Monday, January 13, 2014

Major General Robert Smalls, U.S. Army

      The Robert Smalls house in Beaufort, SC

I first heard of Robert Smalls approximately 22 years ago when my wife and I rented a nice room in a B&B in Beaufort, South Carolina.
by Charlie Leck

We’d just participated in one of the most extraordinary events of our lives. We drove across the state of South Carolina on 19th century coaches pulled by fours-of-horses, including one of our own teams. We had a schedule as we traveled across the state and we tried to arrive in each scheduled town on time, changing teams of horses about every 13 or 14 miles. At one point we actually carried a small parcel of U.S. mail with us. We were often met in a community by groups of people cheering us on and by the mayors of those towns.

Our final destination was a plantation in Yemassee, on the east coast. There, all the beautiful coaches were put-to their horses and paraded out to the plantation and made an extraordinary grand entrance. We had a group of approximately eight of these remarkable vehicles and teams. It was quite amazing and I was thrilled with how well our horses had done. Put it all, please, in the category of something never to forget!

We had reserved a B&B room in a small town, Beaufort (pronounced by the locals as ‘Bew-fert’), near the plantation. In our room a small book outlined the history of the remarkable lowlands community and in it was a picture of Robert Smalls, an escaped slave who had been born on a South Carolina plantation on Lady Island. Most people believed that Smalls was the son of the plantations owner’s son, Henry Mckee. That birthright allowed Robert only small privileges that were not available to most of the slave children. A small home was provided for Robert and his mother that was separated from the other slave quarters. And, he and his mother were given food that had been prepared in the kitchen of the plantation’s mansion. A certain amount of “book learning” was also available to Smalls.

The mother worried about her son. She thought he would be ill prepared for the harsh life that lay ahead of him when he reached adulthood. She convinced his father to send him off to another plantation where he could adjust to the realities of being a slave. There, Small trained as both a ship builder and pilot. During the early years of the Civil War, still a slave, he was piloting a small ship that carried bales of cotton to ocean crossing ships in various southern ports. He grew into a position of trust. Now married and with children, Smalls began to plan his escape to freedom. When an opportunity arrived, Smalls guided the ship, loaded with his family, and those of a number of other slaves, through the harbor at Charleston and surrendered it to U.S. Commodore S.F. DuPont. Smalls was able to provide large amounts of strategic information about the southern forces, including the location of mines within the harbor.

Robert Smalls went on to become a Union hero – for a time as a ship captain and then as an officer who commanded black troops in battle. He is credited with recruiting more than 5,000 black troops into the Union Army. He rose to the rank of Major General.

He returned with distinction to the plantation after the war and reunited with his mother. He purchased the McKee house when it was offered up in a tax sale. Mrs. McKee, his white grandmother, was suffering from dementia and Smalls made arrangements for her to stay in house and provided her with appropriate care. He went on to establish some successful businesses in the community, especially ones that catered to the newly freed slaves.

The little tourist booklet led me to wander over to the Robert Smalls house, which the booklet listed among Beaufort’s tourist sites. It remained a private residence and I could only look at it from the street. The town also has a street named after Smalls.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Robert Smalls’ dash to freedom in the Charleston Harbor. He died in 1915 in Charleston as a respected and successful patriot. He served in the South Carolina Legislature and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1874 as a Congressman from South Carolina.

Beaufort is the second oldest city in South Carolina and it is lovely town, with handsome and very narrow streets and moss growing everywhere. A horse and carriage ride around the town is a nice way to see it. A slow walking tour is even better. It’s very close to Hilton Head.

The photo to the left is from our 1991 arrival
at the Yemassee Plantation in South Carolina,
after a drive across the state from Aiken. Here
I am driving a team of Cleveland Bay crossbreds,
completely raised and trained by my
extraordinary wife on our farm in Minnesota.
She insisted I drive them into the plantation since
the affair was sponsored by a club to which I
belonged at the time. She was not completely
happy with all the hat-tipping I was doing,
however, and would have preferred I have both
hands nearer the ribbons (reins or lines). In spite
of the applauding spectators, the horses behaved
perfectly and there was no need for worry.


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1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post. Enjoyable and informative. You sure have some great memories to reach into.