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‘One of the most heroic acts of the war,’ reported the New York Times on May 19, 1862. Later, the commander of the Union navy along the South Atlantic coast, Rear Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, pronounced it ‘one of the coolest and most gallant naval acts of war.’ Nor was it forgotten in postwar years.

In 1900, the U.S. Congress recorded it in a statute, providing a reward for the hero of the episode. The statute read: ‘…Robert Smalls, on the thirteenth day of May, eighteen hundred and sixty-two, did capture the steamer Planter, with all the armament and ammunition for Fort Ripley, at the city of Charleston, taking her out and turning her over to the Federal blockading squadron off Charleston….’ And in recent years the memory of Smalls’ feat was freshened in South Carolina: the state government placed a marker, reciting the act, at a churchyard in Beaufort, where Smalls is buried. But back in May 1862 Robert Smalls was a 23-year-old illiterate slave. Early on the morning of May 13, 1862, the Confederate commander at Charleston, South Carolina, Brigadier General Roswell S. Ripley, was astounded to learn his dispatch boat had disappeared. That boat, the Planter, for many months under charter to the army with a civilian crew, had been doing good service on critical missions-inspection, charting, transport-as General Ripley prepared to meet possible Union assault on Charleston, the cradle of the rebellion. The evening before, May 12, she had been moored, as usual, at the wharf just in front of Ripley’s headquarters. Where was she now? The general could find no one who knew. The regular 20-man guard had been posted at the wharf during the night, with sentinels a few paces from the boat. They knew only that the Planter had moved off about 3:30 a.m. At her rail had been a man who seemed to be her captain, for he had the captain’s posture and wore his straw hat and jacket. A Confederate banner and a Palmetto flag had been flying. The Planter was scheduled for an early morning chore, so the move seemed quite normal.

But now it was found that the captain had not been with the Planter. He and his two brother officers had spent the night ashore. They had no idea what happened. The boat had eight crewmen, all slaves. Robert Smalls was the chief crewman, the wheelman; had he been white he would have been called the pilot. Smalls and all but one of the crewmen were missing. The remaining slave knew nothing.

Anxiously, Confederate officers peered out at the forms of Union blockading ships at sea, well beyond Charleston Harbor’s Confederate bastion, Fort Sumter. At first incredulous, finally they were convinced. There was the Planter, riding between two of the Union blockaders. General Ripley, furious, ordered an aide to find out how she got there.

The aide’s report disclosed little. The boat had moved slowly to a nearby wharf, stopped briefly, whistled, and then turned into the harbor. She had reached Fort Sumter at about 4:15 a.m., where she was reported to the officer of the day. He, thinking her the guard boat, gave her the signal to pass. And so she had gone on into the outer harbor. It was said that during the evening three whites-two men and a woman-had boarded her at the wharf and had not been seen to leave. Though this proved untrue, it did start a long-persisting rumor, amplified by an outraged Southern press, that Union agents had turned the trick.

In the Rebel capital, Richmond, Virginia, government officials were promptly informed of the loss. Confederate General Robert E. Lee opined that the responsible parties should be punished. General Ripley had already preferred charges. The Planter‘s officers and men had been arrested, to be tried by court-martial, for violating a general order decreeing officers of vessels moored at the wharves were to remain aboard.

Loss of the Planter could not be shrugged off. Some 10 days before, Ripley’s barge had been spirited out to the Union fleet by slave crewmen; that had been only an annoyance. The Planter, however, was not a mere barge. She was a steam-powered side-wheeler. A shallow-draft craft, built as a cotton transport with capacity for 1,400 bales, she ideally suited herself to moving troops and materiel along South Carolina’s labyrinth of coastal waters. Now it appeared that the troops she moved would be Federals.

A Union army had landed the previous November at Port Royal, 60 miles down the coast. It then was led by aggressive Major General David Hunter; threat of attack on Charleston was not academic. But for an assault the Union forces were in great need of shallow water transport; for them the Planter‘s value was beyond measure. And there was a dividend. In addition to the Planter‘s own armament-a 32-pounder cannon on a pivot in the fore and a 24-pounder howitzer aft-she had, in cargo (to have been delivered to a harbor battery that morning) four fine guns, a large supply of ammunition, and other materiel. (Two of the guns had once belonged to Sumter’s defeated Union garrison. Both had been damaged in the April 1861 bombardment opening the war, but were now repaired.)

