Little Bits of History

Freedom Sails

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 13, 2014
Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls

May 13, 1862: The USS Planter surrendered to the Union Navy. Robert Smalls was born a slave in 1839. On this date, he freed himself, his crew, and their families as they commandeered the ship and sailed it through Confederate lines and defected to the Union during the US Civil War. He sailed from the Charleston Harbor and broke through the Federal blockade to deliver the ship and now freed crew to help the Union. Born in Beaufort, Smalls’s master, Henry McKee, had sent him to Charleston, about 70 miles away to be leased out with the money earned returned to the master. Smalls eventually worked on the docks doing a variety of tasks until he became a wheelman – essentially a pilot of the ship, but a title reserved for whites only. He knew the harbor well.

In the fall of 1861, Smalls was assigned to steer CSS Planter. He served with diligence and on this night, the three white officers opted to spend the night ashore. At 3 AM, Smalls and seven of the eight enslaved crewmen decided to make a run toward the Union vessels and freedom. Smalls dressed in the captain’s uniform and donned a white straw hat similar to the captain’s. They backed the ship out of the Southern Wharf and stopped nearby to pick up their families who had been hiding and waiting for their rescue. They made their escape and brought to the Union not only the ship itself, but the four artillery pieces in the hold. Also aboard was a code book that revealed all the Confederate’s secret signals as well as mine and torpedo placements around the Charleston Harbor.

While still in the harbor, Smalls used proper signals so Confederate soldiers would not know he was stealing the ship. He sailed past five Confederate forts guarding the harbor, including Fort Sumter which was passed around 4.30 AM. As he neared the Federal blockade, he hoisted a white sheet. The first Union ship which approached was the USS Onward. As they prepared to fire, someone noticed the white flag and so Onward‘s captain approached and then boarded Planter. Smalls requested immediately to hoist the US flag and turned the ship over to the Union Navy.

Smalls was made captain of the ship which was moved to Fort Pulaski where more wood was available for the steamship. He was the first black man to command a United States ship and served in that capacity until 1866. On May 30, 1862, the US Senate and House passed a private bill granting Smalls and his African-American crew half the value of the Planter which was listed as $9000. The true valuation was $67,000 and how the government thought that any of it should be retained for themselves remains a mystery. Smalls moved back to South Carolina after the war and served as a member of the State House of Representatives for two terms and then moved on the US House for three more terms (non-consecutive). He died in Beaufort in 1915 at the age of 75.

My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life. – Robert Smalls

You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today. – Abraham Lincoln

Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape. – William S. Burroughs

It is vain for the coward to flee; death follows close behind; it is only by defying it that the brave escape. – Voltaire

Also on this day: Knork? Spork? – In 1637 Cardinal Richelieu changes table settings.
Star Light, Star Bright – In 1861, the Great Comet was first discovered.
Red Fort – In 1648, construction on the Red Fort was completed.
RFC – In 1912, the Royal Flying Corps was established in Britain.

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3 Responses

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  1. hairballexpress said, on May 13, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    What a brave guy! Just think how differently his and his family’s lives would have ended if he hadn’t taken that
    chance! *(trills)*


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