The Remarkable Life of Robert Smalls

In the coastal town of Beaufort, South Carolina, the map of important sites lists the Henry McKee house, a preCivil War home which,

like many others in Beaufort, was spared destruction when the Union Navy captured the Sea Islands along the South Carolina coast in 1862.

What is fascinating about the McKee house is that it became the home of Robert Smalls-war hero,

political activist and five-term US Congressman-who was raised there as the slave of Henry McKee.

Robert Smalls was born on 5 April 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina, the son of Robert and Lydia Smalls, slaves of the Henry McKee family.

Smalls was allowed a limited education.

At the age of twelve, Robert was taken from Beaufort to Charleston where he was hired out.

His mother was pleased with this turn of events because Robert did not have the “proper attitude” for plantation work.

Robert was the fourth American generation of his mother’s family which was taken from the Guinea coast of West Africa.

Smalls worked on the Charleston wharves, first as a lamplighter and then as a wagon-driver.

At fifreen he became the foreman of a crew of stevedores and in the years that followed he learned sail making, riggingand seamanship.

Smalls lived in the Charleston home of Mrs. McKee’s sister and had to give most of his wages to the McKees.

At age 18, Smalls fell in love and married Hannah Jones, a hotel maid whose regular earnings as a slave went to her owners.

After the birth of their daughter,

Elizabeth Lydia on 12 February 1858, Smalls bought freedom for his wife and baby fo r eight hundred dollars.

When the Civil W ar began, Smalls was pressed into service by the Confederate Navy on the cotton steamer Planter,

first as a deckhand and then as a helmsman.

Fifteen of his sixteen-dollar-monthly salary was paid to owner H enry McKee.

On 12 May 1862, in the second year of the Civil W ar, the 140-foot Planter was docked in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor.

The ship had been transporting military supplies for the rebel army between Charleston and the outer islands.

It was loaded with ammunition and guns to be delivered to Confederate Forts Sumter and Riley.

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