This Day in History: 1839-04-05
American politician, publisher, businessman, and naval pilot Robert Smalls is born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina. Smalls gained renown by freeing himself, his crew, and their families during the American Civil War by commandeering a Confederate transport ship, CSS Planter, in Charleston harbor, on May 13, 1862, and sailing it from Confederate-controlled waters of the harbor to the U.S. blockade that surrounded it. He then piloted the ship to the Union-controlled enclave in Beaufort-Port Royal-Hilton Head area, where it became a Union warship. His example and persuasion helped convince President Abraham Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union Army. After the American Civil War Smalls returned to Beaufort and became a politician, winning election as a Republican to the South Carolina Legislature and the United States House of Representatives during the Reconstruction era. Smalls authored state legislation providing for South Carolina to have the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States. He founded the Republican Party of South Carolina. Smalls was the last Republican to represent South Carolina’s 5th congressional district until 2011. Learn more.