By Kevin Shannahan
Robert Smalls was a man whose life could have been the inspiration for an action-adventure movie. Born a slave, he won his, his family’s and his crew and their families’ freedom by commandeering a Confederate warship and sailing it from Charleston harbor to the Union fleet. He went on to serve the US Navy throughout the rest of the war utilizing his extensive knowledge of the area’s waters.
After the Civil War, Robert Smalls led a successful life in business and politics. He served in Congress, the South Carolina House and Senate and unsuccessfully ran for US Senate. As a businessman, he started a railroad with other investors and owned and published a newspaper. It was an enviable record of achievement by any measure.
He is most well known, however, for commandeering a Confederate warship, the CSS Planter and delivering it, along with his and his crew’s families, a cargo of guns and ammunition as well as the code books and maps of the harbor, to the Union navy blockading Charleston. His bold strike for freedom brought him fame, and a $4,000.00 price on his head from an enraged and embarrassed Confederacy.
Robert Smalls had been rented out by his master as a laborer on the docks of Charleston where he developed the skill and knowledge of the local waters that would prove so critical later on. At age 17, he married Hannah Jones and started to save to purchase their freedom, a process that could take years, if not decades. The advent of the Civil War, and the Union navy only a few miles offshore, was to present him an opportunity. Robert Smalls would win his family’s freedom.
In 1862, Smalls was a crewmember on the CSS Planter, a supply and transport ship used throughout the Charleston harbor and river area. He planned his escape with some of the other slaves on the ship’s crew. Finally, on May 13, 1862, their chance came. The Planter’s captain and White officers all went ashore for the evening, leaving the ship, its cargo, codebooks and maps to the crew. Robert Smalls dressed in the captain’s uniform and distinctive straw hat and the Planter left the dock. They stopped to pick up their families and turned to the sea and the Union navy.
There was no turning back. There could be no surrender. They would either achieve freedom or die in the attempt. As they approached checkpoints in the harbor, Smalls would use the ship’s codebook to give the proper response to the challenge. Dressed as the ship’s captain and even imitating his mannerisms, Smalls slipped past each post. He even blew the ship’s steam whistle in salute of Ft. Sumpter as the Planter had always done before. The Union blockade and freedom was just a few miles away, but tragedy almost stuck at the last minute. The Planter’s Confederate flag had been hauled down and replaced with a white bed sheet, but it wasn’t visible in the pre-dawn darkness. The USS Onward was preparing to fire on the Planter when at last the dawn came and they were able to see the white flag.
As the Planter drew near the Union ship, a man stepped forward, took off his hat and said “Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!” Robert Smalls, his crew and their families were free. In battle and in peace, Robert Smalls never stopped fighting for freedom and dignity. He died in 1915 owning the house in which he was born into slavery. He is a true American Hero.
Photo: NOAA (Nat Oceanic & Atmospheric Admin)