No wonder, then, that the Charleston press screamed that the Planter‘s officers’ ‘criminal absence’ had been shameful, ‘disgusting treachery.’ The press of neighboring cities joined in, condemning the ‘gross negligence’ that called for ‘the prompt penalty of the halter rigorously enforced,’ and branding the abduction of the vessel ‘one of the most shameful events of this or any other war.’ It had occurred, said the press, because officers seemed to think that the war was ‘a nice frolic’ and neglected ‘personal attention to their commands.’

Union troops were delighted at having secured the Planter. But the acquisition had only been made after a very tense moment. That moment came when the tar on watch on the blockading ship nearest to the shore, the Onward, screamed an alarm. Approaching through the haze was a Rebel ram, the sailor believed. Quickly, the blockader was swung about to bring broadside guns to bear on the misty target. Just before the command to fire, another sailor cried out that he thought a white flag flew at the Rebel boat’s mast. Fire was withheld. Tension eased, when a bed sheet was seen billowing where, shortly before, Rebel banners had waved. The Planter glided to the Onward‘s stern.

Leaning on the Planter‘s rail was a black man wearing the hat and jacket of a Rebel ship captain. Doffing his hat, he shouted ‘Good morning, Sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!’

On the Planter‘s deck, yelling triumphantly, were seven other black men. Quickly, the Onward‘s captain boarded the Planter, to be surrounded by joyous blacks begging that the Stars and Stripes be hoisted. That done, eight more blacks climbed from below, five women and three youngsters, one a baby. The mother held the baby high over her head and exhorted him to look at the U.S. flag, because it was a promise of a better life.

The jacket-clad black man was Robert Smalls. After telling his story to the Onward‘s captain, he was sent on to the squadron commander to repeat it. It was decided that, under a Union crew, the Planter, with its black company, should be sent on to Port Royal, base of the blockading fleet. There, at 10:20 that night, as Commodore Du Pont (he would become a rear admiral a few weeks later) composed a long letter to his wife, he was interrupted in mid-sentence; a messenger bore news that a Rebel vessel had just been brought in, delivered that morning to the squadron off Charleston by the vessel’s chief crewman. Du Pont pushed his letter aside and sent for the ‘Hero,’ as he put it, to hear the story. When at length he resumed his letter, that story became a lively addition.

The next day, May 14, Du Pont sent a report of the incident to Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, concluding that, if the government considered the Planter a prize, Du Pont would ‘respectfully submit to the Department the claims’ of its black company. (Captured Confederate vessels, ‘prizes,’ were auctioned off in Northern ports. Half the proceeds went to the U.S. Government, half to the crewmen who seized the craft.) Also, he could not resist ribbing the Rebel command at Charleston: a civilian caught on another ship captured by the blockaders was sent back to Charleston with word that Du Pont found it ‘mortifying’ that the Planter should have been purloined from ‘officers whom he still considered his countrymen.’

There was no feigned mortification among Charleston’s military men. The outcome of the court-martial of the Planter‘s officers was proof of that. They were brought to trial in short order. While one of them, the engineer, won a dismissal because the charges against him were faulty, the captain and mate were found guilty and sentenced to fine and imprisonment. Eventually reviewed by department commander Major General John C. Pemberton, those sentences were remitted. Pemberton found the order requiring officers to stay aboard vessels moored at the wharf had not been ‘properly communicated’ to the defendants, that no measures to enforce compliance had been taken, and that the Planter‘s owner, responsible under government charter for his officers, seemed to have been ‘entirely indifferent’ to the order. The general concluded that the public would not ‘be benefitted by the punishment.’ He had the officers released.

