006.

Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story by Janet Halfmann, Lee & Low Books, 2008.

Come to the Beaufort District Collection Research Room to see these items:

SC 975.799 ROW v. 3 The history of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Volume 3: Bridging the Sea Islands’ past and present: 1893-2006 by Lawrence S. Rowland and Stephen R. Wise, University of South Carolina Press, 2015.

SC 975.799 ROW v. 2 The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina: Volume 2: Rebellion, Reconstruction, and Redemption, 1861-1893 by Stephen R. Wise and Lawrence S. Rowland, with Gerhard Spieler,  University of South Carolina Press, 2015.

SC B SMALLS Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero by Cate Lineberry, St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

SC B SMALLS  Seven Miles to Freedom:  The Robert Smalls Story by Janet Halfmann, Lee & Low Books, 2008.

SC B SMALLS Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and his Families by Andrew Billingsley, University of South Carolina Press, 2007.

SC B SMALLS Congressman Robert Smalls: A Patriot’s Journey from Slavery to Capitol Hill [DVD: 56 min.] by Adrena Ifill, Doubleback Productions, 2005.

SC B SMALLS Mary Long’s Yesteryear: Robert Smalls: Gullah Statesman [DVD: 56 min.] by SCETV, 1990, 2004.

SC 975.704 BEA 2003 Beaufort during the Reconstruction Era, USCB Forum: [February 25, 2003] convened by the Sea Islands Reconstruction Heritage Partnership, [VHS], [2003]. Note: Panelists include Dr. Marge Yanker, facilitator (USCB), Dr. Page Miller (USC-Columbia), Dr. Larry Rowland (USC-Beaufort), Emory Campbell (Penn Center), Curt Cottle (Director of Heritage Tourism Dev. for the State of SC), and Dr. Roger Stroup (SC Director of Dept. of Archives & History & State Preservation Officer). Former Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, approached committee members about making Beaufort County a cultural heritage site, due to the historical significance the county played during the Reconstruction years. The committee received a planning grant to identify sites in Beaufort County and came up with 60 sites.

SC B SMALLS Robert Smalls and His Environs, 1839-1914: Slave, Hero, Statesman by the Humanities School of Beaufort, 1999.

SC B SMALLS Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915 by Edward A. Miller, Jr., University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

SC 975.7 AFR “Robert Smalls,” in African-Americans and the Palmetto State by Carol Sears Botsch et al., South Carolina State Department of Education,1994, pp. 64-65.

SC B SMALLS From Slave to Civil War Hero: The Life and Times of Robert Smalls by Michael L. Cooper, Lodestart Books, 1994.

SC B SMALLS Robert Smalls: Sail Away to Freedom (Mary Long’s Yesteryear series) [VHS] by SCETV, 1990.

SC B SMALLS  “Robert Smalls: From Runaway Slave to Congressman,” by John Hall from The State (Columbia, SC), 1987.

SC B SMALLS “A Portfolio: The Port Royal Experiment: the first taste of freedom: South Carolina leaves slavery behind” by Janet E. Kaufman, Civil War Times Illustrated, May, 1986.

SC B SMALLS “Mr. Smalls: A personal adventure: He did it for his family; it made him a Union hero” by Howard Westwood, Civil War Times Illustrated, May, 1986.

SC 975.799 ROB “General Robert Smalls,” in The Blacks in These Sea Islands by Carline S. Robinson and William R. Dortch, Vantage Press, 1985,  pp. 33-36.

SC B SMALLS From Slavery to Public Service: Robert Smalls, 1839-1915 by Okon Edet Uya, Oxford University Press, 1971.

SC B SMALLS  “The Life of Robert Smalls” from Golden Legacy Illustrated History Magazine, vol. 9,  Fitzgerald Publishing, 1970.

SC B SMALLS Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls by Dorothy Sterling, Doubleday, 1958.

SC 975.799 ROB  Robert Smalls vs. William Elliot, United States House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.:  House of Representatives, 1888. 50th Congress, 2nd session, H.R. 3536.

SC B SMALLS  Arrest and Imprisonment of Hon. Robert Smalls: January 25, 1878 [pamphlet] by  Mr. Knott. Washington, D.C.: House of Representatives, 1878. 45th Congress, 1st session, no. 100.

SC 306.3621 NOR The Freedmen of South Carolina: Some Account of Their Appearance, Character, Condition, and Peculiar Customs by Charles Nordhoff, C.T. Evans, 1863.

SC FIC EVA The Wheelman: How the Slave Robert Smalls Stole a Warship and Became King by Marshall Evans, Land’s Ford, c2015.

The Beaufort District Collection Research Room has a number of relevant permanent historical vertical files relating to the life and times of Robert Smalls. A vertical file is a created collection of loose clippings from newspapers and magazines, brochures, pamphlets, and other ephemera about a particular topic.

  • Planter (ship)
  • Robert Smalls Legacy Foundation
  • Smalls, Robert (1839-1915) – Biographical and Genealogical Data
  • Smalls, Robert (1839-1915) – Media
  • Smalls, Robert (1839-1915) – Military and Militia Service
  • Smalls, Robert (1839-1915) – Political Career, 1865-1915
  • Smalls, Robert (1839-1915) – Real Estate Holdings
  • Smalls, Robert (1839-1915) – Resources
  • Smalls, Robert (1839-1915) – Tributes and Recognitions
  • USS Major General Robert Smalls (ship)

Please contact the Beaufort District Collection at (843) 255-6468 or e-mail bdc@bcgov.net for additional information about local history and archives relating to the people, places, and themes of the history, culture, and natural environment of Beaufort County, Jasper County, and Hampton County, South Carolina. Current hours of operation are posted on the Beaufort County Library’s (SC) website.

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