Robert Smalls was a Negro slave who became a naval hero for the Union in the American Civil War (1861-1865) and went on to serve as a congressman from South Carolina during Reconstruction (1865-1877).
The son of plantation slaves, Smalls was taken by his master in 1851 to Charleston, S.C., where he worked as a hotel waiter, hack driver, and rigger. Pressured to join the Confederate Navy at the outbreak of the war, he was forced to serve as wheelman aboard the armed frigate Planter (right). On May 13, 1862, he and 12 other slaves seized control of the ship in Charleston, S.C., harbor and succeeded in turning it over to a Union squadron blocking the city. This exploit brought Smalls great fame throughout the North. He continued to serve as a pilot on the Planter and became the ships captain in 1863.
After the war, Smalls rose rapidly in politics, despite his limited education. In 1863, Smalls purchased the house where he was born a slave at a tax sale with a winning bid of $600; he and his family occupied it continually for some 90 years. From 1868 to 1870, he served in the South Carolina House of Representatives and, from 1871 to 1874, in the State Senate. He was elected to the U.S. Congress (1875- 79, 1881-87), where his outstanding political action was support of a bill that would required equal accommodations for both races on interstate conveyances. In 1895, he delivered a moving speech before the South Carolina constitutional convention in a gallant but futile attempt to prevent the virtual disenfranchisement of blacks.
A political moderate, Smalls spent his last years in Beaufort, where he served a port collector (1889-93, 1897-1913).