Image courtesy of Library of Congress
An escaped slave and Civil War hero, Robert Smalls served four terms as a Representative in South Carolina“s southeastern corner.
On this date, Representative Robert Smalls
of South Carolina died of natural causes in his hometown of Beaufort. Born a slave on April 5, 1839, Smalls was conscripted into Confederate service in the early days of the Civil War. He became a national hero when he hijacked a Confederate munitions vessel docked in Charleston Harbor and turned it over to Union forces in 1862. Smalls built his political career on his subsequent Union military service when he returned to South Carolina in 1867. He served in the 44th
, and 49th
Congresses (1875–1879; 1881–1883; 1885–1887) representing a southeastern South Carolina district. South Carolina “Red Shirts”—a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan—regularly threatened Smalls and his supporters during often chaotic and violent campaigns. Smalls described his 1876 election as “a carnival of bloodshed and violence.” Smalls’s congressional career focused on promoting African-American civil rights. “My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere,” Smalls asserted in 1895. “All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”