Beaufort’s Hero Robert Smalls and Tabernacle Baptist Church

Robert grew up behind this house on Beaufort’s Prince Street.
Image from Wikimedia.

Robert Smalls was born into slavery on April 5, 1839. Robert and his mother lived in a two-room shack behind 511 Prince Street in Beaufort. Robert was treated very well by his owners, Henry and Jane McKee, for it was rumored that Mr. McKee was Robert’s father.

Picture of a young Robert Smalls
Young Robert Smalls
Image from navymemorial.org.

Early Years

At the request of his mother, twelve-year-old Robert was sent to Charleston and hired out as a laborer. Most of his earnings were returned to his owner, but he could keep $1 per week for himself. He first worked in a hotel and as a lamplighter. His love of the ocean led him to find work on the docks. He began as a longshoreman and worked his way up to wheelman. His experience gave him great knowledge of ships and the Charleston harbor. Robert married Hannah Jones in 1856 and started a family. He was only 17. After a time, his goal was to purchase their freedom, but the price was very steep for someone of his circumstance.

Photo of Robert Smalls as pilot of the Steamboat Planter
Robert Smalls, Pilot of the Steamboat Planter
Image from US Naval History and Heritage Command.

During the Civil War

The Civil War began with the Battle of Fort Sumter in April of 1861. The well-respected Robert was assigned to steer the CCS Planter, a Confederate military transport.

He piloted the Planter along the coast from South Carolina to Florida. Robert and the slave labor crew of the Planter were aware of the Federal blockade line just past the Charleston harbor.

In April of 1862, Robert began planning an escape. The following month, the Planter picked up four large guns that were bound for the Charleston harbor. They also took on 200 pounds of ammunition. The families of the crew were stationed nearby.

On the evening of May 12th, Robert and the rest of the crew were left unattended on the Planter. Smalls and seven of the eight slave crewmen escaped to the Union blockade. Smalls put on the captain’s uniform and straw hat. He sailed the Planter past the Southern Wharf and proceeded to pick up his wife, children and the families of other crewmen.

Robert guided the Planter past the Charleston harbor and Fort Sumter. He and his crew expertly headed straight for the Union Navy fleet. They replaced the Rebel flags with a white bedsheet. He surrendered the Planter and her cargo to the US Navy. Robert was just 23 years old.

Picture of a news article about Smalls
Robert Smalls, captain of the gunboat Planter, which was run out of Charleston in May 1862. Photograph from Library of Congress.

He quickly became known for his heroic actions. He joined the US Navy and earned much fame as a pilot. Word of his exploits was published throughout the north. He was then promoted and made the captain of the Planter.

Drawing of Robert Smalls and his boat
Image from socialstudiesforkids.com.

In 1864 Robert was voted an unofficial delegate to the Republican National Convention. He also spent time in Philadelphia. While there he learned to read and write and became a supporter of the Port Royal Experiment.

This was an effort to raise money to support the education of former slaves. It brought doctors and teachers to assist the former slaves into a new way of life. It also led to the founding of the Penn School.

Later picture of Robert Smalls
Yours truly Robert Smalls
Image from National Portrait Gallery
Smithsonian Institute.

In December of 1864, Robert and the Planter made their way to Savannah while Sherman Marched to the Sea. In 1865 Robert sailed the Planter to the Charleston harbor where the American flag was returned to Fort Sumter.

After this ceremonial act, Robert retired from military life. He continued to pilot the Planter, but his missions turned humanitarian. He took food and supplies to freedmen as a member of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Exterior view of Robert Smalls house
Robert Smalls House 511 Prince Street
Photo by Carmen Pinckney.

Back in Beaufort

Upon his return to Beaufort, Robert purchased the house where he was formerly a slave. One day, his previous owner Jane McKee, suffering from dementia, walked back to the house she had loved on Prince Street. Robert greeted her, brought her inside, cared for her and allowed her to remain there until her death.

Picture of Robert Smalls as a politician
Image from historymugs.us.

Robert went on to become a successful businessman and politician. He had a distinguished career of public service including serving in the South Carolina House of Representatives, the United States Senate, and four terms in the United States House of Representatives. Smalls also served as a major general in the state militia and later served as Port Collector for Beaufort.

Image of an older Robert Smalls
Image found on owlcation.com from public domain.

In 1915, at the age of 75, Robert died of malaria and diabetes. He was buried in the Tabernacle Baptist Churchyard in downtown Beaufort. A monument to Robert proudly stands beside the church. It is inscribed: “My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.” He made this statement to the South Carolina legislature in 1895.

Exterior view of Tabernacle Baptist Church
Tabernacle Baptist Church
Image by Carmen Pinckney.

