How Robert Smalls Seized a Ship to Escape From Slavery to Freedom
Robert Smalls was one of the most accomplished men of the 19th century. A ship’s pilot and Captain who fought in 17 engagements during the Civil War, he eventually would be commissioned a Major General in the South Carolina state militia. After the war he served in the South Carolina House of Representatives and Senate. He then served five terms in the United States Congress.
What makes Robert Smalls’ story so unique is that he achieved all this after starting life as a South Carolina slave who, by the daring capture of a Confederate warship, was able not only to escape slavery himself, but to bring 15 others with him to freedom. In doing so he became a national hero, and an inspiration to black and white alike throughout the North during the Civil War.
This is the story of the seminal event that started Robert Smalls on his career of achievement and honor.
A Do-Or-Die Attempt to Escape Slavery
It was just after 3:00 am on the morning of May 13, 1862 in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Robert Smalls stood on the deck of the Planter, a Confederate military transport ship. The clothing he wore identified him as the Captain. When he gave the order to fire up the engine of the side-wheel steamer, the crew leapt to obey him, and the Planter slowly pulled away from the dock.
But Robert Smalls was not the Captain of the Planter, at least not yet. He was the ship’s pilot. He was also a slave, as were all the other crewmen on board that morning. And the voyage on which he, his ship, and his crew had embarked was not the delivery of the heavy artillery pieces and ammunition in the ship’s cargo hold to Fort Ripley, as Confederate authorities had ordered. Instead, Smalls was intent on delivering the ship and its cargo, and most importantly the crew and their families, into the hands of the United States Navy stationed on blockade duty just outside Charleston harbor.
In other words, Robert Smalls and his comrades were attempting to “liberate” the ship, as well as themselves and their families, from the slave-holding Confederacy and sail her to freedom. And all on board knew that failure meant death.
A Slave, But a Privileged One
The seeds of this history-making great escape had been planted 23 years before.
Born in Beaufort, South Carolina on April 5, 1839, Robert Smalls was the son of Lydia Polite, a house-slave in the home of John McKee, owner of Ashdale Plantation.
Growing up, Robert had more freedom and privileges than was normal for a slave. That was because, even when he broke rules other slaves were required to obey, he was usually favored and protected by John McKee’s son, Henry. Although Robert never knew for sure, it was generally thought that Henry McKee was his father.
It was at his mother’s urging that 12-year-old Robert was sent to work in Charleston in 1851. Lydia was concerned that her son, used to special treatment because of Henry’s favor, didn’t really understand his limitations as a slave. She wanted him exposed to the realities of his position in life before he stepped out of line with some white person who wouldn’t treat him so leniently.
Smalls proved adept at extending the limits of his freedom as far as he could. As a hired-out slave, all of his earnings actually belonged to his owner. But Smalls was able to make a deal with the McKees that allowed him to pay them $15 per month of his salary, keeping any remainder. Since he was only making $16 per month, that left just $1 a month for himself. But, displaying the entrepreneurial spirit that would stand him in good stead later in his life, Smalls earned extra income for himself by buying and reselling popular commodities like candy and tobacco.
Smalls Becomes a Family Man
In 1856, when he was 16, Smalls met Hannah Jones, a slave woman hired out by her owner to work as a hotel maid. Hannah was fourteen years older than Robert, and already had two daughters of her own. But Smalls decided he wanted to marry her. He was able to get permission from each set of owners both for the marriage, and to live with his new wife and daughters in their own apartment above a horse stable in the city. Soon two additional offspring, a girl in 1858, and a boy in 1861, were added to the Smalls household. The new children automatically became the slave property of their mother’s owner.
A Slave Who Owns Slaves? Smalls Tries to Buy His Family
Knowing how vulnerable slave families were to being sold away from one another at the whim of a cash-strapped or angry owner, Smalls took the unprecedented step of attempting to purchase his wife and children. This would mean that he, a slave, would be the owner of other slaves. Of course, no such idea was even thought of in South Carolina law. In reality, since everything a slave owned technically belonged to his owner, if this deal came off, the McKees would end up owning the entire Smalls family. Once again, Robert was counting on the favor of Henry McKee.
