During the Civil War a number of unsung heroes rose to the proverbial occasion; some ran for freedom, others fought alongside union soldiers and still a few waged a personal war against defenders of the slavocracy. The conflict was a dirty and horrific, nevertheless, enslaved Africans fought their way to freedom by any means necessary. On the road to freedom certain individuals helped to free others enslaved Africans, sabotaged confederate strategies and generally did everything they could to disrupt southern slave holders, Roberts Smalls did all of those things and more during the Civil War. Once the conflict had concluded Smalls fought for freedom on a different but just as dangerous battle ground in the form of American politics. This essay will review the life and legacy of Robert Smalls and the cultural background of his people, the Gullah, with a particular focus on his efforts during and after the Civil War.
Robert Smalls was born into Gullah culture in South Carolina in 1839 to a woman named Lydia Polite. Though it is not clear who Smalls’ father was, his mother Lydia was middle aged when she gave birth to Robert and worked to provide the best possible life for him given the circumstances. She was Gullah, a syncretic African cultural group containing traditional remnants of Angolan, the Congo, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Sierra Leone, centered on the Sea Islands off the coast of the Carolinas and Georgia. There are a number of cultural artifacts that make up the Gullah culture such as particular religious understandings, art, rice cultivation and linguistic patterns. Moreover, Gullah culture is an amalgamation of a variety of African cultures and serves as one of the original American examples of Pan-Africanism in praxis. That is to say, it is a clear example of African people pooling together their culture knowledge and resources in order to create a product that is critical to the survival of African people in an extremely hostile white supremacist environment.
The religion and culture of the Gullah people is best described as a syncretic amalgamation of West African spiritual systems. This amalgamation is of course the result of North American slave trade that is responsible for displacing millions of people and hundreds of cultures and languages. Because of the cruel institution of slavery, African people brought their cultures together as a way to survive in an alien and hostile environment. The result of this effort is the development of new cultures, the creole of Haiti and New Orleans is but one example. The Gullah are another prominent example. Gullah religion and culture in the region also informed various spiritual institutions. In particular, there are three churches that were associated with Smalls and the Gullah tradition: St. Helena’s Episcopal Church, Beaufort Baptist Church and Tabernacle Baptist Church. Andrew Billingsley elaborates: “In Beaufort, South Carolina, three churches played important roles in the conversion of black to Christianity and in establishing a Christian framework for Robert Smalls’ forebears, himself and his family. St. Helena’s Episcopal Church, Beaufort Baptist Church and Tabernacle Baptist Church are located within three city blocks of each other. They changed substantially over the generations and had distinctive roles in the legacy of Robert Smalls.”
As a youth Smalls was precocious. He would often violate curfew, which inevitably lead to his arrest, but his mother’s owner would always bail him out and bring him home. Nevertheless, despite his rebellious nature, he was one of the favorites on the plantation. Though Smalls for born into slavery, he and his mother were house servants. For many African Americans there is an important distinction between those who were forced to work the fields and those who had the “privilege” of being a part of the enslaver’s household. Not only was the work and responsibility of being in the house physically less strenuous, both children and adults benefited from being in close proximity to the enslaver, not just by having access to better food and comforts but as well by having access to an education both from various forms of literature but also by learning the intricacies of white culture. To be clear, when survival is one’s only choice, all advantages must be considered and exploited. In Smalls’ case, despite the privileged position he and his mother had, this did not stop him from harboring deep resentment of the slave system and becoming a rebel in his own right when the country began to war with itself.
As a man, Smalls rose to prominence during the war. Informed by Gullah culture and the syncretic Christian churches he was a member of as a youth, Smalls became one of the most courageous soldiers in the Union Army. However, getting to that point took no small amount of savvy and intelligence. To elaborate, to escape from the cruel institution of slavery he commandeered a confederate vessel, the CSS Planter, with a few others who yearned for freedom and disguised himself in a confederate uniform in order to sneak across the Union line to freedom. After securing his freedom he joined the Union Army and continued to fight. After the war’s end, Smalls’ fight for freedom continued with his involvement in local, state and national politics. He was eventually elected to the US House of Representatives, representing South Carolina’s 5th congressional district and was able to impact the lives of thousands across the state. He also became deeply involved in the development of his home county by investing in the railway and the Black owned newspaper of his hometown, the Beaufort Southern Standard.
