Who is Robert Smalls?
Beaufort, South Carolina is renowned for its scenic location, stunning marshes, and sprawling beaches. The city of Beaufort has also been applauded for maintaining a historic character by preservation of its historic architecture. Beaufort is teeming with incredible history. Visitors to the area are often surprised to learn about prominent figures they never learned about in history class. One such figure is Robert Smalls, and you can find pieces of his history all over the Lowcountry.
According to the National Parks Services, Robert Smalls was born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina. At age twelve, Smalls was sent to Charleston. Working at a variety of jobs aboard boats, Smalls learned to navigate the waterways of Charleston Harbor. At the beginning of the Civil War, Smalls worked as a pilot aboard the CSS Planter, a steamboat chartered by the Confederate government. Smalls is remembered for his heroic acts during the Civil War, namely commandeering and navigating The Planter from Confederate to Union territory and turning over the Planter and all the guns and military supplies aboard to the Union fleet. Through his daring act, Smalls secured the freedom of everyone on board and instantly became a Union war hero. While he is best known for his actions during the Civil War, Smalls was also a first-generation black politician, serving in the South Carolina state assembly and senate, and for five nonconsecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1874-1886).
Beaufort has several historical sites pertaining to Smalls’ life. His birthplace, now called The Robert Smalls House, is located at 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, SC. The house was originally built in 1843 with a single-story porch and ell. Expanded in 1850 and renovated in 2014, the iconic large framed house features moss-lined steps and landscape gardens. A side gable roof and two-story portico extend across the front facade, giving the home a charming appeal while maintaining its classic structure. A famous piece of Civil War history with a unique history, a stroll by the Robert Smalls House is a worthwhile experience. Today, after several renovations, the Robert Smalls House stands as a piece of Lowcountry history in downtown Beaufort. You can learn more about the house here.
Another important site to visit when touring Beaufort is The Tabernacle Baptist Church. After his passing at home in Beaufort on February 22, 1915, in the abovementioned Robert Smalls House, Smalls was buried behind a bust at the Tabernacle Baptist Church. Tabernacle Baptist Church was originally constructed as a meetinghouse and lecture room. In 1863, Rev. Solomon Peck created a new 500 member African-American congregation, many of whom came from the Beaufort Baptist Church, who then acquired the Tabernacle building and continue to use it for worship today. You can learn more about the church here.
If you are interested in learning more about Beaufort during the Reconstruction Era, this historical park and information center is a great place to stop during your time in town. Formerly known as Reconstruction Era National Monument, the park is a United States National Historical Park in Beaufort County, South Carolina established by President Barack Obama in January 2017 to preserve and commemorate activities during the Reconstruction Era that followed the American Civil War. The monument was the first U.S. National Monument dedicated to the Reconstruction Era. It was re-designated as a national historical park in 2019 and is administered by the National Park Service.
For more information visit https://www.nps.gov/reer/index.htm
For all things Beaufort history, including the Civil War and Reconstruction, you will want to stop at The Beaufort History Museum. The Beaufort History Museum strives to manage and display the City of Beaufort’s collection of artifacts, documents and photos, which tell, in a compelling manner, the fascinating stories of the area. Some of the highlights of their collection include the arrival of the Native Americans, the first settlers; the European explorations of the early and mid-16th Century; the Revolutionary War; the rice, indigo and cotton Plantation Culture; the antebellum decades, secession and the Civil War; Reconstruction; the Spanish American War; and growth to present times.
For more information visit https://beauforthistorymuseum.wildapricot.org/
Tucked in the heart of the South Carolina Sea Islands, surrounded by marshes and towering oaks, is Penn Center. It is the site of the former Penn School, one of the country’s first schools for formerly enslaved individuals. Penn Center is one of the most significant African American historical and cultural institutions in existence today. Located on St. Helena Island, Penn Center is the only African American National Historic Landmark District in the state of South Carolina. They have a unique opportunity to share Reconstruction history and serve as national advocates for preserving Gullah Geechee culture. They continue to champion social justice given their role in ushering in the Civil Rights Movement and serving as the only location in South Carolina where interracial groups, such as Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Peace Corps could have safe sanctuary in an era of mandated segregation. Penn Center continues to thrive as a national monument promoting historic preservation, as well as a catalyst for economic sustainability throughout the Sea Islands. Its far-reaching impact on local, national and international communities has been the greatest legacy of the Penn Center’s history.
For more information and to plan your visit click here.
These are just some of many fascinating historical sites and attractions in Beaufort. To learn more about all the wonderful things to do in the area, access our free Vacation Guide. This carefully curated guide has helped so many visitors plan the perfect Beaufort getaway. Be sure to get your copy! We also recommend that you read Trouble the Water by local author Dr. Rebecca Bruff, a novel based on the true story of Robert Smalls and his life in Beaufort. You can find her book here.
After exploring the historic neighborhoods of Beaufort which contain gems like the Robert Smalls House, make your way back to the Cuthbert House Inn for a relaxing stay. Our charming B&B is centrally located in Beaufort, meaning you’ll have easy access to all the best activities and attractions in the area! Enjoy stunning waterfront or garden views from each of our cozy accommodations, luxurious amenities, and a delicious breakfast each morning.