Hannah’s owner actually agreed to the deal, and set a price of $800. He even allowed Robert to pay him $100 down, which was everything the Smalls family had been able to save up, with the rest due over time. But Robert’s meager earnings made it very difficult for him to accumulate the remaining $700. In the mean time, each new child born into the Smalls family would simply add to Hannah’s master’s wealth, and probably increase the asking price Smalls would be required to pay.
So, Robert Smalls began to think of other ways to achieve freedom and security for his family.
In July of 1861 he was hired as a deck hand on the Planter. By March of 1862 he had worked his way up to pilot of the vessel. Knowledgeable and skilled at navigating the waters of the South Carolina coast, Smalls began to see his new position as an opportunity for him and his family to escape from their bondage.
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A Plot to Escape Slavery
By April of 1862 Robert Smalls was already thinking escape, but didn’t yet know how he could pull it off. But when one of the black crew members aboard the Planter jokingly put the captain’s hat on Smalls’ head, an idea began to form in his mind. He suddenly realized that the hat fit, and so would the captain’s jacket. From a distance, in the early morning before full dawn, and wearing those items of clothing, he might easily be mistaken for the captain.
Quickly taking the hat off, and telling his friend not to even joke about it on the ship, Smalls began to carefully broach the idea of escape to other black crew members. Finding that all but one were willing, he arranged for the group to meet several times over the next few weeks at his house to formulate a plan. After much discussion, the conspirators finally agreed to simply let Smalls develop the plan, promising to faithfully follow his direction.
During their discussions, all members of the party agreed on one thing: this would be a do-or-die effort. Robert was quite clear about what would happen to him if he was caught: “I shall be shot,” he told his wife. Hannah fully understood, and was as committed as her husband. Echoing the beautiful words of Ruth in the Bible, she told Robert, “I will go, and where you die, I will die.”
The entire group was of the same mind. As Hannah told a reporter after it was all over,
"The whole party had solemnly agreed in advance, that if pursued, and without hope of escape, the ship would be scuttled and sunk; and that, if she should not go down fast enough to prevent capture, they would all take hands, husband and wife, brother and sister, and jump overboard and perish together."
The Escape Plan Is Set in Motion
The plan Smalls came up with was based on his expectation that the ship’s white crewmen, including the captain, C. T. Relyea, the mate and the engineer, would want to take advantage of being in their home port to spend some nights on shore. At some point, he hoped, all three would be off the ship at the same time.
In anticipation of that event, Smalls brought two of the black stewards on another ship docked in the harbor, the Etowah, in on the plan. All the Planter crewmen’s family members were told to be ready to slip aboard the Etowah when the word was given. Then, for several days, Smalls waited for his opportunity.
It came on the night of May 12, 1862. The ship was scheduled to sail at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, and Captain Relyea and the other white crewmen all decided to spend one final night ashore. As the evening progressed, Smalls sent word to the waiting families of the crew to slip aboard the Etowah, from which the Planter would pick them up as it left the harbor.
Finally, on that fateful May 13, it was time. Smalls ordered the Planter’s steam boilers to be lit, then waited some minutes, with his heart in his throat, to be sure no sentries were alerted by the noise. He was counting on the fact that it was known that the ship was planning to set sail that morning, and no one would become too concerned if she left a little earlier than normal. By 3:30 a.m. the ship was under way.
After a quick stop at the Etowah to pick up the waiting family members, the Planter started her run through Charleston harbor. This was the crucial time. If the watching Confederate sentries detected anything amiss, the big guns of the harbor could blow the ship out of the water. Smalls was heard to whisper a prayer, “Oh Lord, we entrust ourselves into thy hands.”
But Robert Smalls knew just how to present the picture observers would expect to see. As the ship passed under the guns of Fort Sumter, Smalls stood on deck, in plain sight, wearing the straw hat and jacket Captain Relyea usually wore, and with the stance the white captain usually assumed. But he kept his face turned away from the fort.
