Beaufort, South Carolina: In Memoriam — Robert Smalls, Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery

Robert Smalls memorial Beaufort SC Copyright 2014 Nadia Orton
Memorial to Robert Smalls, Beaufort, South Carolina. Photo: Nadia K Orton, December 13, 2014.
Robert Smalls, ca. 1875. Library of Congress
Robert Smalls, ca. 1875. Library of Congress

On Tuesday, February 23, occurred the death of one of the race’s most noted characters, General Robert Smalls, in his seventy-sixth year of age. He had been sick for about ten months at his home on Prince street, and all the members of the family were around the bedside when the end came.

Born in Beaufort on April 5, 1839, he was a river pilot by profession. During the civil war he was used as pilot by the Confederates on a privateer, the Planter, which had been fitted out as a gunboat.

On May 13, 1862, Pilot Smalls took the Planter, which was being used as the special dispatch boat of General Ripley, the Confederate post commander at Charleston, from the wharf at which she was lying and carried her out of the Charleston harbor, under the Confederate guns, and delivered the vessel to Captain Nichols of the Federal ship Onward, one of the fleet of Federal ships blockading Charleston harbor at the time. He was put in charge of the gunboat Crusader as pilot, serving also on the Planter, and was in charge of the vessels during many engagements with Confederate forces, both naval and land. He was pilot on board the monitor Keokuk when that vessel was struck ninety-six times in the attack on Fort Sumter on April 7, 1863, sinking the next morning, just after Smalls and the crew had been taken off.

Saved Vessel When Captain Deserted Post

In December, 1863, Smalls was on the deck of the Planter, which was being piloted by Captain Nickerson. While passing through Folly Island Creek the Confederate batteries at Secessionville opened a hot fire on the vessel.

Nickerson deserted the pilot house and hid himself in the coal bunkers. When Smalls discovered that the captain had deserted the pilot house in a panic he took command of the boat and piloted her out of reach of the guns.

Robert Smalls Marker - Tabernacle Baptist Church
Historic Marker for Robert Smalls. Tabernacle Baptist Church

For this feat he was promoted by General Gillmore, commanding the Department of the South, to the rank of captain and put in command of the Planter. He served in this capacity until the end of the war, the Planter being used as a supply boat along the coast, and in September, 1866, he carried the boat to Baltimore, where she was put out of commission and sold.

A bill was introduced into the Forty-seventh Congress “authorizing the President to place Robert Smalls on the Retired List of the Navy.” The bill did not pass on the ground that there was no precedent for placing a civilian on the retired list of the navy.

Robert Smalls Headstone - Tabernacle Baptist Church
Robert Smalls Gravestone. Tabernacle Baptist Church

Elected to Congress

Returning to South Carolina in 1866, Captain Smalls was elected to the State Constitutional Convention, and in 1868, he was elected to the State Legislature. He introduced the Homestead Act and Civil Rights Bill, securing the passage of the latter act. In 1870 he was elected to the Senate to fill the unexpired term Judge Wright, who was elected associate justice of the State Supreme Court. In 1872 he was elected for the regular term. In 1873 he was appointed lieutenant-colonel in the Third Regiment, South Carolina State Militia, being successively promoted to be brigadier-general of the Second division, State Militia. He was legislated out of this position by the Democrats when they came into power in 1877.

Smalls Family Plot Tabernacle Baptist Beaufort
Smalls Family Plot

He was elected to Congress from his district, being a member of the Forty-seventh, Forty-eighth and Forty-ninth Congresses. He was finally unseated by being counted out by the Democrats, who secured control of the election machinery in his district.

General Smalls was appointed by President McKinley as collector of the port of Beaufort, S. C., and this position he held continuously until displaced by Wilson in 1913. He was delegate to the National Republican Convention at several sessions and attained national prominence in Republican politics.

Surviving him are two daughters and one son, Mrs. S. J. Bamfield, who served for a number of years as postmaster at Beaufort; Mrs. Sarah Smalls Williams and William B. Smalls. — The New York Age, March 4, 1915

Robert Smalls Marker Tabernacle Baptist Beaufort SC
Robert Smalls Marker, Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery.
Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery, Beaufort, South Carolina. Marker text: "
Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery, Beaufort, South Carolina. Marker text: “Tabernacle Church was formed by black members of Beaufort Baptist Church after other members evacuated the area due to Federal occupation in 1861. The Beaufort church’s lecture room was used for services during the war. In 1867, the black congregation bought this property from the Beaufort Baptist Church. Its present building was dedicated in 1894. Many new churches have grown from Tabernacle.”

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