The real fault was in Charleston’s military administration. It had given the Union a great opportunity-or so it seemed. As Du Pont put it in his report to Secretary Welles, Smalls had brought information ‘most interesting, and portions of it of utmost importance.’ Smalls knew the location of the Rebel fortifications all through the area and where torpedoes had been planted in the rivers and creeks. Also, in the Planter‘s cabin was ‘the book containing the secret of the signals of the Confederacy,’ enabling Unionists to ‘read’ the Rebel signal flags wagging around the harbor. Of even greater import was Smalls’ word of a Rebel redeployment ordered by Pemberton. Southerners had evacuated Cole’s Island and Stono Inlet at the tip of James Island, immediately adjacent to Charleston. Smalls, on the Planter, had been engaged in the evacuation and gave Du Pont a detailed account. The officer saw at once that, if the Union army could act with sufficient speed and strength, the way was open to get at Charleston by land, up Stono Inlet and through James Island.

Du Pont’s greatest interest might have been in that information. But what excited the Northern public was the tale of a slave snatching the Planter from under the noses of the Rebels, at the very spot where the war had started. The full story was eagerly sought.

Smalls had been born in Beaufort, near Port Royal. His mother had been a house slave of the prominent McKee family. As a child he had been a favorite of that family. When he was about age 12, his master took him to Charleston to be hired out. He displayed marked technical ability, and progressed from job to job, finally becoming a sailor. He had made a deal his master, allowing him to keep any earnings about $15 a month. Along the way he married a slave of another family. In 1858, his first child, a girl, was born. She, of course, became the property of his wife’s owner. That worried the young father. He persuaded his wife’s master to emancipate wife and child upon payment of $800. By 1862 he had accumulated $700 of that sum. Then, a second child, a boy, was born. Smalls doubtless wondered whether the price of freedom would be increased.

In 1861 Smalls had been hired as a sailor on the Planter, and so was with her during her charter to the Confederate military. Though he did not learn to read and write until 1864, he was-as would be said of him in the Dictionary of American Biography 70 years later-‘good humored, intelligent, fluent, and self-possessed.’ By the spring of 1862 he had become head crewman. While his regular pay was only $16 a month, with $15 of that going to his master, he accrued considerable personal income-for a slave-by ‘petty trading.’ To all appearances he was content with his lot, taking good care of his little family and enjoying the full confidence of the Planter‘s officers. Their confidence in him was confirmed by Smalls’ ‘reaction’ to the theft of General Ripley’s barge; he denounced the thieves as ‘the meanest of mortals.’

But appearances deceived. At some time in April 1862 Smalls began planning an escape. When the Union army took Port Royal the previous November and extended influence over the surrounding area, nearly all the white residents fled. But most of their slaves, including Smalls’ mother, had stayed. From the mysterious slave ‘telegraph,’ Smalls heard that his mother was in her old home in Beaufort, happily engaged as a cook for Union troops. After General Hunter had assumed Union army command at the end of March, the same telegraph brought news that he was disposed to emancipate slaves. Smalls decided Beaufort would be more suited than Charleston for rearing his children.

One of Smalls’ fellow crewmen jokingly suggested they should steal the Planter. Smalls told him the possibility was no joke. Cautiously, he sounded out others of the crew, save for one who could not be trusted and was left out of the venture. At meetings at Smalls’ home a plan matured.

Opportunity beckoned, when the boat was wharfside at night and the officers left her in Smalls’ care. the wheelman intended to use an excuse to get the distrusted crewman away from the Planter. His own wife, four other women, his two other children, and another child would go aboard another boat moored nightly at a nearby dock. There, a slave sailor, brought in on the plan, would secret them. Then on the Planter‘s approach the women, children, and sailor would join the escape party. The only question Smalls and his conspirators had was when to make their break.

That question was answered at the end of the day on May 12. By late afternoon the Planter had been loaded with cargo for delivery to one of the harbor batteries at high water, 6:00 the next morning. The wharf’s guard expected the boat to shove off early. And when the boat’s officers were leaving at day’s end, Smalls was instructed to get ready for the early move. Dutifully he responded, ‘Aye, aye, sir!’

