The Full Circle of Robert Smalls

By Roger Pinckney

Pocatalico, South Carolina 1715. Sanute the Indian came calling on Mrs. Frazier when Mr. Frazier was not at home. It was a few days before Easter, and Sanute brought a bouquet of sacred herbs. Sanute was raised up close to St. Augustine and he knew the Jesus story.

Sanute spoke Muskegon, Spanish and a smattering of English.  Mrs. Frazier understood all three. “Dime aqua caliente!” he commanded.

And he infused the herbs in the hot water and stood Mrs. Frazier before him. He anointed her head, shoulders and breasts while he solemnly spoke in Muskegon, which sounds like a fresh tide gurgling over an oyster rake. “When the Creeks return the red stick there will be war. One moon, maybe less. Make no alarm and gather no provisions, as even now you are being watched. You must leave and you must leave now.” 

Sanute dipped his bundle again and shook water across Mrs. Frazier.  “I have left a canoe for you by the river. If you are taken, I make this promise to you as a last act of my love. Before I let them torture you, I will kill you with my own hands.”

“That Indian is crazy,” Mr. Frazier said upon his return.

“Maybe so,” Mrs. Frazier said, “but we’re going.”

They fled to Charleston—Charles Towne in those days—and survived the massacre that killed 500 the following week.


Some 30 miles and 125 years later, a baby boy was born in a backyard slave cabin at 511 Prince Street, Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother was Lydia, the family’s cook. The father was John McKee, plantation owner and slave-holder.  

Though Mrs. McKee took exception to the proceedings, it didn’t seem to bother John McKee. He named the boy Robert and threw him in the mix with his half-siblings. But as Robert was still a slave, he had his duties and responsibilities. “Take em fishing, take em crabbing, take em sailing and for picnics on the beach. But God help you if one of em drowns!” 

His older half-brother tried, but Robert fished him out, which improved his status with the missus. When John McKee died and the widow sold houses, land and slaves, and moved to Charleston, Robert alone made the cut.

Though there was not a single free black in Beaufort, Charleston hosted a vibrant population of “free persons of color,” preachers, bootleggers, boat-builders and blacksmiths, some who even owned their own slaves. They were reinforced by thousands of quasi-free tradesmen, working for hire, heady stuff.  So, Robert proposed a deal. If Mrs. McKee would consent to him “working out,” he would give her half his wages, while Robert would squirrel away the other half to eventually buy his freedom.

He found work on the docks, where his youth on the river served him well.  Sailmaker, ship-rigger, he eventually became a deckhand on The Planter, a side-wheel steamer hauling freight and cotton. Pretty soon, he was at the helm drawing a pilot’s wages and was just a few dollars short of freedom, when the Civil War got in the way. The Planter was requisitioned for military duty and Robert found himself in the Confederate Navy. 

Robert had a wife and two small children by then and he had to buy their freedom too, an insurmountable burden, which led to Plan B. In the wee hours of May 12, 1862, he loaded his family and friends aboard The Planter, fired the boilers and made a bold rush for freedom. In a time when the Union didn’t have much to celebrate, Robert became an instant hero. 

Congress appropriated a reward and Robert returned to Beaufort, purchased the house where he had once been a slave, hired an entourage of servants, installing himself there in considerable ease and comfort while Charleston suffered a devastating 600-day siege. 

Once the shooting stopped, a disoriented and destitute Mrs. McKee showed up at his door. “Oh Robert,” she said, “I was so worried about you.  I am so happy you made it home.” Robert put her in her old bedroom and cautioned the servants not to say anything about the Confederate surrender, Emancipation or his ownership of the house. In time Mrs. McKee figured it out and, in a huff, made ready to leave.   

Robert met her at the door. “Madam, you once had power over me and you always treated me with the utmost kindness. Now that our positions are somewhat changed, do not prevent me from doing the same for you.”

Robert Smalls was appointed a major general in the state militia, elected to the legislature and finally to five terms in the US Congress. His esteem among freemen was illustrated by the following dockside conversation:

“Who de greates’ man?”

“Why Robert Smalls!”

“Cain’t be.  How bout my Sweet Lawd Jeekus?”

His friend was stumped, but only briefly. “Das OK, Robert Smalls, he be young yet.”    

Robert Smalls died in 1915 and is buried at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort, not half a mile from the slave cabin where he was born. 

His epitaph reads: “My people need no special consideration, for the history of them in this country proves them equal to any people anywhere on earth.  All they need is an equal start in the race of life.” 

Lowcountry love, not always moonlight and magnolias. 

From the FE Films Archive

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