From slavery to Congressman – Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls (1839 – 1915) was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, on April 5th, 1839, in a slave cabin behind his mother’s master’s house on 511 Prince Street. In 1862 he escaped from Charleston harbor aboard a steamer called the Planter with his family and several friends too. The boat had to pass by five Confederate check-points and then surrender its contents to the northern Naval fleet out in the harbor where it was blockading the important southern port.

His escape succeeded and Robert would meet Abraham Lincoln personally a couple weeks later. Lincoln was quite impressed with a black man (slave) who had learned how to pilot and navigate the coastal waterways around Charleston. Lincoln rewarded Smalls handsomely with bounty-money and a commission into the Union Navy as a captain of a vessel – the Planter! He was the first black Captain of a U.S. Naval vessel.

Three months later Smalls would visit Abraham Lincoln in the Whitehouse to plead the opportunity for blacks to fight for the Union. Just days afterwards Lincoln approved the raising of the first black troops in the Blue uniform and Robert Smalls was instrumental in helping to start the 1st South Carolina Infantry of U.S. Colored Troops.

Smalls would go on to pilot the Planter for the Union cause and take pace in several important engagements around Charleston and the Sea Islands. After the Civil War he was elected among a few other blacks as they became the freshman class of blacks to serve as U.S. Congressmen.

Robert Smalls’s story is an amazing one of courage, determination, sacrifice, risk and reward – from slavery to Congressman!


This is the home on 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, South Carolina, that Robert was born behind in a slave cabin. He later bought this very same house, after the Civil War, and lived in it with his mother Lydia.

One comment

  1. The dark (no pun intended) side of Small’s magnificent rise from slavery to congress is that the majority of the citizens of his district were not considered as citizens following their vain attempt at independence. Many were not allowed to vote. Men like Smalls were little more than puppits appoited by Federal and Northern occupation authorities and politics.

    Or you can decide to find it interesting that there were black congressmen from the South man years before the Northern states elected their first!

    Many Southerns then might of found it very paciliar and not right that the same man that took enlisted in the Union army and took up arms to kill Southerners would end up being their representative!

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