His master Henry Mckee taught him how to care for animals, ride horses ,hunt,and swim.
He was born on April 5 1839 in a two room shack behind their owners house (Jane and Henry Mckee).
He freed himself, his crew and their families from slavery by commandeering a Confederate transport ship, the CSS Planter, in Charleston harbor, and sailing it to freedom beyond the Federal blockade.
With the encouragement of Major-General David Hunter, the Union commander at Port Royal, Smalls went to Washington, DC., with Mansfield French in August 1862, to try to persuade President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to permit black men to fight for the Union. He was successful and received an order signed by Stanton permitting up to 5,000 African Americans to enlist in the Union forces at Port Royal. These men were organized as the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunters.
Fort Robert Smalls, was named in his honor; it was built by free blacks on McGuire's Hill on the South Side of Pittsburgh during the American Civil War.
On April 7, 1863, he piloted ironclad USS Keokuk in a major Union attack on Fort Sumter. The attack failed, and Keokuk was badly damaged. Her crew was rescued shortly before the ship sank.
The Planter had been caught in a crossfire between Union and Confederate forces. The ship's commander, Captain Nickerson, decided to surrender. Smalls refused, fearing that the black crewmen would not be treated as prisoners of war and might be summarily killed. Taking command, Smalls piloted the ship out of range of the Confederate guns. For his bravery, Smalls was named to replace Nickerson as the Planter's captain.
During the Reconstruction era, Smalls was elected a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives
Smalls returned with the Planter to Charleston harbor in April 1865 for the ceremonial raising of the American flag upon Ft. Sumter.
In 1866 Smalls went into business in Beaufort with Richard Howell Gleaves, opening a store for freedmen.
He was elected part of th South Carolina Senate.
Smalls was appointed U.S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort, serving from 1889–1911 with only a short break in service.
Smalls died in 1915 at the age of 75.