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Robert Smalls 1839-1915

Captain of the Planter, U.S. Congressman, Businessman
and Collector of the Port of Beaufort

Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort in 1839, his mother Lydia Polite was a house slave for the Henry McKee family.  In 1851, when Robert was 12 years old, the family moved to Charleston.  He was hired to work on the waterfront first as day laborer and eventually as a sailor.  In 1856 he married Hannah Jones, also a slave, who worked at the Planters Hotel as a maid.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Mr. Smalls was working as a deckhand on the Confederate supply ship the Planter, a converted cotton steamer used to carry supplies between forts in Charleston Harbor. In the predawn hours of May 13, 1862, with the white officers and crew in Charleston, Smalls along with a crew of eight men, five women, and three children (including Smalls’ wife Hannah and two children), quietly slipped the Planter out of Charleston Harbor. Smalls successfully navigated the ship through several Confederate checkpoints into open waters and the Union blockade.

A Courageous Escape

Lincoln’s decision to authorize free African Americans to serve in the Union military. Smalls used part of the $1500 cash prize Congress bestowed on him to purchase the house now known as the McKee-Smalls House at a tax sale in 1863. During the remaining war years, Smalls served as a Union Navy captain on the Planter and the ironclad USS Keokuk, conducting 17 missions in and around Charleston.

Following the war Smalls returned to Beaufort and served as a brigadier general in the South Carolina militia. Smalls impact in State and National politics was significant as he was elected to both the S.C. House and the state Senate and to the U. S. House of Representatives, serving from 1874-1879. His impact on Beaufort was significant as well starting a general store, a school for African American children, and a local newspaper and also owning several properties. From 1889 to 1911 Robert Smalls served as U.S. Customs Collector for the port of Beaufort.

McKee Family Home

In 1863, Smalls bought the McKee family’s former home at a Tax Sale of confiscated property. William DeTreville (who had bought the house in the 1850’s from the McKee’s) tried to claim the house after the War but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the tax sale to Robert Smalls, who lived there until his death at age 75 in 1915.

The McKee-Smalls House at 511 Prince Street, built ca. 1810, was individually designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975.