In the early morning hours of May 12, 1862, a young slave astonished a nation, torn by Civil War, when he commandeered Charleston’s most powerful warship and sailed it past a formidable gauntlet of Rebel forts to freedom.
As the war played out, his escape from deep within Southern territory set off a series of events that made Robert Smalls the most famous black man in the United States. Before the war ended, he became the first black man promoted to captain of a Union warship.
The story of Roberts Smalls, perhaps purposefully relegated to dusty corners of U.S. history for many years, serves as a reminder that the flame of freedom burns bright in every heart, regardless of color, race, or religion.
Born into slavery, Smalls served as a house servant to a prominent Beaufort, S.C. family until the age of 12. His master, Henry McKee, sent the young boy to Charleston where Smalls served as a waiter at the Planter Hotel and as a streetlamp tender. His wages were sent to McKee.
While in Charleston, Smalls became friends with John Simmons, a naval stores businessman who had a flourishing stable of small ships. Under Simmons tutelage, Smalls became a skilled wheelman known for his photographic-like memory of coastal waterways.
In 1860, Smalls became pilot of an innovative ship built at Shem Creek near Charleston, S.C. called the Planter. The twin paddlewheels used an oscillating engine that allowed the ship to turn while staying in a stationary position. This gave the ship the ability to operate in narrow rivers and inlets.
Shortly after South Carolina seceded from the United States, the Confederacy acquisitioned the Planter and used it to ferry troops and supplies to forts in and around Charleston Harbor. As pilot, Smalls helped lay mines and other obstacles in the harbor.
Shortly after Union forces successfully established a foothold near Beaufort at Port Royal, U.S. Gen. David Hunter issued an order freeing slaves in South Carolina and Georgia. Hearing of this, Smalls saw an opportunity to flee to freedom.
Smalls, a natural mimic, was strutting around the deck of the Planter one evening when a black member of the crew remarked that he looked like the ship’s white captain and could pass for him in the dark.
Thus hatched an escape plan.
Pledging to die rather than surrender, the crew decided to commandeer the Planter, pick up family members, and sail the ship past a series of Confederate forts to the Union fleet blockading the entrance to Charleston Harbor.
The crew created a ruse for the three white officers on the Planter to go ashore for the night. Shortly after midnight, Smalls ordered the ship’s engineer to stoke the ships boilers.
Donning the captain’s familiar straw hat and uniform, Smalls steered the Planter away from the dock and an unsuspecting sentry.
He made a stop at a pre-arranged location to pick up his wife and children and several other relatives of crew members before sailing slowly toward the harbor’s entrance.
As he approached the mighty guns of Fort Sumter, Smalls calmly gave the signal and waited for a reply, knowing that the fort could easily blow the ship out of the water.
The reply came.
“Pass the Planter.”
Resisting an urge to order full speed, Smalls calmly sailed the Planter toward the Union fleet. When the commanding officer at Fort Sumter noticed the ship was sailing toward the Union blockade, he ordered the cannons to fire on the Planter.
After the first cannon fired, Smalls ordered the ship to full speed and cannon fire from the fort splashed harmlessly behind.
As the Planter sped toward the Union fleet, Smalls noticed sailors on the ships were preparing to fire on the fleeing ship, too. Smalls’ wife, Hannah, saved the day by producing a white sheet that a crewman ran up the ship’s flagpole before the federal ships could fire.
Commanders of the Union blockading force were astonished at Smalls’ daring escape. They were even more impressed with the four cannons being carried by the Planter and by Smalls’ knowledge of the Charleston Harbor defenses. He provided a Confederate codebook as well as information that rebel force had recently abandoned a fort at the entrance of the Stono River.
At the time of Smalls’ escape, the Civil War was not going well for Union forces, which had suffered a series of embarrassing defeats. The North, hungry for good news, reveled in the story of a slave stealing a ship and sailing it past the fort where the war began.
Newspapers heralded the daring escape and Smalls became the darling of the North, particularly among abolitionists who used the event as proof that black people had the intelligence and fortitude to show great courage.
The Confederacy, stung by the escape, put a $4,000 bounty on Smalls.
Asked to return to Charleston for reconnaissance of the abandoned Stono River fort, Smalls readily agreed to continue working as a pilot for the federal Navy despite the danger to his life.
He participated in many naval encounters, including the unsuccessful invasion of Charleston Harbor in 1863, for the balance of the war.
He was promoted to captain of the Planter after the ship came under fire at Lighthouse Inlet near Charleston in 1863. When it appeared the ship would be lost, the white captain fled below and hid in a wood bunker.
Using great skill and courage, Smalls managed to sailed the Planter to safety. The captain was court martialed and Smalls became the first black man to be captain of a ship operated by the United States Army.
His heroic actions continued to endure him with people in the North and Smalls went on a number of speaking tours to help raise money for the Port Royal experiment, an effort by Northern missionaries to educate and train more than 10,000 freed slaves living on the Sea Islands.
More importantly, the former slave was asked to meet with President Abraham Lincoln. In 1862, the President was still wrestling with the idea of allowing freed slaves to fight for the Union. He was concerned that border states would join the Confederacy if he were to free slaves living in those territories.
Shortly after meeting with Smalls at the White House and learning more about his story, Lincoln decided to allow free blacks to enlist in the Army. This gave Union forces a large, new pool of recruits.
As the war neared its end, Smalls was given the honor of transporting thousands of people to Fort Sumter, where the United States flag was once again raised.
After hostilities ended, Smalls returned to Beaufort and bought the home of his former master using the proceeds from a bounty paid by the government for the Planter.
The home’s former white mistress, Jane McKee, left destitute by the war, lived with Smalls at this home for the remainder of her life.
Smalls went on to serve with distinction in the S.C. Legislature and in Congress.
In his novel, Smalls: The South wanted his head. The North his heart, Steve Robertson traces the life of Smalls from his childhood in Beaufort, to his career as a well-respected riverboat pilot, to his lasting fame as the spokesman for more than four million enslaved black men and women.
Robertson and wife of Cheryl own a group of weekly and monthly newspapers in Horry County, S.C. He has published four pictorial history books in the past. However, this is his first novel.
Smalls: The South wanted his head. The North his heart. can be purchased on Amazon in both digital and printed formats.