Robert Smalls’ Legacy

Built in 1840, the Tabernacle Baptist Church was originally used as a meetinghouse and lecture room. In 1863, a 500 member African American congregation acquired the building and turned it into the church that is still in use today. This historic church and the Robert Smalls memorial statue are located at 901 Craven Street in historic downtown Beaufort.

Memorial statue of Robert Smalls
This bust of Robert Smalls is positioned proudly beside the Tabernacle Baptist Church in downtown Beaufort.
Image by Carmen Pinckney.

The astonishing true story of Robert Smalls’ journey from slave to Union hero and ultimately United States Congressman can be found in the book Be Free or Die. If you would like a copy, the Frampton Plantation gift shop keeps it in stock.

View of cover of book detailing Robert Smalls' life
Be Free or Die tells the amazing story of Robert Smalls’ escape from slavery to union hero.

For more information on Beaufort and her attractions visit https://southcarolinalowcountry.com/beaufort-port-royal-area/ .

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The Lowcountry & Resort Islands Region of South Carolina includes the four, southern-most counties in the state, Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton, and Colleton, which are bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by the Savannah River and the state of Georgia.

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Spanish moss drapes the live oak trees that are ubiquitous to the Edisto Island area. Did you know that Edisto gets its name from the native Edistow people? The Edistow Native Americans were a sub tribe of the Cusabo indians, a group of Native Americans who lived along the Atlantic coast in South Carolina.⏰ Best time of the day to visit: Stop by mid-morning. That way you can explore the island, grab lunch, and stay for the amazing sunset if you choose.🏖️ Things to do while there: Edisto Environmental Learning Center, Boneyard Beach, Scott Creek Inlet, Big Bay Creek, SeaCow Eatery.☀️ Things to visit in the area: Jungle Road Park, Bay Creek Park, Otter Islands, Spanish Mount Point.📆 Best time of the year to visit: For warmer weather come anywhere from March-August.🏨 Where to stay: Fripp Island Golf & Beach Resort (frippislandrsrt), Seabrook Island Club (seabrook_sc), The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Golf Resort (kiawahresort), Charleston Kiawah Island/Andell Inn (andellinn).Photo by qcphotographer
Headed down the road....Edisto Island.  #edisto #sclowcountry #trees #endofday  #beauty #islandsofsc
The shore gently recedes beneath the stunning Pawleys Island Pier. The unique island town, located about 25 miles south of Myrtle Beach and 70 miles north of Charleston, exudes laid-back, beachy vibes. Locals have definitely adopted an island state of mind and encourage visitors to as well. When you go, make sure to relax on the beach, explore the famous sand dunes, or fish in one of the many adjacent creeks.⏰ Best time of the day to visit: We guarantee that you’re going to want to spend a whole day here. We recommend getting to the beach at around 10am.🗓️ Best time of the year: Pawleys Island has the best weather during the spring and early summer months.🏖️ Things to do while there: Pawleys Island Nature Park, Pawleys Island Chapel, Hopsewee Plantation.🐠 Things to visit in the area: Brookgreen Gardens (brookgreen_gardens), take a walking ghost tour, Myrtle Beach (mymyrtlebeach), Harborwalk Marina, South Carolina Maritime Museum (southcarolinamaritimemuseum).🏨 Where to stay: The Oceanfront Litchfield Inn (oceanfrontlitchfieldinn), Litchfield Beach and Golf Resort (litchfieldbeachandgolf), Sea View Inn (seaviewinn), 620 Prince (620prince).Photo by qcphotographer
A visitor takes a leisurely stroke under a canopy of live oaks draped with Spanish moss in the Palmetto Bluff (palmettobluff) neighborhood of Bluffton, South Carolina. Palmetto Bluff is a picturesque community that sits in the heart of Lowcountry. Nestled along the May River, it’s abundant with beautiful walking trails, historic sites, and stunning views.⏰ Best time of the day to visit: There is no wrong time to visit Palmetto Bluff. However, we highly recommend sticking around for one of their spectacular sunsets.🛶 Things to do while there: Stop by Cole’s for some regionally inspired Southern fare, paddle board, kayak, or canoe along the May River, go saltwater fishing, take a tour at Bluffton Jack's Old Town Tours.🌊 Things to visit in the area: Palmetto Bluff Conservancy, Old Town Bluffton, Bluffton Oyster Factory Park, May River Sandbar, Heyward House Museum and Welcome Center (heywardhouse).📆 Best time of the year to visit: For the best weather, we recommend visiting between March and May or from September to November.🏨 Where to stay: The Montage Palmetto Bluff Resort (montagepalmettobluff) is the only resort in Palmetto Bluff. However, there are plenty of places to stay in the surrounding areas including: Old Town Bluffton Inn (oldtownblufftoninn), The Inn & Club at Harbour Town (theinnandclubatharbourtown), Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island (sonestahhi).Photo by jpgriceoz