As soon as the officers were gone, Smalls and his fellows consulted and all agreed: the time had come. Word was sent to the sailor on the other boat and to the women and children: proceed. Quietly, on the Planter, Smalls broke into the cabin to secure the captain’s straw hat and jacket and any small arms he could find. It was firmly understood among the conspirators that if they met with any interference they would resist and, if it came to that, rather than suffer capture, they would sink the Planter and all aboard. If scuttling failed, they ‘would all take hands…and jump overboard and perish together.’

At about 3:00 a.m., the boat’s steam engine was fired up. Smoke from the stack was blown toward the city. For a short time Smalls feared that someone would think there was a fire near the wharf and sound an alarm. But all remained quiet. When steam pressure was up, the boat’s Confederate banner and Palmetto flag were hoisted, and the regular wharf signal blown. In her usual manner, the boat got under way, with Smalls at the captain’s post, taking care to imitate that worthy’s well-known posture.

The Planter sailed to the boat where the women and children were stowed, stopped briefly to pick up the waiting party in the darkness, and turned seaward, sailing on at slow speed, giving the prescribed signals along the way. She reached Sumter at the normal time harbor traffic began.

Smalls had the captain’s hat pulled low, his face averted. He pulled the cord for two long whistles and a short one, as vessels were supposed to do. Permission to pass was signaled from Sumter, and the Planter slowly sailed on, seemingly toward the outer forts. But after getting well beyond Sumter, she abruptly picked up speed and swung away, not toward the outer forts, but toward the harbor’s bar and the distant blockaders. As she speeded on, Rebel flags came down and up went a white sheet Smalls took from the boat’s bunk. So it was that a new day dawned for 16 slaves.

A few weeks later, Secretary Welles was to open a package sent him at Du Pont’s order; it contained a Rebel naval banner and a South Carolina Palmetto flag. Coincidentally, it was at that time that the commodore was made a rear admiral. In the meantime, Smalls embarked on what was to prove a very busy career.

Du Pont immediately passed on wheelman Smalls’ information on Rebel deployment to General Hunter. This precipitated a decision by Hunter to begin a move toward a position from which Charleston could be assaulted. Smalls participated in that move, piloting the Planter for the Union navy.

The move met only partial success. Union delays enabled the Rebels to prepare a defense. This was not Smalls’ fault. In his December 1862 Annual Report, the navy secretary credited Smalls with the information that made it possible to establish on the Stono Inlet and Stono River ‘an important base for future military operations.’ This accomplished ‘virtually a turning of the forces in Charleston Harbor.’

While Smalls was being launched on a new career, attention in the U.S. Congress turned to the question Du Pont raised about prize money for the Planter‘s black crewmen. The prize laws did not cover the case. But promptly, on May 19, 1862, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate, directing the secretary of the navy to make an appraisal of the vessel and its cargo and to have half the appraised value apportioned, in cash, equitably among Smalls and his fellows, the equivalent of a prize award. By unanimous consent, reference to a committee was omitted, and the Senate passed the bill that very day. An effort to spur the House of Representatives into action before the day’s end was obstructed by dissenting congressmen, but a few days later the measure was brought forward and quickly adopted by a vote of 121 to 9. On May 30 President Abraham Lincoln signed it into law.

Secretary Welles promptly directed Du Pont to carry out the statute. It was Du Pont’s idea that Smalls and his associates should be paid $20,000 with $5,000 going to Smalls. But at that point the matter reached the hands of penny-pinching appraisers-doubtless not keen about lining the pockets of mere ex-slaves. The Planter was appraised at $9,000 and her cargo at $168-ridiculously low figures. The apportionment of half that sum made by Du Pont was a payment of $1,500 to Smalls, sums ranging from $348 to $450 to each of the other men, and $100 each to two of the women.

If Smalls realized than the inadequacy of that payment, his actions in his new career never betrayed resentment. Throughout the Civil War he served the Union with distinction, an invaluable pilot on coastal waters he knew well, endowed with indomitable courage. He took part in 17 engagements. One was the April 1863 naval attack on Charleston; in it Smalls piloted the ironclad Keokuk. Though the attack was a failure, Smalls’ performance in it was truly professional.

