|Robert Smalls was just 23 years old when he stole the CSS Planter and delivered her, the crew, and his family to the Union.|
At the risk of being crude, and perhaps irredeemably sexist, there are some acts so audacious that the English language seems inadequate to describe them without resort to certain old vulgarities. The word I have in mind today is balls as in big fat hairy balls. That is certainly what it took for Robert Smalls, then a 23 year old slave to calmly sail away in a Confederate side-wheel Steamer under the guns of at least one fortress and a Rebel flotilla to deliver the ship, cargo, crew, and passengers to the welcoming arms of the United States Navy. This is what happened.
Smalls was a skilled pilot and a trusted slave of whose owner had every expectation of loyalty from a man raised above the drudgery of servitude in the fields or on the docks. Robert Smalls had worked himself up from a Hotel porter to a stevedore and finally a Wheelman in the Port of Charleston, South Carolina. Various employers compensated Smalls’ master, Henry McKee of Beaufort, South Carolina for his services and supplied him with basic food, clothing, and housing near the docks for him and his wife—an enslaved hotel maid and their three children. A Wheelman was the title given to Black pilots who were responsible for controlling ships as they navigated the dangerous waters of Charleston harbor. The respected word pilot was reserved for white men doing the same job for some of the best wages paid any workers in the South.
On the morning of May 13, 1862 Smalls calmly boarded the CSS Planter, a mid-sized side-wheel steamer built and launched in Charleston just two years earlier for the costal trade. She was currently in Service of the CSA Army Engineer Department under the command of Brigadier General Ripley as an armed dispatch boat and transport. She was partially laden with a cargo of ammunition and explosives. With him came an all-slave crew of seven.
Earlier under cover of darkness seven passengers, five women and three children—Small’s wife and children and the wives of other crew members—had boarded and were secured out of sight in the hold.The Planter as a Confederate supply ship and converted to a gun boat commanded by Robert Smalls in U.S. Army service.
Smalls knew that the captain of the Planter, C. J. Relyea would be ashore on business well away from the port area. The ship was one of several Small regularly piloted through the waters of the harbor to open sea. Gambling that he would attract no undue attention, Small hoisted the Confederate Stars and Bars flag, built a head of steam and had his crew cast away from the dock before 5 am that morning.
He would have to sail passed several armed ships in the harbor and under the guns of a succession of shore batteries and fortresses guarding the South’s most important Atlantic blockade running port, including those of the mighty former Union bastion Fort Sumter whose bombardment a little more than a year earlier had started the war. As he passed each ship and fort, Small blew his steam whistle in customary salute. Since the Planter and its Black pilot were familiar sights, she aroused no suspicion.
When the ship broke out into open water and was beyond the reach of Sumter’s big guns, Small hauled down the Rebel colors and hoisted a White flag. Hoping against hope that the US Navy blockaders outside the harbor would recognize his intentions, he made straight for the USS Onward, an armed Clipper Ship prized for her speed in chasing down blockade runners.
Fortunately the Onward’s captain held his fire and with some astonishment accepted Smalls’ surrender of the Confederate ship.
The next day the Planter with Smalls in command was sent on to Flag Officer Samuel Francis Du Pont, the senior Captain in charge of the Charleston Blockade flotilla, at Port Royal, South Carolina. In addition to the valuable cargo, Smalls also brought vital intelligence for Du Pont—news that the Rebels had abandoned defensive positions on the Stono River allowing U.S. forces to seize them without a bloody fight.Smalls and members of his crew, including his brother, were celebrated in the North, especially in the Radical Republican press.
The news of the Smalls exploit electrified the North which was starved for good news in a war that was, on the whole, going very badly. Abolitionists and others who were campaigning, so far unsuccessfully, for the employment of Blacks and escaped slaves in the war in combat roles, were encouraged. A special bill sailed through Congress and sent to the willing President on May 30, to award prize money equal to half the value of the ship to Smalls and his crew. Of that, Smalls was personally due one third. But the government undervalued the ship at $9,000—she was actually worth about $67,000—so that Small’s portion was only $1,500. And neither Smalls or his crew were ever awarded prize money, as was customary, for the value of the cargo estimated to be worth over $10,000 at war-time prices. Still for a former slave, the prize money represented an unheard of fortune.
