Lesson Plan: Overview

Robert Smalls: Warrior and Peacemaker

Grade Level: 3rd, 4th, 5th

Link to Letter from Smalls to Chamberlain

Academic Standards

Standard 3-4: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the events that led to the Civil War, the course of the War and Reconstruction, and South Carolina’s role in these events.
3-4.7 Summarize the effects of Reconstruction in South Carolina, including the development of public education, racial advancements and tensions, and economic changes.
Standard 4-6: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the Civil War and its impact on America.
4-6.4 Summarize significant key battles, strategies, and turning points of the Civil War—including the battles of Fort Sumter and Gettysburg, the Emancipation Proclamation, the significance of the Gettysburg Address, and the surrender at Appomattox—and the role of African Americans in the War.
4-6.5 Explain the impact of the Civil War on the nation, including its effects on the physical environment and on the people—soldiers, women, African Americans, and the civilian population of the nation as a whole.
Standard 5-1: The student will demonstrate an understanding of Reconstruction and its impact on racial relations in the United States.
5-1.2 Summarize the provisions of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, including how the amendments protected the rights of African Americans and sought to enhance their political, social, and economic opportunities.
5-1.5 Explain the purpose and motivations behind the rise of discriminatory laws and groups and their effect on the rights and opportunities of African Americans indifferent regions of the United States.
Social Studies Literacy Elements
K. Use texts, photographs, and documents to observe and interpret social studies trends and relationships
O. Consider multiple perspectives of documents and stories

Historical Background Notes

As a Civil War hero and politician, Robert Smalls’ career of over forty years coincided with the rise and decline of the Republican Party in South Carolina during the nineteenth century.  Born enslaved in Beaufort on April 5, 1839, Robert Smalls began his life as a house slave for the family of his owner, Henry McKee.  In 1851, he was hired out as a laborer in Charleston, working in a variety of jobs and eventually as a ship rigger and sailor.  In July 1861, he took a job as a deck hand on a harbor boat called The Planter for $16 a month.  The Planter was chartered to run munitions among the widespread Confederate fortifications in the Charleston harbor.  Robert Smalls gained notoriety on May 13, 1862, when he and his crew drove The Planter, a Confederate armed steamer, through and outside of the Charleston Harbor to the Union blockade to deliver The Planter and its cargo of unmounted guns to the Union blockading fleet (Miller 1995, 1–2).

Among the intelligence information passed on to Union authorities, an important piece was that Confederate fortifications on Cole's Island on the Stono River had been disarmed, allowing Union forces to occupy this area without resistance.  As a skilled pilot who was familiar with the waters, Smalls was able to give important details about the area.

By April 1863, Smalls took part in a Union attempt to take the Charleston Harbor.  A flotilla of ironclads, led by a 3,500-ton battleship, approached the harbor at a point between Forts Moultrie and Sumter.  Shells were exchanged for hours and eventually the Union flotilla retreated in what was the last naval attempt to take Charleston. 

Smalls became a war hero to the Union cause.  In describing his actions in a speech at a later date, Robert Smalls said, “Although born a slave I always felt that I was a man and ought to be free, and I would be free or die.”  He said he felt that “The Planter might be of some service to Uncle Abe.”  (Miller 1995, 3).

After the war, Smalls returned to his native Beaufort, and he purchased the home of his former master.  As one of the founders of the state’s Republican party, Smalls was a delegate to the 1868 Constitution, and he represented Beaufort County in the state House of Representatives and the state Senate.  In 1874, Smalls was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served intermittently until 1886.  As a political force during the turbulent postbellum era, Smalls fought for the interests of his constituents, which consisted largely of formerly enslaved African Americans of the Lowcountry. 

Smalls died at his home in Beaufort on February 15, 1915, and he is buried in the cemetery at Tabernacle Baptist Church. 