He had the ship’s whistle blow out the customary signals as the Planter steamed across the harbor. In the dim light of morning, none of the watchers on shore noticed that the man they were so used to seeing as the Planter passed in and out of the harbor was perhaps a little more tanned than usual.
Once out of range of the fort’s big guns, the Planter changed course and headed straight for the Union blockade fleet. Smalls ordered the Confederate and South Carolina state flags taken down, and a white bedsheet run up in their place. And it’s a good thing he did. As the Planter approached the Union ships patrolling outside the harbor, what they thought they saw coming toward them through the morning mist was a Confederate warship on the attack. Only as the order to fire was just about to be given did an officer catch sight of the white sheet.
Free At Last!
As the Planter came alongside the USS Onward, Robert Smalls lifted his hat and called out, “Good morning, Sir! I've brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!” He then asked that the United States colors be raised over the ship, which was quickly done. The CSS Planter was now the USS Planter, and Robert Smalls would soon be a national hero.
Questioned by Commodore S. F. DuPont, the commander of the blockade fleet, Smalls was able to provide military intelligence that the Commodore said in his report, was “of utmost importance.” That information included such things as the location of mines (then called torpedoes) that Smalls had helped lay in the waterways surrounding Charleston. He knew the disposition of rebel forces and fortifications. And he was able to hand over a book containing the signal flag codes used by the Confederates to communicate around the harbor.
Then, there was the ship and its cargo. Besides the two artillery pieces mounted on the ship itself, she was also ferrying four other big guns, along with 200 rounds of ammunition, which now would never again be aimed at Union forces.
Had you heard of Robert Smalls and the Planter before reading this article?
The Planter Crewmen Receive a Bounty for Their Capture of the Ship
The custom at that time was that when a crew captured an enemy ship, half the value of the vessel would go to the government, and the other half would be distributed among the crew members. Although this case didn’t exactly fit the scenarios anticipated in the law, Commodore DuPont thought the bounty should be paid. He told reporters he assessed the value of the Planter at $20,000, and would recommend that Robert Smalls, as her captain, receive $5000.
But in a clear case of allowing their judgment to be colored by racism, the assessors valued the ship at $9000, and her cargo at $168, figures a Congressional report years later would label as “absurdly low.” Smalls was given only $1500. Congress would finally right that wrong in 1900, awarding Smalls an additional $3500 to bring his total award up to the $5000 Commodore DuPont originally recommended.
Robert Smalls Becomes a National Hero
The story of the Planter caught the public imagination in the North, and Robert Smalls was acclaimed a hero in newspapers throughout the nation. The New York Daily Tribune, for example, wrote in its September 10, 1862 edition:
"This man, though black, is one of the few history will delight to honor. He has done something for his race and for the world of mankind. If each one of the Generals in our army had displayed as much coolness and courage as he did when he saluted the Rebel flag and steamed past the Rebel fort, by this time the Rebellion would have been among the things that were [past]."
Two weeks after his escape with the Planter, Robert Smalls was at the White House to share his story with President Abraham Lincoln. He would return to again meet with the President in August of 1862, urging the recruitment of black troops into the Union army in South Carolina. That request would be granted, leading to the establishment of the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteer regiments.
In 2007 the U. S. Army commissioned the Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls, an Army logistics support vessel. It is the only Army ship named after an African American.
A Hero, Then and Now
All this was just the beginning for Robert Smalls. He would go on to more heroic exploits under enemy fire during the war. After the war he would stand and fight even more heroically under the fire of vicious racism that rained down upon African Americans during the Reconstruction period and beyond. Through it all he remained a man of enormous courage and dignity. His son, William Robert Smalls, would later say of him,
"My father was fearless. Not afraid of anybody or anything. He was never intimidated until his dying day."
The New York Daily Tribune was right. Robert Smalls is, or at least should be, “one of the few history will delight to honor.”
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© 2014 Ronald E Franklin