Du Pont accepted the ship into the Navy as the USS Planter. She was first put under the command of Acting Master Philemon Dickenson and when transferred to North Edisto under Acting Master Lloyd Phoenix. Smalls was retained by the Navy as pilot, prized for his intimate knowledge of coastal waters and worked on several ships, including the Planter. As part of the South Atlantic Blockade Squadron she saw action over the summer of 1862, including a joint expedition under Lieutenant Rhind with the USS Crusader in which troops were landed at Simmons Bluff on the Wadmelaw River, where they destroyed a Confederate encampment.
Despite her successful service, the Planter presentenced a significant problem for the Navy—she burned relatively hard to come-by wood for fuel instead of the abundant coal supplied by the fleet. That fall she was transferred to the Army and sent for service near Fort Pulaski on the coast of Georgia. Smalls and his old crew were assigned to the delivery and then were accepted into Army service. He was appointed the regular pilot of the Planter,
On December 1, 1863, the Planter was caught in a crossfire between Union and Confederate forces. Captain Nickerson ordered Small to surrender. He flatly refused recognizing that he and the crew would not be treated as prisoners of war but would be summarily executed. Smalls asserted command and piloted the ship out of range of the Confederate guns.
This act might have been regarded as a mutiny and resulted in his death by hanging. But Smalls luck had not run out. His superiors recognized his bravery and the cowardice of Captain Nickerson. He was appointed captain of the Planter, becoming the first black man to command a United States ship of war. Smalls continued to serve as captain until the army sold Planter in 1866 after the end of the war.
The Planter continued in civilian service for another ten years. Then on March 25, 1876 she ran aground and was damaged trying to save a disabled schooner. The captain beached her to try to repair a staved-in hull. But a gale blew up and dragged her back to sea where she foundered. After the crew abandoned ship, she sunk. When informed of her loss, Smalls tearfully said that it was “like losing a member of my own family.”
Seven year ago the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that they had found the wreckage of the Planter in shallow water off the coast.
As for Smalls, if he had done nothing else in his life, he would be noteworthy. But his wartime adventure and service were just Act I in a remarkable life.
After the war Smalls returned with his prize money and earnings from his service to his hometown of Beaufort where he bought his former master’s house. He lived there with his wife, children and elderly mother until her death. He later even took in his former master’s infirm widow. He went into business with Richard Howell Gleaves operating a store for Freedmen.Prosperous businessman, respected South Carolina Republican leader, and four times United States Congressman Robert Smalls.
Smalls became an early leader of the Republican Party in Reconstruction Era South Carolina. He was a delegate at several Republican National Conventions and participated in the South Carolina Republican State Convention. Smalls served as a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1865 and 1870 and the state Senate between 1871 and 1874. He even served briefly as the Commander of the South Carolina Militia with the rank of Major General.
In 1874, Smalls was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served from 1875 to 1879. From 1882 to 1883 he represented the 5th Congressional District in the House and the 7th District and served from 1884 to 1887. That was four terms in Congress, the last two after the withdrawal of Union troops from the South and the rise of Jim Crowe.
He was targeted by Democrats for retribution and charged and indicted on phony corruption charges in the letting of a government printing contract. It took a high level deal swapping Democrats charged with election fraud and intimidation to keep Smalls out of prison.
He was one of the last Southern Blacks to serve in Congress and his four terms made him the longest serving Black Congressman until Adam Clayton Powell.
Smalls in his elder years at a Republican Party event.
After leaving Congress he was appointed U.S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort, serving from 1889 to 1911 except for the four years of Democrat Grover Cleveland’s second term.
Smalls died on February 23, 1915 at the age of 75 and was buried in his family plot in the churchyard of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in downtown Beaufort.