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SMALLS bit of history

I recently heard a story of a slave who seized a Confederate ship during the Civil War. I heard enough of the story to pique my curiosity.

In the book Be Free or Die, I learned that an enslaved man by the name of Robert Smalls was also a crew member of the Confederate ship named Planter stationed in Charleston.

Smalls had a wife and two children. He was troubled by the prospect of being separated from his family should he or a family member be sold to another slave owner. The only way to ensure keeping his family together was to escape.

Smalls knew well the routine of the three white officers on the Planter. Using this information, Smalls devised a plan that would take him, his family, and other slaves to freedom. Remarkably, the flight to freedom included taking the Planter, a Confederate sidewheel steamer ship, and turning it over to the captain of a Union ship.

Small’s plan meant that he would have to discuss his intention with the other enslaved crew members. This alone was dangerous as simply discussing escaping could be met with severe punishment.

In the early hours of May 13, 1862, the white officers had left the Planter.

Smalls put his plan into action. He and the other black enslaved crew members were familiar with the ship’s operation and knew what it would take to bypass the Confederate checkpoints.

Using the cover of darkness, Smalls would essentially impersonate the captain of the ship. Smalls, sailing under the stars and bars, took the Planter within 50 yards of Confederate guards. He then proceeded to the North Atlantic Wharf to pick up his family and other slaves. Smalls was such a skilled pilot, that he passed the wharf close enough and slow enough so as to require no plank or tie ropes yet allowing the boarding of additional passengers.

The ship had to pass the Confederate-occupied Fort Sumter. Wearing the ship’s Captain straw hat, Smalls sounded two long and one short blast on the ship’s whistle, the required signal to allow them to pass.

As the Planter approached the Onward, a Union ship that had been assigned to blockade the Charleston Harbor, the Plantar lowered the Confederate flag and raised a white sheet as a surrender flag.

The Planter later became the USS Planter, a Union ship. Robert Smalls would eventually become its captain.

The Story of Robert Smalls was far from over. He became an American politician, publisher, and businessman. Incredibly, Smalls returned to South Carolina after the Civil War. When the house of his one-time owner was put up for sale for back taxes, Robert Smalls purchased the house in Beaufort, S.C.

Robert Smalls was a leader in the Republican Party in South Carolina and became a five-term U.S. Congressman.  He was appointed Collector of Customs for the Port of Beaufort in 1889 by President Benjamin Harrison. He lost that appointment under President Grover Clevland but was reappointed under President William McKinley. He served in that position until 1913.

Given the incredible story of escape using a ship, it seems likely that Robert Smalls would have a ship named after him.

Well, that’s exactly what happened but not until 2023. The USS Chancellorsville was renamed The USS Robert Smalls. 

There are many fascinating stories in history that we don’t hear about. I find that I stumble across them more often than I find them while searching a specific topic.

Taking time to truly learn about historical events can be a valuable investment in yourself. To get the most from your investment of time in a historical treasure hunt, take time to research the full scope of the topic rather than relying on “sound bites.” The many, little known parts of history can be more enlightening and valuable than the more well-known events.

June 2024

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