Robert Smalls is one Beaufort's greatest native sons.
His story is made more remarkable because he rose, as a headline in The Wall Street Journal noted this week, "from slave to statesman."
Smalls is best known for the great escape 150 years ago this Sunday. Early on May 13, 1862, Smalls piloted a Confederate gunboat away from a Charleston dock, easing past Confederate fortifications in the harbor and on into the teeth of a federal blockade beyond. He risked being blown to bits along with his wife and two children and 13 other enslaved people aboard the CSS Planter.
Almost instantly, a 23-year-old man born in a slave cabin in downtown Beaufort was a national media sensation.
"There was a lot of doubt in the North: Will the enslaved person fight for freedom?" said state historian Walter Edgar. "That was proven at Battery Wagner, but it was first proven by Robert Smalls."
Smalls was one of the greatest Civil War heroes Beaufort produced, said Beaufort County historian Larry Rowland. Beyond the great escape, Smalls fought in 17 battles under fire in Lowcountry waters, at one time coming face-to-face with a 10-inch Confederate cannon.
"He was afraid of nobody," Rowland said.
On Wednesday night, the Lowcountry Civil War Roundtable in Bluffton heard about Smalls and the Planter from Dennis Cannady of Beaufort, who pours his knowledge into precise models of the 147-foot steamship.
Charleston will host a Robert Smalls Commemorative Weekend on Saturday and Sunday. A new interpretive sign will be dedicated in the Waterfront Park and a historical marker will go up on Bay Street. Cannady will do his show, and Stephen Wise of Beaufort, curator of history at the Parris Island Museum, will be on a panel discussing the Smalls legacy.
Charleston is right to celebrate the life of Smalls. But Smalls is quintessentially Beaufort. We should never let the world forget it.
Smalls was born here and died here. He served his county in the state legislature and in Congress. Through the state Constitutional Convention of 1868 and later in Congress, Smalls became the father of public education in South Carolina. He raised money in Philadelphia for the first public school for blacks in Beaufort. In 1919, four years after his death, the first African-American high school in Beaufort was named for him.
It was Smalls who pushed through the first federal acquisition of land on Parris Island so it could become today's Marine Corps Recruit Depot. He pushed for the U.S. Army to enlist black troops in the Civil War, which took place first on Hilton Head Island. That gave blacks income to buy land. And it left behind service records important to African-American families tracing their lineage today.
One of Beaufort's greatest native sons remains more than an inspiring piece of history. Robert Smalls' legacy is as real as a paycheck and as promising as this spring's diplomas.