In autumn 1862, the Planter was’sold’ by the U.S. Navy to the U.S. Army. She had done fine naval service, but because she was a wood-burner, the coal-powered navy had difficulty keeping her fueled. For the army, much in need of coastal transport, wood fuel posed no problem. In time, the army hired Smalls as the Planter‘s pilot.

On a December day Smalls was piloting the boat on a supply mission along one of the waterways near Charleston, with a white captain in command. Suddenly, devastating Rebel artillery fire blanketed the Planter. The captain panicked and wanted to surrender. But Smalls defied his captain. Surrender would be grim for him and other former slaves in the crew. The captain slunk down into the hold. Smalls took charge and brought the Planter through the shelling. Awaiting him at the landing were thousands of cheering troops. Union Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, Hunter’s successor, at once promoted Smalls to captain of the Planter. And a captain he was to remain, through the rest of the war and after-until the Planter was sold by the army in autumn 1866.

Although writers in later years said Smalls became an officer either in the navy or army, the fact was that he remained a civilian throughout the conflict. But his was a military career just the same. Though there were cases where civilians on hire as pilots, engineers, or otherwise, presented discipline problems, Smalls always took orders exactly as if he had been an enrolled seaman or soldier.

Early in his work with the Union’s armed forces, it was foreshadowed that much more than military service was in store for the one-time slave. With the flight of whites from the Port Royal area following the Union’s invasion, means had to be devised to support thousands of slaves, ‘contrabands,’ remaining behind. What evolved, in the spring of 1862, was a program known to history as the ‘Port Royal Experiment.’ A devoted corps of Northern missionaries, teachers, and business managers, under the aegis of the U.S. Treasury Department and backed by the military, came to organize and lead blacks to a self-sustaining, free existence on plantations around the urban center of Beaufort. Prominent in that program was the Reverend Mansfield French. He saw that Smalls’ dramatic theft of the Planter and the fame that followed made him a potential asset to the experiment. He immediately proposed that Smalls be sent to New York City for meetings at the Cooper Institute. There, the mayor would preside, to ‘raise money for the contrabands’ to help meet their needs on the plantations.

Du Pont vetoed that proposal. Just then, there was preempting need for Smalls on the water approaches to Charleston. But a few weeks later, in August 1862, Smalls was sent to Washington with French to deliver a plea from the military governor of the Port Royal area, Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, to permit him to arm black workmen on the plantations for protection from Rebel raids. On that mission Smalls met both Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and President Abraham Lincoln. He also had a long session with Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, who, at the time, had the responsibility for properties abandoned by their owners in Union-occupied areas of the South. The mission was a notable success; French and Smalls returned in early September with authorization for Saxton to help enroll black men as Union soldiers, the first such authority ever given by the U.S. War Department.

No sooner was that mission completed than Smalls was off again with French, this time to New York City with his family. There Smalls was a drawing card at meetings to solicit support for the Port Royal Experiment. A high point of that trip was a huge meeting at the Shiloh Church on October 2. The next morning’s New York Times, headlined ‘The Hero of the Planter,’ reported the house crowded with ‘the most intelligent and respectable portion of the Afro-Americans of the great Metropolis.’ A choir sang ‘John Brown’s Hymn,’ ‘There’s A Better Time a-Coming,’ and other emancipation songs. At Smalls’ entrance with his family the crowd went wild. He was presented with a gold medal, embossed with a view of the Planter on the way from Fort Sumter to the blockaders. A resolution was adopted, hailing Smalls’ feat as proof of the’safety, justice and easy possibility’ of immediate, universal emancipation. It was a critical time for the nation’s blacks. The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation had just been issued, but it remained uncertain whether it would be made final and how far it would extend.

During the next year and a half, along with his notable service in the military, Smalls steadily grew in the esteem of the Port Royal community. In May 1864 a meeting of freedmen and whites in Beaufort selected a delegation to represent South Carolina at the Republican National Convention in Baltimore, Maryland. Of the 16 delegates, four were blacks. Of those four, one was Smalls. Though the delegation was not officially recognized at the convention, it is significant that the first political voice for blacks in South Carolina acclaimed Smalls.

