Many slaves had harrowing stories of their escape from slavery during the American Civil War, most which were never written down and hence are lost to history. At least one, however, became famous, even legendary: the escape of Robert Smalls and the Planter. Born a slave in Beaufort in South Carolina’s Sea Islands region, Smalls was sent to Charleston as a preteen, where he developed a love for the water, rising to wheelman, piloting ships around Charleston Harbor and nearby waters.
By 1862, Robert Smalls was a married family man and wheelman aboard the CSS Planter, a sidewheel steamer, serving as a Confederate dispatch boat and transport. His position put him into the elite of Charleston’s slave community. But despite his exalted status, like other slaves he wanted to be free, and his position as wheelman of the Planter gave him the means. Smalls waited until a night when the ship’s three white crew members elected to sleep ashore. When that night finally came, he and most of the black crewmen, and their families, quietly boarded the ship in wee hours of May 13, 1862, and brazenly steamed past the Confederate harbor fortifications, and surrendered themselves and the Planter to the Union blockading fleet keeping station outside Charleston.
Robert Smalls daring act made him an overnight hero in the North. The New York Times noted in its May 16 edition:
Among the vessels in port [at Port Royal, S.C.] was the rebel steamer Planter, a rebel vessel, which had been brought in by ROBERT SMALLS, a contraband pilot. The crew, with their families, who were on board, brought with them Charleston papers of May 12. There were on the vessel seven heavy guns and one 8-inch rifled cannon, which were to have been mounted on Fort Ripley, a work in course of construction in Charleston harbor.
His escape proved a great embarrassment to the Confederacy. The Charleston Daily Courier reported the day after the escape:
THE STEAMER PLANTER.— Our community was intensely agitated Tuesday morning by the intelligence that the steamer Planter, for the last twelve months or more employed both in the State and Confederate service, had been taken possession of by her colored crew, steamed up and boldly run out to the blockades. The news at first was not credited, and it was not until, by the use of glasses, she was discovered, lying between the federal frigates, that all doubt on the subject was dispelled. A great variety of rumors and surmises were circulated in reference to the parties concerned, and the number of fugitives on board the steamer. The most authentic particulars that we could gather are as follows:
Between three and four o’clock Tuesday morning, the steamer left Southern wharf, having, it is supposed, on board five negroes, namely three engineers, one pilot and a deck hand. Upon leaving the wharf the usual whistle signal was given by those on board, and the usual private signals given when passing Fort Sumter. The officer of the watch at the latter post was called, as usual, but observing the signals and supposing all right, allowed her to proceed. She ran immediately out to the blockading vessels.
The Planter had on board four large guns destined for one of our new fortifications, and were as follows: one rifled forty-two pounder lately put in splendid condition at the foundry of EASON & BROTHERS, and said to be a splendid piece; two eight-inch Columbiads, and one thirty-two pounder. In addition to these, she had on board her own armament, which consisted of one thirty-two pounder and one twenty-four pounder, making six guns in all taken out to the fleet.
The escape led to Confederates to change procedures for ships traversing Charleston Harbor. The Daily Courier reported on May 15, “SPECIAL ORDER No. 35. NO STEAM BOAT, SMALL BOAT, OR VESSEL OF any description whatever, will be allowed to pass Fort Sumter, by day or night, without a report in person of the Captain thereof at said fort.” (A typical case of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.)
Besides presenting the federal government with the Planter, Smalls provided Union forces with valuable intelligence on Confederate activities in Charleston. He was given a substantial share of the reward money for the ship’s capture and received an audience with President Lincoln, who wished to congratulate Smalls personally. Robert Smalls became captain of the now USS Planter, and with breaks to raise funds in the North for charitable work in the Sea Islands, remained in that position for the rest of the war, seeing considerable action in support of Union forces in coastal South Carolina.
After the Civil War, Robert Smalls became an important black leader in South Carolina and nationally. During Reconstruction he served in the South Carolina legislature and then in the U.S. Congress. After Reconstruction, Smalls lost his congressional seat, but remained an influential figure, especially in the Sea Islands, where he made his home. His continued support of the Republican Party won him the position of Collector of Customs in Beaufort in 1889, which he filled until a few years before his death in 1915. In short, an extraordinary career built on a legendary act 150 years ago today.
Sources: 1) http://www.robertsmalls.org/newspapers/N.%20Y.%20Times.5.16.62.htm; 2) http://www.robertsmalls.org/newspapers/CHARLESTON%20DAILY%20COURIER.5.14.62doc.htm; 3) http://www.robertsmalls.org/newspapers/CHARLESTON%20DAILY%20COURIER.5.15.62.htm.