What a Teacher’s Letters Reveal About Robert Smalls, Who Stole a Confederate Ship to Secure His Freedom From Slavery

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

An illustration of Robert Smalls, in front of Harriet M. Buss' letter and a drawing of the CSS Planter
A white Baptist woman named Harriet M. Buss taught Civil War hero Robert Smalls (pictured) how to read and write. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Images via Wikimedia Commons under public domain

When Harriet M. Buss, a white, educated Baptist woman from Massachusetts, moved to South Carolina to accept a position as a teacher in March 1863, she likely didn’t anticipate that one of her students, Robert Smalls, would go on to become a member of the United States House of Representatives. But the Civil War opened up new opportunities for Black Americans like Smalls—a formerly enslaved man who rose to national prominence after sailing a Confederate ship to freedom in 1862—and many seized every chance they could to gain an education and improve their lives.

Buss taught hundreds of freedpeople over the course of her career. Her letters home provide not only an extraordinary account of the daily experiences of African Americans as they emerged from bondage but also a unique window into Smalls’ life after his daring escape from slavery.

Little is known about Buss’ childhood (and no photograph of her appears to survive), although she later recalled that she “always thought teaching was my lifework; I longed for it, I aimed and planned for it as soon as I knew what a school was.” Born in 1826 in Sterling, Massachusetts, Buss grew up to be a highly independent, well-traveled woman. Never married, she told her parents, “I don’t want to obey one of creation’s lords. Never could I be told to go or stay, do this or that, and surely never could I ask. I submit to no human being as my master or dictator.”

My Work Among the Freedmen: The Civil War and Reconstruction Letters of Harriet M. Buss

Over time, educator Harriet M. Buss developed a shared mission with her students and devoted herself to training the next generation of Black teachers.

In the years immediately preceding the Civil War, Buss—then working as an educator in the frontier state of Illinois—wrote with increasing earnestness about national politics. She was incensed by the foolishness and incompetence of the men running the nation and believed that women were better suited to solve America’s problems. “How they so act at Congress, what contemptible and unprincipled men we have there!” she wrote in January 1860.

When Buss learned that Stephen A. Douglas, a Democratic senator from Illinois, was proposing a “sedition” law to silence abolitionist speech, she opined, “Even if he could stop the men’s tongues, he would find another job after that. He must silence the women’s, too, and that is more than he can do.” If Republican leaders like William H. Seward were thrown in jail, she added, “it will be time for the women to act boldly and decisively; and I for one shall be ready, if I have life and health when that day comes.”

Buss found her life’s purpose when she began teaching formerly enslaved people in the South. Between 1863 and 1871, she worked as a teacher in three different regions: the Sea Islands of South Carolina; Norfolk, Virginia; and Raleigh, North Carolina. In this final post, she helped establish Shaw University, a historically Black college.

Shaw Hall, a building at the historically Black university that Buss helped establish
Shaw Hall, a building at the historically Black university that Buss helped establish Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

When Buss arrived in South Carolina in 1863, she wrote about her students in ways that suggest how culturally removed she felt from them. She wanted to “elevate” the formerly enslaved, and she considered herself a “pioneer.” With condescension, she told her parents that they “would be amused if you could come into my school. You would see darkey traits manifested to your satisfaction.”

Over time, however, Buss came to see herself as sharing a mission with her students. She believed the most important thing she could do was to help empower the next generation of Black teachers and ministers through education. “The longer I am engaged in this work,” she wrote in 1869, “the more do I find to convince me that the great masses of this people are to be reached and elevated by the efforts of well-trained theologians and teachers of their own race.”

Of the many revelations contained in Buss’ correspondence, some of the most noteworthy are what she had to say about Smalls, who would go on to serve in Congress for five terms between 1875 and 1887. On May 13, 1862, Smalls had escaped from bondage by seizing command of a Confederate steamer, the CSS Planter, in Charleston, South Carolina, and sailing to the Union blockading fleet. This bold, dangerous action won freedom for Smalls; his wife and two young children; and 12 other men, women and children.

Illustration of the CSS Planter​​​​​​​, the Confederate steamer that Smalls sailed to freedom
Illustration of the CSS Planter, the Confederate steamer that Smalls sailed to freedom Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Smalls instantly became a hero in the North. The African Methodist Episcopal minister Henry McNeal Turner called him “a living specimen of unquestionable African heroism.” The New York Tribune similarly proclaimed, with a mix of condescension and amazement, “This man, though Black, is a hero—one of the few history will delight to honor. He has done something for his race and for the world of mankind. … He has added new proof to the evidence that negroes have skill—and courage and tact, and that they will risk their lives for the sake of their liberty.”

In August 1862, Smalls traveled to Washington, D.C., where he met with President Abraham Lincoln. Though no contemporaneous account of that meeting appears to exist, evidence suggests that Smalls helped persuade Lincoln to arm Black men in the Union Army. Up to this point, Lincoln had opposed allowing African Americans to fight in the war, in part because he maintained publicly that the purpose of the war was to preserve the Union, not to end slavery, but also because he feared that Black men might prove cowardly on the battlefield.

Smalls helped convince the commander in chief to make an important change in military and public policy. He returned to South Carolina bearing a letter from the War Department that authorized Black military recruitment. Lincoln would make the policy national a few months later, with the Emancipation Proclamation.

An illustration of Smalls
An illustration of Smalls Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Buss' June 1863 letters about Smalls and his daughter
Buss' June 1863 letters about Smalls and his daughter Jonathan W. White

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.

None of Smalls’ biographers have utilized Buss’ writings, but they offer important insight into the freedman’s thinking during this formative time in his life. (He was then only 24 years old.) This conversation between teacher and student also speaks to broader political debates that were taking place during the Civil War era. For years, Democrats like Douglas had used racial “amalgamation” as a political wedge to win votes. Douglas routinely accused Republicans of wanting to end slavery so they could “authorize negroes to marry white women.”

An illustration of heroes of the Black race. Smalls appears at bottom left.
An 1881 illustration of "Heroes of the Colored Race." Smalls appears at bottom left. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Smalls’ comments to Buss reveal his political awareness and his vehement rejection of the ways pro-slavery apologists talked about race. Of even greater significance, Smalls found that the white women of the South were far “worse” in their support of the Confederacy than white men. If he could have his way, he said with confidence, he would have them all dead, even though they were noncombatants.

It’s telling that Smalls and Buss developed a relationship that enabled them to speak so candidly with each other. Both were fiercely independent, quick-witted and highly motivated individuals. They saw in each other a willing and trustworthy collaborator who would do what they could to overthrow the system of slavery that existed in the American South. Moreover, their personal interactions had a lasting effect on Smalls’ life. The education that he received in 1863 helped prepare him for his work on the state and national stages, where he served with distinction as a vocal advocate for equality and Black Americans’ political rights.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.