Primary Sources
Schulz, Constance B., ed. With Preface by Lewis P. Jones. The History of South Carolina Slide Collection. Website used for digital image of Robert Smalls and The Planter.
Smalls, Robert to Governor Daniel Chamberlain, 24 August 1876.  Papers of Governor Daniel Chamberlain. S518024 Box 14. South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, SC.
Simmons, William J., 1887. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and RisingDocumenting the American South. University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2000.
Secondary Sources
Brinkley, Alan.  The Unfinished Nation.  A Brief, Interactive History of American People.  Volume 1: To 1877.  New York: McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2005.
Miller, Edward A.  Gullah StatesmanRobert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915.  Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for the Robert Smalls House, Beaufort County.  South Carolina Department of Archives and History, State Historic Preservation Office. 
Perlin, Don. The Life of Robert Smalls.  New York: Golden Legacy, Illustrated History Magazine.  Fitzgerald Publishing Company Inc., 1970.
  • The Life of Robert Smalls comic book
  • Discussion/Skit Assessment
  • Transcription of Robert Smalls letter
  • Overheads or digital image of Robert Smalls and The Planter
  • Glossary handout
  • Robert Smalls Point of View handout
  • PAST handout
  • Robert Smalls Assessment (multiple choice and essay)
  • Robert Smalls Assessment (Warrior/Peacemaker)
  • Robert Smalls Timeline
  • Robert Smalls Storyboard
  • Lesson Plans

    1. Display an image of Robert Smalls, such as this one found here (webpage from “Documenting the American South” site). The website contains a book by William Simmons called Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. The book features a chapter on Robert Smalls beginning on page 165. Images of The Planter are available online as well.

    2. Tell students the story of Robert Smalls based on the essay above, the National Register of Historic Places Nomination for the Robert Smalls House (go to National Register Properties in South Carolina), and from the book by William Simmons.

    3. Discuss the roles of African Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction, especially Smalls’ role as a legislator and his efforts as one of the founders of the Republican Party in South Carolina.  Review the South Carolina’s 1868 Constitution which provided for universal male suffrage (Constitution of the State of South Carolina, 1868).

    4. Give students a copy of the August 1876 letter from Robert Smalls to South Carolina Governor D.H. Chamberlain regarding tensions between rice workers and landowners along the Combahee River. (Smalls letter to Chamberlain, 1876).

    5. Read and discuss the letter from Smalls (using glossary of terms found in the letter).

    6. Use PAST handout to analyze the letter.

    Teacher Reflections

    I teach third through fifth grade behavior disordered students at Lakeview Education Center (now Granby Education Center), which is Lexington District Two’s Alternative School.  My concentrated areas of teaching content center around Social Skills, Language Arts, and Math, with Social Studies and Science being secondary because of the amount of instructional time being spent redirecting negative student behavior....

    I had never heard of Robert Smalls before attending this Institute.  Upon being asked by my children the evening of our first class this summer how I thought it went, my reply was, “Now I know what I don’t know!”   I asked Tim which avenue I should take in choosing a topic for my two lessons, and he pointed me in Robert Smalls’s direction.  What an unbelievable unsung hero Mr. Smalls was and is!  It is my pleasure introducing him to my students, colleagues, and peers.  Robert Smalls exhibits a wonderful word I leaned from Marty this summer  -  agency.  Robert Smalls went from a young slave boy to become a leading man in the United States Congress.  Because I have now been introduced to Robert Smalls, I realize that there may be many other heroes like him of whom I am unaware.  I am anxious to delve further into my State’s black history.  This is an area that would benefit my students as well, because the majority of their history instruction in the past has been from the focus of white America.  It is almost as if the only time they hear about African Americans and their contributions to our culture, past and present, is during Black History Month.  My population of students is predominantly black, and they have focused mainly on the negative attention of this segment of our society in the past.

    My students grasped Robert Smalls as a friend and mentor.  They could not get enough of this period in history through Robert’s eyes.  These students’ negative behavior usually gets in the way of their academic learning, but I KNOW they have experienced The Civil War (pre and post as well) because of Robert Smalls! They refer to Mr. Smalls all the time in reference to the Civil War, can’t believe the students at their home schools don’t know who Robert Smalls is, and are constantly looking for others who display agency with their lives.  One afternoon recently I was elated watching four of my boys playing with Legos.  They had two battlefields set up and were pretending one side was the Confederacy and the other was the Union! I can’t wait for them to take the Social Studies PACT test!  They will feel so confident!

    Student Assessments

    Students will complete Robert Smalls Assessment (multiple choice questions and essay found here).

    Examples of Students Work



    Multiple Choice Questions

    Essay Question One

    Essay Question Two


    T. Lynn Moseley
    Granby Education Center