Header image  
line decor
line decor


Yearning to Breathe Free
Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families

Andrew Billingsley
Foreword by James E. Clyburn

A sociological approach to appreciating the heroism and legacy of the Gullah statesman

On May 13, 1862, the enslaved African American Robert Smalls (1839–1915) commandeered a Confederate warship, the Planter, from Charleston harbor and piloted the vessel to cheering seamen of the Union blockade, thus securing his place in the annals of Civil War heroics. Slave, pilot, businessman, statesman, U.S. congressman—Smalls played many roles en route to becoming an American icon, but none of his accomplishments was a solo effort. Sociologist Andrew Billingsley offers the first biography of Smalls to assess the influence of his families—black and white, past and present—on his life and enduring legend. In so doing, Billingsley creates a compelling mosaic of evolving black-white social relations in the American South as exemplified by this famous figure and his descendants.

Born a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina, Robert Smalls was raised with his master's family and grew up amid an odd balance of privilege and bondage. His distinctive situation instilled in him both an understanding of and desire for freedom. Billingsley underscores the influence of the slaveholders' household as well as Smalls's biological family on the development of the passions and abilities that led Smalls to his bid for freedom in 1862. Likewise, Billingsley charts the critical involvement of Smalls's wife, Hannah, and his extended family of black crewmates in the success of that plan.

Smalls served with distinction in the Union forces at the helm of the Planter. After the war he returned to Beaufort and bought the home of his former masters—a house that remained at the center of the Smalls family for a century. A founder of the South Carolina Republican Party, Smalls was elected as a delegate to the black majority 1868 Constitutional Convention, which confirmed the right of black men to vote, as well as to the overwhelmingly white Constitutional Convention of 1895, which took away that right. Between those two events, he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, the state senate, and five times to the U.S. Congress. Throughout the trials and triumphs of his public service, Smalls was surrounded by an ever-growing family of supporters. Billingsley illustrates how this support system, coupled with Smalls's dogged resilience, empowered him for political success.

Today three branches of the Smalls family remain: the descendants of his daughter with first wife, Hannah; of Hannah's two daughters from a previous marriage whom Smalls adopted; and of his son with his second wife, Annie. Writing of subsequent generations of Smalls's family, Billingsley delineates the evolving patterns of opportunity, challenge, and change that have been the hallmarks of the African American experience thanks in no small part to the selfless investments in freedom and family made by Robert Smalls of South Carolina.

Andrew Billingsley is a professor of sociology and African American studies and senior scholar in residence at the Institute for Families in Society at the University of South Carolina. His previous books are Mighty like a River: The Black Church and Social Reform and Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Enduring Legacy of African-American Families. Billingsley is the recipient of the DuBois-Johnson-Frazier Award from the American Sociological Association and the Distinguished Scholar Award from the Association of Black Sociologists.


"Andrew Billingsley admirably combines an impressive command of the sociology of black families with a keen understanding of southern religious practices and Reconstruction politics in this original and richly documented biography of the audacious Civil War hero and visionary South Carolina statesman, Robert Smalls. Yearning to Breathe Free places Smalls's heroic achievements, abiding commitment to his families, and his championship of universal public education against the backdrop of the changing fortunes of the larger black community."—Darlene Clark Hine, Board of Trustees Professor of African American Studies, Northwestern University, and author of Black Victory: The Rise and Fall of the White Primary in Texas

"From his sensational escape with the Planter in 1862, through his combat service in the Civil War, to his bold and implacable political leadership in the face of threatening opposition in Reconstruction South Carolina, Robert Smalls was an American hero in the truest sense of the word. Billingsley's new biography goes beyond describing the dramatic events of Smalls' public life; it explains the remarkable character behind them. It is, therefore, an important contribution to the history of South Carolina and the history of the United States."—Lawrence S. Rowland, professor emeritus of history, University of South Carolina Beaufort

"Billingsley not only recounts the story of the man known as the 'first hero of the Civil War' but also provides a new framework for considering the role of family and community in the development of young men. His insights on these issues invite the consideration of contemporary policymakers as they address the social challenges of our day."—Kurt L. Schmoke, dean of the Howard University School of Law

"Billingsley enriches our understanding of the life of Robert Smalls, not only through a review of his expansive career, but by examining and connecting to it vital foundational aspects such as his family, friends and successors, a feat for which Billingsley has already gained national distinction."—Ronald Walters, Distinguished Leadership Scholar, University of Maryland College Park

"Born a slave, Robert Smalls died a free man whose heroic actions and example inspired the freedom struggles of generations of oppressed blacks. His life story is at once inspirational and instructive. Smalls's capture of a confederate warship and the liberation of slaves combined General Grant's tactical brilliance with Harriet Tubman's legendary courage. Billingsley's thoughtful, pathbreaking book shows how Smalls's accomplishments were rooted in traditional black beliefs and practices which endure today. This is a must-read for students of the black experience and the promise of American democracy."—Walter R. Allen, Allan Murray Cartter Professor of Sociology, University of California-Los Angeles



book jacket for Yearning to Breathe Free


6 x 9
304 pages
45 illustrations
ISBN 978-1-57003-686-6
cloth, $34.95t

Finalist for the 2007 George C. Rogers, Jr., Book Award, South Carolina Historical Society

    Copyright ©2018 The University of South Carolina Press