“I am delivering this war materiel including these cannons, and I think Uncle Abraham Lincoln can put them to good use.”
With these words, said to have been spoken to an astonished Union Naval Officer, Robert Smalls (above), then 23 years old delivered the C.S.S. Planter and her slave crew and their families to freedom on this day, May 13, 1862. Smalls thus completed on of the most daring escapes – right under the nose of the enemy guns – in all the history of warfare, and struck a powerful blow for the freedom of his people.
Robert Smalls: Born But Not Destined to Be a Slave
Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina on April 5, 1839 in a house behind his Master’s house. His mother, who was taken from him when he was nine, was concerned that the favor shown to Robert over the other slave children would lead her son to a soft view of slavery. So she arranged for him to do field work, and to witness the whippings of his fellow slaves first hand. He learned the lesson well, developing a defiant streak that would frequently land him in trouble. By age 19, Smalls had been rented out to work in Charleston and had learned various jobs including how to pilot a boat around the shallows of Charleston harbor. He was allowed to marry his wife Hannah with whom he would have two children. But he was keenly aware that his slave status granted nothing permanent to his marriage. So he always kept his eyes open for a way out.
Robert Smalls and the C.S.S. Planter
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Smalls with his knowledge of Charleston harbor was assigned to serve as the pilot aboard the C.S.S. Planter (above). A sidewheel steamer built in 1860 to service the southern cotton trade, the Planter had been armed with a pair of cannons, one of which had been taken from Fort Sumter. That fort in Charleston harbor of course had been the scene of the start of the war when South Carolina had seceded from the Union in 1861. Planter had since the war begun been used by the Confederates as an armed dispatch boat and transport; part of the engineer department at Charleston, under General Ripley. For nearly a year Smalls had closely observed the movements of the ship and of her officers, lead by Captain C.J. Rylea as well as the other two white officers under whose orders he and the eight member slave crew of the Planter served. He had made plans to take the ship at the right moment, travel to another point to pick up his and the crew’s families and then make a dash for the Union ships which were blockading Charleston harbor. On the evening of May 12, when Captain Rylea and the officers elected to spend that night ashore, Smalls put his plan into action.
Smalls Takes the Planter on May 13
At about 3:00 in the morning Smalls and the eight other slave crewmen weighed anchor and carefully eased the Planter out of her moorings. They then took her a short distance to pick up Smalls’ and the rest of their families and then traveled back down the inlet into Charleston harbor for an extremely hazardous journey out to the Union blockade. Their route would take them past three armed confederate batteries to start with. As Planter was flying the Confederate flag, this was accomplished without incident. But then she had to go right by Fort Sumter, a huge fort bristling with guns. A single shot from one of these guns could have easily destroyed the Planter. When she got near Sumter, Smalls ignored advice to take a wide berth around it, as this would cause suspicion. Instead, Smalls donned a straw hat just like Captain Rylea wore, and coolly pacing the Planter’s deck using the Captain’s gait he took the Planter right under Sumter’s guns. He passed any visual inspection as he gave the correct signal to pass. The signal was accepted and Planter was allowed to pass. There remained now the approach to the Union blockade in an armed Confederate-flagged ship without them opening fire to be accomplished. So the Southern banner was removed, and replaced with a white sheet as a flag of surrender.
The C.S.S. Planter Arrives
The following eyewitness account comes from a man aboard one of the Union ships, the U.S.S. Onward, after they saw the white flag:
“As she neared us, we looked in vain for the face of a white man. When they discovered that we would not fire on them, there was a rush of contrabands out on her deck, some dancing, some singing, whistling, jumping; and others stood looking towards Fort Sumter, and muttering all sorts of maledictions against it, and ‘de heart of de Souf,’ generally. As the steamer came near, and under the stern of the Onward, one of the Colored men stepped forward, and taking off his hat, shouted, ‘Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!’ ”
In addition to her crew of newly freed men and their families, Smalls had also delivered the guns aboard the Planter as well as quite a large amount of ammunition. In 1863, Smalls was given command of the newly re-christened U.S.S. Planter, which he held until 1866. He was present at the RE-raising of the U.S flag over Fort Sumter after the end of the war, and went on to serve three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (above). He died on February 22, 1915 at the same house behind which he had been born in Beaufort, South Carolina.