Robert Smalls was an astonishing man. Born into slavery in the United States, he would rise to achieve more than most in his lifetime, throwing off his shackles and becoming a genuinely self-made man. His legacy as an American war hero and a politician the first black captain of a US vessel, ensures his place in history.
As a congressman, he served multiple times for the state of South Carolina, where he was born a slave. He is perhaps most famous for his action in commandeering a Confederate transport ship called the CSS Planter when it was in Charleston harbor in 1862.
After managing to sail it back to the Union-controlled waters, Smalls was able to help persuade Abraham Lincoln to accept African American soldiers into the Union Army. A fascinating story of a persistent man who fought against the odds to play a crucial part in American history.
Robert was born in 1839 to Lydia Polite, a slave owned by Henry McKee. It is unknown who his father was, but he is likely to have been a white man and slaveowner. Smalls grew up in the city and was influenced by his mother’s Gullah culture.
Whilst Lydia spent most of her time in the fields, Smalls was initially favored in the household. However, Lydia worried that Robert would not appreciate the plight of slaves and so asked for him to be made to work in the fields and witness the many whippings of other slaves.
At the age of around 12, Smalls began working in Charleston, initially in a hotel as a waiter and then later as a longshoreman and rigger. He did this for around ten years before the outbreak of the civil war.
In April 1861, the American Civil War began in earnest with the Battle of Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor. Smalls was forced to work on a confederate steamship called the CSS Planter which was operating as an armed transport vessel that carried guns and ammunition for the Confederate army.
It was under the command of Charleston’s District Commander Roswell S. Ripley. Among its duties as a transport vessel, the CSS Planter was also expected to survey waterways, lay mines and deliver troops and supplies to the most critical areas of the war.
Robert Smalls piloted the Planter through Charleston and its harbor as well as up and down the rivers and along the coasts of South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. There is no doubt that when he was sailing these routes, Smalls would be able to see the federal blockade of ships along the outer harbor. It was only about seven miles from Charleston coast.
On May 12th, 1862, the CSS Planter traveled to Coles Island which is around ten miles southwest of Charleston. Coles Island was a confederate outpost located on the Stono River. Here, the ship picked up four large guns to supply the Charleston fort.
It docked at the wharf at Charleston in its usual place next to General Ripley’s headquarters. The three white officers left to spend the night ashore. Importantly, Smalls and the rest of the crew were left on board.
In this, there was nothing unusual. Smalls asked the captain before they left if he and the crew could invite their families aboard. The captain agreed and it was here that Smalls’s plan was put in motion.
When the families arrived, Smalls revealed his plan. Hannah, Robert Small’s wife, was apparently taken aback when told of the plan but had known of Robert’s desire to escape. They decided to flee as a family and much of the crew decided to do the same.
Three members of the crew made it look like they were escorting the families back to shore but sneaked them to another ship in the harbor which would allow them to escape. Smalls donned the captain’s clothes and began sailing the Planter to the Southern Wharf with a straw hat that resembled a captain’s hat.
He managed to guide the ships past the Confederate forts and could give the correct signals at the checkpoints as he had developed the knowledge from the years of working on the ship. His ruse worked, at least at the start.
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Everything was going smoothly until after he had passed Fort Sumter. The alarm was raised when Smalls headed straight for the Union Navy fleet stationed nearby rather than heading toward Morris Island to the East, which was the usual route of the Planter.
Robert replaced the rebel flags with the white bed sheet that his family had brought with them. Fortunately, they were out of gun range and so could sail on. In the light of the sunrise, his ship was recognized as friendly.
Smalls and the Union
News of Robert Smalls’s exploits traveled across the North and he was recognized as a hero. The US Congress passed a bill that granted him and the crew money for delivering the Planter and the guns aboard it. The officers who had been left in charge of the boar but preferred to spend their time ashore were punished for their laxness.
Smalls was a valuable asset for the Union army, due to his knowledge of where the mines were laid near Charleston. He joined the Union Navy and served under Admiral DuPont. In August 1862, alongside Reverend Mansfield French, Smalls traveled to Washington to speak to Abraham Lincoln and the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.
He was petitioning them to allow black men to fight for the union. Lincoln had originally rescinded orders to mobilize black troops, but Stanton was much more in favor of the idea. He signed an order allowing up to 5,000 Black Americans to enlist in the Union forces at Port Royal.
This was the beginning of the 1st and 2nd “South Carolina Regiments (Colored)”. Smalls worked as a civilian with the Navy before being transferred to the Army in 1863. From there, he was present in 17 major battles of the Civil War.
In the years following the war, Smalls served as the South Carolina congressman. He was a constant advocate for political rights for African Americans and said “My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life”. He died in 1915 in the same house where he had been born a slave.
Top Image: Robert Smalls, celebrating as a hero by the Union for stealing a Confederate transport ship. Source: Unknown Author / Public Domain.
By Kurt Readman