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What a Teacher's Letters Reveal About Robert Smalls, Who Stole a Confederate Ship to Secure Freedom

Harriet M. Buss' missives home detail the future congressman's candid views on race and the complicity of Confederate women.

Smalls’ escape and rise to national prominence are well known. But undocumented until recently is how he pursued an education. In the spring of 1863, a few months after Smalls returned to Beaufort, South Carolina, from Washington, he began participating in private reading lessons taught by Buss.

On June 11, Buss told her parents that “I have Robert Small[s] (the one who ran that steamer Planter out of Charleston last year) for a private scholar now; he comes to the house every afternoon. He will soon learn to read and write.” Buss also taught Smalls’ daughter Elizabeth “Lizzy” Lydia Smalls, who was just 4 years old when she escaped from slavery with her father in 1862. Lizzy was “as pretty a child as any white child I ever had in school” in the North before the war, Buss wrote. She added that Lizzy “is well-dressed, and always looks neat and clean; I should really like to bring her home with me. … I don’t believe there is a person in Sterling who would not say she was a pretty-looking and pretty-behaved little girl.”

Buss’ letters home preserve fascinating conversations she had with freedpeople in the Carolinas and Virginia during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Perhaps the most historically significant was a discussion she had with Smalls regarding the Confederate war effort. On June 23, 1863, Smalls told Buss that six African Americans “had escaped from Savannah and arrived at Hilton Head last evening.” These Black refugees reported that the Georgia city’s Confederate women were “sadly mourning for the loss of their ram,” the CSS Atlanta, described by Buss as “an ugly-looking craft” captured by the Union earlier that month.

Smalls then shared his views on Confederate women:

Robert thinks these Southern women are worse than the men. He says if he had his way, he wouldn’t leave one of them alive to tell the tale; he says too that one of the greatest reasons of their being so opposed to having the colored people free [is] they are afraid the colored men will marry their daughters, but he thinks if the colored men were all like him, there wouldn’t be much danger. The Southern women would never get married if they waited for such as he.