Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Robert Smalls of South Carolina was one of only 22 African Americans who served in the 19th Century.
On this date, the House passed a measure to reimburse former Representative Robert Smalls
of South Carolina for commandeering the Confederate war ship Planter
and surrendering it to the Union Navy during the Civil War. Robert Smalls was born into slavery on April 5, 1839, in Beaufort, South Carolina. In 1851, his owner sent him to Charleston, South Carolina, where Smalls worked for wages on the waterfront. He became a skilled navigator and memorized the South Carolina and Georgia coastlines. Married with two children, Smalls lived in constant fear his family would be sold and taken away. Despite the money he earned, the price to buy their freedom was too steep. During the Civil War, Smalls was forced to work on the Planter
, a Confederate ammunition transport. One evening, when he knew the captain would be ashore, Smalls commandeered the boat. Using Confederate signal codes and dressing like the ship’s captain, he sailed his family and 17 other slaves to freedom, surrendering the vessel to a Union blockade. As a free man during the war, Smalls served on the Planter
, which the Union had turned into a troop transport. After the war, Smalls served in the South Carolina state legislature from 1868 to 1874. He won election to the U.S House of Representatives in 1874 and served five nonconsecutive terms (1875–1879, 1881–1887). After Smalls left the House, several Members tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation to reward him for capturing the Planter
. It wasn’t until May 18, 1900, nearly four decades after Smalls sailed to freedom, that the House provided him with compensation by passing a measure introduced by George White
of North Carolina. The original bill appropriated $20,000 for Smalls, but the Committee on War Claims lowered the amount to $5,000. President William McKinley
signed the bill into law on June 5, 1900. Smalls remained active in South Carolina politics after his House career and received his compensation while serving as the customs collector at the port of Beaufort.