Slaves Seize Confederate Steamship and Escape
On May 12, 1862, the three white officers on the CSS Planter, an armed Confederate military transport, decided to spend the night ashore, in Charleston, South Carolina.
About 3:00 a.m. the next day, twenty-three year-old Robert Smalls and seven other enslaved crewmen on board decided to try to escape by sailing the ship toward the Union ships that blockaded the harbor.
Born in Beaufort, South Carolina, Smalls had been a house slave before being sent to Charleston, where he was hired out to do a variety of jobs, including stevedore, rigger, sailmaker, and finally, wheelman, essentially ship’s pilot.
Smalls donned the captain’s uniform and straw hat, and sailed the Planter to a nearby wharf, where they picked up Smalls’s wife and children and relatives of other crew members.
They then sailed past five Confederate forts, including Fort Sumter, and toward the Union blockade. Union sailors noticed the white flag and held their fire, and, at about dawn, Smalls turned over not only the Planter, but also its two guns, cargo of artillery pieces, and a Confederate code book and locations of mines in Charleston harbor. Smalls also was able to provide invaluable firsthand intelligence about Charleston and Confederate defenses.
Smalls became famous throughout the North. He met President Lincoln, and he and his crew received substantial prize money for capturing the Planter. His story was invoked as an argument for allowing blacks to serve in the Union army.
In April 1865, Smalls returned with the Planter to Charleston harbor for the ceremony that raised the American flag once again over Fort Sumter. Later in life he would serve in both the South Carolina State Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director