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The resplendence of Mother Nature never ceases to amaze, and this painterly sunset over the May River doesn’t disappoint. We look forward to the days when we can relish views like this one at the MontagePalmettoBluff resort in South Carolina’s picturesque Lowcountry. 📸: montagepalmettobluff.
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🔴“Gentle Creek”, 12x12,  oil on canvas. hortonhayesfineart hortonhayesfineartstudio markkelvinhortonstudio #sclowcountry #skyscape #skyporn #charlestonsc #charlestonartist #landscapepainters #landscapeoilpainting #creek #mtpleasantsc #wintermarsh #contemporarypainting #contemporaryart #vasaripaint #artistsandcraftsmansupply #holbeinoils #gamblinoilcolors
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Thankfully done and sold🔴! “Reflections”, 24x18, oil on canvas.  hortonhayesfineart markkelvinhortonstudio hortonhayesfineartstudio #sclowcountry #charlestonsc #skyscape #skylovers #oiloncanvas #mtpleasantsc #lowcountry #southeast #marshpainting #marshpaintings #skylover #kiawahislandsc #contemporarypainting #contemporaryart #limitedpalette #tonalistpainting #tonalistlandscape
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🔴“Approaching Showers”, 12x12, oil on canvas.  hortonhayesfineart hortonhayesfineartstudio markkelvinhortonstudio #sclowcountry #charlestonsc #charlestonartist #charlestonartists #tonalism #tonal #marshpainting #mtpleasantsc #hobcawcreek #limitedpalette #contemporarypainting #contemporaryart #skyscape #stormsky
Completed commission, 🔴”Off in the Distance”, 36x48.  hortonhayesfineart markkelvinhortonstudio hortonhayesfineartstudio #sclowcountry #charlestonsc #southcarolina #charlestonartist #landscspe #landscapepainting #contemporaryart #oilpainting #gamblinoilcolors #studiopainting
Why didn't someone tell me they also have dead trees at the beach?
What were your weekend views today? #DiscoverSC 📸📍Botany Bay Beach: charlestonshopcurator
No filter & it was so beautiful I didn't want to make it fit Instagram! #pawleysislandsc #onlypawleys #pawleys #arrogantlyshabby #eastcoast #coastalcarolina #sclowcountry #lowcountry #borntobeach #somebeachsomewhere #peaceloveandsandyfeet #inmymindimgonetocarolina
Riding into the weekend like...Isn't this live oak tree tunnel beautiful? Live oak, draped in Spanish moss, is emblematic of South Carolina and many of the Southern states. We love these iconic trees, not only for their beauty, but their history as well. The average lifespan of a live oak is 300 years!Photo by qcphotographer
Reposted from coastaldiscoverymuseum Hilton Head Island has the second highest tidal range on the East Coast, second only to Canada’s Bay of Fundy. The average tidal range here is 7-9 feet between high and low tides.The Salt Marsh is one of our area’s most prominent features, not to mention an essential resource. Most coastal creatures depend partially or even fully on the Salt Marsh for survival as it serves as a nursery, as well as a water filter vital for the functioning of the entire coastal ecosystem.Explore the Lowcountry up close with a visit to the Coastal Discovery Museum and head out into the marsh via the Osprey Outlook floating dock on a self-guided tour or register for the weekly Salt Marsh Discovery program to learn from an expert how and why this particular environment is so important. (843) 689-6767 ext. 223 or coastaldiscovery.org.
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The Hampton County Museum at the Old Jail was built in 1880. It served as the jail until 1976, when the new Hampton County Jail was constructed.It is open daily from 10:00am - 2:00pm and 3:00pm to 5:00pm.#thatsmylowcountry #naturallyamazing #sclowcountry #hamptonsc #hamptoncountysc
Our kind of #MondayMotivation 😍 #DiscoverSC 📸📍Bluffton Oyster Company: daniymathews
Hope you’ve had a beautiful Saturday in South Carolina! #DiscoverSC 📸📍: Botany Bay: donniewhitaker
“Summer Skylights”, 30x30,  oil on canvas. #sewe2022 #sewe #hortonhayesfineart #hortonhayesfineartstudio #sclowcountry #skylovers #skypainters #skyporn #skylovers #skypaintings #lowcountry #southeasternpainters #contemporaryart #contemporaryartist #tonalism #tonalistpainter
Some shadowy, Spanish moss covered views for your Monday! Have you ever visited the Chapel of Ease? #DiscoverSC 📸📍Chapel of Ease, Beaufort: summitridgephotos

The South Carolina Lowcountry Guidebook is filled with many things to see and do in the beautiful Lowcountry of South Carolina. Please fill out the information and we will send you a FREE GUIDE BOOK.