Probably Smalls would not have participated, even had the delegation been seated, for in the late spring he had been ordered to Philadelphia with the Planter for a complete overhaul of the vessel. The job took many months. But while in Philadelphia he achieved literacy and became prominent in the work of groups in the city aiding the Port Royal Experiment. He managed also to strike an effective blow against the discrimination suffered by blacks in the ‘City of Brotherly Love.’

On taking a seat on a streetcar one rainy day, he was ordered by the conductor to move to the outer platform, as then required of blacks by Philadelphia law. Smalls left the car and walked in the rain. The episode was widely publicized. A Union hero had been humiliated. Sentiment grew to eliminate race laws in Philadelphia.

When Union Major General William T. Sherman captured coastal Savannah, Georgia, in December 1864, at the end of his world-famous ‘March to the Sea,’ Smalls and the Planter were kept busy on chores for Sherman’s army as it regrouped for another march northward into the Carolinas. Isolated by that march, Charleston fell to the Union on February 17, 1865. Following along was Robert Smalls, en route to an interesting homecoming, to a confrontation with his past.

A few days after the fall of the city, Smalls brought General Saxton to Charleston, to be greeted by a crowd of cheering blacks. On the outskirts of the crowd stood a few whites. Among them Smalls spotted the original owner of the Planter, his former employer. Pushing through the crowd, Smalls introduced the gentleman to Saxton, an eloquent sign of Smalls’ newfound equality. Two months later, on April 14, the fourth anniversary of the Union’s loss of Fort Sumter, Smalls and the Planter took part in the great ceremony in Charleston Harbor. The old flag was raised again over Sumter. One of a Northern tour party, in describing the scene in the harbor that day, wrote, ‘Almost central in interest, the Planter, crowded almost to suffocation’ with freedmen, was commanded by Smalls, ‘a prince among them, self-possessed, prompt and proud.’

With the war’s end Beaufort became Smalls’ permanent home. Before the war, his former master’s residence, including the quarters where he was born, had been sold to another Carolinian who, during the war, was colonel of a Confederate South Carolina regiment. In 1863 United States tax authorities had put up the property for sale for nonpayment of Federal taxes, and it was acquired by the U.S. Government itself. In 1865 Smalls bought it from the government, and lived there the rest of his life. In postwar years the former owner sued to recover the property, contending that the tax sale was invalid. It was a test case affecting many properties in the South, and it went to the United States Supreme Court. There Smalls’ land title was defended by the solicitor general of the United States and sustained.

In the meantime, Smalls became a political leader in South Carolina. In spring 1867 he helped organize the first Republican Club in that state and soon was on his way to prominence in state offices. Then, in 1874, he was elected as a Republican from the Beaufort district to the United States House of Representatives. In five of the six Congresses between that time and 1887 he served in the House. Thereafter, no black had such a long Congressional tenure until the 1950s. But in 1886 white supremacists finally stole the election from him, and his subsequent contest of the seat, in a House controlled by Democrats, was in vain.

In 1890 Republican President Benjamin Harrison appointed him collector of the Port of Beaufort. With an interruption only during the presidency of Democratic President Grover Cleveland, whose second term followed Harrison’s, Smalls held that post until 1913. Again, Democratic pressure ended his service. But he would not live much longer. He died in 1915. Over and over, between 1876 and 1900, there were proposals in Congress to reward Smalls for his outstanding wartime service. In 1883 a House committee report on one measure told in some detail of that service and branded as ‘absurdly low’ the 1862 appraisal of the Planter and her cargo; it concluded from evidence it had taken that a fair 1862 valuation would have been more than $60,000. In 1897 a special statute provided Smalls a pension of $30 a month, the pension at the time for a U.S. Navy captain. That did not still Congressional agitation. Finally, in 1900, Congress adopted the statute providing Smalls be paid $5,000, less the amount paid him under the 1862 law. Many then and now believe he received no more than his due.

This article was written by Howard Westwood and originally appeared in the May 1986 issue of Civil War Times. For more great articles, be sure to subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!