May 19, 2014
Robert Smalls was born in 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. Being of African descent, you might probably assume that he was born a slave. . . and you’d be right.
Robert spent his early years living in his master’s house. When he turned 12, however, his master shipped him off to Charleston where he was leased out to perform odd jobs. He performed many different jobs there – including working at a hotel, waiting tables, and lighting streetlamps. By far his favourite was working in shipping. He began working as a dockworker, but quickly learned the skills and arts necessary for the proper handling of a ship. Eventually he became a talented ship pilot.
Smalls was still piloting ships in Charleston when the Southern states seceded and began firing on Fort Sumter. That Fall, Smalls was forced to pilot a Confederate military transport, the CSS Planter. A fast, good-sized ship, the Planter was used to ferry men, freight, and dispatches around Charleston Harbour.
During the Spring of 1862, the Confederates began beefing up their defenses around Charleston. The Planter was ordered to pick up some artillery pieces and move them to a new fort on a man-made island near Folly Island.
It was late in the day of 12 May and Planter had just finished picking up its cargo. Her Captain had decided to tie her up at one of the city’s wharves for the night and sleep ashore. The three white officers – Captain, Mate, & Engineer – went ashore and left command of Planter to Smalls.
Besides the officers, the entire crew of the Planter were slaves. For months they had toyed around with the idea of hijacking the ship. Now was their chance! They left to get their families quietly returned to the ship.
At 3.00 AM, Smalls had his crew ready the ship for departure. They lit the fires for the boilers and hoisted the Confederate flag. When she was ready, Smalls pulled Planter away from the dock and steamed towards the harbour.
Once in the harbour, Smalls and the other slaves had to pass by no less than five Confederate forts. At the first, Fort Johnson, Smalls blew the whistle to signal their passing. So far so good.
From Fort Sumter, Planter needed to get permission to pass by. Dawn was approaching, and Smalls was worried that if the Fort spotted a Black man at the helm, the jig would be up. He quickly replaced his hat with the Captain’s, and stood with his back facing the fort. Again Smalls gave the signal and they waited for Sumter to answer. After a tense few moments, the answer came back and Planter was given permission to leave.
Planter’s final obstacle was the artillery battery on Morris Island. As she steamed by, a sentry became suspicious and attempted to signal the battery to stop the Planter, but it was too late. After they had cleared the harbour, the crew hauled down the Confederate flag and quickly hoisted a white flag while making full steam towards the Union blockade.
On board the Union clipper USS Onward, Lt. J.F. Nickels spotted the rogue steamer. Onward had ended the careers of three previous blockade runners, and this looked to be number four . Nickels put Onward on alert and prepared to fire a broadside until he spied the white flag.
Nickels boarded the Planter and Smalls told him of their epic escape. They pulled down the white flag and ran up the Union ensign. The Planter was treated as a prize, and Smalls & the crew received prize money as if they were privateers. The ship later became a part of the Union Army, and Robert Smalls served as a pilot for the Union.
In December of 1863, Smalls found himself again piloting Planter. The ship was caught between dueling Union & Confederate forces in Charleston harbour. The ship’s Captain had decided to surrender, but Smalls refused to. He took command and guided the Planter out of the harbour. In return, the Union made him the new Captain of the Planter.
After the war, Smalls went back to Beaufort and store. After the Civil Rights Act & 14th Amendment were passed, he went into politics – eventually serving as a South Carolinian Representative to the US House of Representatives where he became the longest serving African-American in Congress until the end of the 20th Century.
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