Freedom lies in being bold.
– Robert Frost
The small ship slipped into the darkness blanketing Charleston Harbor. At the wheel was a young slave wearing the Captain’s straw hat in hopes of fooling Confederate soldiers keeping watch over the bay. The absent captain and white crew of the CSS Planter (a steamer used to transport cotton to Europe but seized to be used as a Confederate armed transport vessel) disobeyed Confederate military orders by leaving ship and spending the night in Charleston.
Once Robert Smalls and his daring black crewmen sailed away from the dock, the determined man thought about the night he told his wife, Hannah, his plan to escape to freedom. She had asked him what would happen if they were caught. Smalls told her he and all the other men would be killed, and the children and women would be brutally punished and possibly sold to separate masters. Hannah replied, “It is a risk, dear, but you and I and our little ones must be free. I will go, for where you die I will die.”
Robert Smalls shared his wife’s desire for living free. He was tormented by thoughts of his family being sold and split up like cattle. This drove him to hours hatching a way to ee and then taking the risk of sharing his plans with the other slaves onboard.
Smalls had become a valued pilot of the Planter as it transported goods, troops, and delivered dispatches; it also dropped mines in the harbor for Union ships. He knew the bay well and remembered the signals the Captain gave to the sentries as they navigated the waters.
On May 13, 1862, the Planter, sailing under the Confederate and South Carolina flags, slipped past the first guard station.
Smalls navigated to the North Atlantic Wharf, actually backtracking to pick up his waiting family members and those of the crew. They approached the dock so slowly they did not have to tie a rope. The women and children scrambled onboard and huddled below deck.
The lights of Charleston dimmed in the fog as the Planter sailed past Confederate Fort Johnson. Fort Sumter loomed ahead, with forbidding walls towering 50 feet above them as they sailed past.
Donning his captain’s straw hat, Smalls pulled the whistle cord, blasting two long blows and one short blast, the signal to pass. The ship’s paddlewheels splashed steadily through the dark waters. Smalls had successfully navigated his ship through five checkpoints; now he had to convince the Union ships ahead not to fire upon them.
They quickly took down the flags and hoisted a white sheet, hoping it would be seen in the fog. They feared the Union ship USS Onward would think the Confederate ship was aiming to ram them and blast them with their cannons. The Union ship was about to fire upon them when they spotted the white flag. After Union Captain John Nickels came on deck, Smalls surrendered the Planter and its cargo, asking that a United States flag be hoisted on its mast. Sixteen people realized freedom was now theirs, and they jumped and danced in celebration.
The Restraints of Slavery
Robert Smalls was born April 5, 1839, to house slave Lydia Polite; his father was believed to be the plantation owner’s son, Henry McKee. Lydia had been taken from her family of Lowcountry Gullah culture, and sold at age nine. She labored as a companion for the McKee children in Beaufort, South Carolina. As her son grew, she perpetually worried about his nature to ignore the boundaries of being a slave. When he heard Beaufort’s 7 p.m. curfew bell for people of color, he didn’t stop playing with the McKee children to comply. Often he was dragged into custody and Henry McKee had to pay a fine to bring him home.
Lydia also worried that her son would come to a violent end if he didn’t learn to obey the laws set upon slaves, so she asked to have him sent to the plantation field to labor when he was 10 years old. Hoping he would understand the danger he put himself into when not obeying the ways of slave life, his mother was dismayed when Robert returned even more committed to being able to do what the white children did. Lydia implored McKee to “rent out” Robert, now 12 years old, to work in Charleston. He was allowed to keep one dollar of his wages each day (the rest went to his owner) which he used to buy candy and tobacco that he resold for a profit.
On Christmas Eve in 1856 Smalls met Hannah Jones, a slave working in a hotel in Charleston. He was 17 and she was 22 with two children, but he loved her and wanted to marry her. Two years later they had their first child together, Elizabeth Lydia Smalls. In 1861 they had a son, Robert Jr., who died when he was two years old.
After the Escape
Smalls gained fame for his courageous escape and soon was piloting his own crew for the United States Navy. The captain’s code book confiscated by the Union from the CSS Planter held Confederate maps of the mines in Charleston Harbor; Smalls assisted in removing the same mines he had helped lay.
Congress passed a bill awarding Smalls and his crewmen prize money for the Planter. His portion was $1,500, equivalent to approximately $37,000 today. He played a key role in persuading President Lincoln to authorize freed slaves to serve in the United States military. Smalls went on a speaking tour to recruit blacks to serve in the army while also serving as Union Navy captain on the Planter and the USS Keokuk.
A Man of Change
While in Philadelphia in 1864, Smalls learned to read and write. He was riding a streetcar through the city when he was ordered to give his seat to a white person. Again feeling the restraints of oppression, Smalls refused to ride in the open overflow platform and left the car. This humiliation of being a military hero denied the right to a seat on public transportation haunted him in years to come.
In 1865, after the war, Smalls returned to the McKee home and purchased it in a tax sale. Reunited with his mother, he also allowed some members of the McKee family to live with him after they had lost everything.
In 1867 Smalls opened a school for black children and a general store. He published a newspaper, The Southern Standard, in 1872. His ventures prompted him to become involved in politics; he was a delegate in the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention and eventually was elected to the State House. Between 1874 and 1879 Smalls served as a U.S. senator.
But many politicians didn’t like the changes Robert Smalls wanted to bring for the equality of African-Americans. Some politicians schemed and accused him of taking a $5,000 bribe while serving in the Senate. They convicted him in 1877 and Smalls was sentenced to three years in prison. He was released while waiting for his appeal; Governor William Simpson pardoned him in 1879.
Smalls eventually worked with five other African-American politicians to fight for equality, but legislators across the South passed state constitutions that excluded blacks from politics and stifled their efforts for equality.
Robert’s wife Hannah died July 28, 1883. Seven years later he met a Charleston schoolteacher named Annie Wigg; they had a son named William Robert Smalls. Annie passed away several years later.
Robert Smalls died of natural causes on February 23, 1915, when he was 75 years old. His home at 511 Prince Street in Beaufort is on the National Historic Registry.
Freedom is the last, best hope of earth.
– Abraham Lincoln
Phyllis MacLay is a published writer of articles in Country Woman Magazine, Parent Magazine, Easy Street Magazine, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, newspapers. Originally from Pennsylvania, Phyllis moved to Aiken from Texas. She has published children’s plays and her latest novel, A Bone for the Dog, a chilling story of a father trying to rescue his little girl, is available online at www.PhyllisMaclay.com, Booklocker.com, Amazon, and on FB at A Bone for the Dog. … Her latest work … Sweet Brew and a Cherry Cane appears in the anthology Nights of Horseplay by the Aiken Scribblers.