Though his name is not as well known as many of his peers, the legacy that Smalls left behind impacted his home state for generations. Today there are several schools in the state of South Carolina that are named after him as well as a Kuroda Class US naval vessel. Smalls began his life enslaved and was forced to fight for every ounce of his freedom. He did so with valor and distinction by liberating himself through his tenacity as an individual then by fighting for the freedom of his kinsman still in bondage, first as a soldier and then as a civic leader. Both battle fronts contain their respective pitfalls and difficulties, nonetheless he persevered in truly dynamic and dramatic fashion. His life has brought honor to the state of South Carolina and to the Gullah people from which he sprung. In an age where honor and duty do not always connect, Smalls’ example is a refreshing one.
 Andrew Billingsley. Yearning to breathe free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and his families. Univ of South Carolina Press, 2007. Davis, Peggy Cooper. "Introducing Robert Smalls." Fordham L. Rev. 69 (2000): 1695. Smalls’ father is unknown. It is possible that his father was the enslaver who held his mother in captivity, which means Smalls himself was likely the product of rape.
 Wilbur Cross. Gullah culture in America. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008. Pollitzer, William S. The Gullah people and their African heritage. University of Georgia Press, 1999. "Gullah." Oceanic Linguistics Special Publications, no. 14 (1975): 468-80. Accessed February 13, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/20006641.
 Morris Jenkins. "Gullah Island Dispute Resolution: An Example of Afrocentric Restorative Justice." Journal of Black Studies 37, no. 2 (2006): 299-319. Accessed February 13, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/40034415. “Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the praise houses were used as the community's political, social, and judicial center. Members of the community gained membership through "catching sense" and becoming a member of the Praise House and obtaining full membership into the community.”
 Wilbur Cross. Gullah culture in America. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008. “The Gullah people are the descendants of African ethnic groups who arrived in America as early as the late seventeenth century and were forced to work on plantations in South Carolina and later Georgia. They were from many tribes including the Mandingo, Bamana, Wolof, Fula, Temne, Mende, Vai, Akan, Ewe, Bakongo and Kimbundu. The mixture of languages from Africa combined with English resulted in a creole language that eventually came to be known as Gullah.”
 Carter G. Woodson "ROBERT SMALLS AND HIS DESCENDANTS." Negro History Bulletin 11, no. 2 (1947): 27-46. Accessed February 27, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/44174742. “True Gullah people are very spiritual. You see a lot of them smiling cause they are in good stead with God. As long as you don't touch them, cause if you do you might see the devil come out. We are really strong, family people. Community is stronger than the individual. If a person is in need, you help them. You don't let them stay in need.”
 Andrew Billingsley. Yearning to breathe free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and his families. Univ of South Carolina Press, 2007, 8. “St. Helena’s Episcopal Church was the spiritual and social home of the McKee family – the owners of Smalls, his mother, his grandmother and his older brother during slavery. Beaufort Baptist was the spiritual and social home of Lydia Polite Smalls and her son Robert during the first eleven formative years of his life. Tabernacle grew out of Beaufort Baptist and was the post-Civil War spiritual home of Smalls mother, Lydia, his wife Hannah and their Children.”
 To be clear, I am in no way arguing that White/European culture is superior to Black/African culture. Instead, I am suggesting that close proximity to European culture can be used as a weapon in the pursuit of freedom. Time and time again, there are examples of those Africans who had the trust of whites and therefore had access that other enslaved Africans did not. Making the house servant one of the most pivotal position in the African freedom struggle. One very important example is Nat Turner.
 Howard Westwood (1991). Black Troops, White Commanders and Freedmen During the Civil War. SIU Press. pp. 74–85.
 Stanley Turkel. Heroes of the American Reconstruction: Profiles of Sixteen Educators, Politicians and Activists. McFarland, 2005. Reef, Catherine. African Americans in the Military. Infobase Publishing, May 14, 2014, pp. 184–186.
 Catherine Reef. African Americans in the Military. Infobase Publishing, May 14, 2014, pp. 184–186.