By Mike McCombs
Usually, you don’t hear about 159th anniversaries. Wedding anniversaries are only named through the 80th. And 159 is not a remarkable year.
Also, aside from a few birthdays, May 13 isn’t a widely remembered date throughout American history.
But May 13 should be a big day in Beaufort.
It was 159 years ago (give or take a few hours), in the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, that Robert Smalls, born into slavery in 1839 in Beaufort, sailed the Planter, a Confederate transport ship out of Charleston harbor, past Confederate checkpoints and into the waiting arms of the Union blockade.
And into the waiting arms of freedom.
And not just for himself. He delivered his family, as well as all the families of all his enslaved crewmates.
It was a remarkable act by an even more remarkable man.
After serving in the U.S. Navy for the remainder of the Civil War, Smalls returned to Beaufort, purchased the home of the man who enslaved him, became a local businessman, advocated for public education, and then was a delegate to the state convention that wrote a new S.C. Constitution. He would later be elected to the S.C. House of Representatives, then the S.C. Senate.
And he was elected to and served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But it’s fair to say, as remarkable as Smalls was, he may have achieved none of his accomplishments if not for that night in May, 159 years ago.
Smalls’ actions that night are the stuff great movies are made of … except not this time, not yet. But somehow, outside of the Lowcountry, Smalls’ actions are not all that well known.
If you’re new to Beaufort or just vacationing here, or if you’ve been here all your life and just don’t know much about the Robert Smalls story, I encourage you to take a little time and dive in.
Visit the Robert Smalls monument and gravesite at Tabernacle Baptist Church or take a trip to the Beaufort History Museum and learn a little about Smalls. A trip to the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park couldn’t hurt.
Or read a detailed 2017 chronicle of the actions of that night 159 years ago by Cate Lineberry of Smithsonian Magazine at https://bit.ly/3bki7Mw.
The more you know about Smalls and his heroics, the harder it is to believe he isn’t a hero to more Americans.
Mike McCombs is the editor of The Island News and can be reached at TheIslandNews@gmail.com.
Above: The bust of South Carolina statesman Robert Smalls is located on the ground of Tabernacle Baptist Church on Craven Street. Photo by Bob Sofaly