“How a slave made off with a Confederate war ship”

That’s the title of a very interesting article in the New York Post.  I’d never heard of this particular snippet of Civil War history.

The unlikely story of this remarkable man is told in Cate Lineberry’s thoroughly researched new history “Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero”.

Smalls was the Planter’s wheelman, essentially its pilot, responsible for guiding it through the complicated waterways around the harbor. Although he was its most knowledgeable sailor, he could not operate the ship alone. He convinced his fellow black crew members to go along with the getaway — and swear to secrecy.

The crew waited for Smalls’ sign, for that moment when the white officers would be gone. That moment came on May 12, 1862.

. . .

In the early morning hours of May 13, Smalls and his crew unmoored the Planter from its berth in Charleston’s Southern Wharf. Their first stop: to pick up several other escapees, including Smalls’ wife, Hannah, and their children.

Their next hurdle was Fort Johnson, a Confederate stronghold. As the Planter paddled its way past the fort, the mood on board was fraught. Smalls and his group knew they had crossed a critical threshold. If at any point they were caught, they had all agreed, they would join hands and jump to their watery deaths.

If they could not be free, they would not live in slavery, either.

Somehow, they made it past Johnson.

Finally, and perhaps most terrifyingly, Smalls had to avoid the suspicion of the night watch of the famous Fort Sumter. Tense minutes ticked by as the Planter crept past the heavily armed fort.

By this point, the Planter’s Captain Relyea realized that his ship was gone and was asking questions back in the harbor. But he failed to raise the alarm in time, and the Planter was able to slip past Sumter and into the channel leading to the Atlantic. As soon as they were in the clear, the crew lowered the Planter’s Confederate flag and raised a white sheet in its place.

In the foggy early dawn, the Planter was intercepted by the clipper Onward, part of the Union blockade of Charleston Harbor. Initially thinking the Planter was a Confederate ironclad bent on ramming his ship, the captain of the Onward trained his ship’s guns on the escaped steamer. Then he saw the white flag.

. . .

So impressed were Union officials by Smalls’ courage and intelligence, that he was brought to meet President Lincoln. He continued to prove himself a highly skilled, brave member of the Union cause, and was rewarded for his efforts by becoming the first black captain of a Navy ship. That ship was none other than the Planter.

There’s much more at the link.  Highly recommended reading.

It’s a truism to say, “Come the hour, come the man” – but in my experience, that’s been true very often indeed.  In the darkest times of strife or unrest or danger, the unlikeliest heroes would emerge to strengthen, stabilize, and even rescue their communities, while those one would have expected to be strong, capable leaders (even those in leadership positions) often failed in their duties.  Sadly, after the crisis, all too often the latter would try to reassert themselves, while the former were content to sink back into anonymity and get on with their lives.  It would often, I think, have been better had they continued to lead – as Mr. Smalls did, becoming the first black man to command a United States warship, and (after the Civil War) founding the Republican Party of South Carolina, and serving as a Congressman for five terms.

He sounds like a very interesting man.  I’d have loved the chance to meet him.



  1. Hey Peter;

    I remembered reading about Robert Smalls in Grade school. You had to admire the chutspa to pull off such a thing.

  2. Thanks.
    I just ordered the book for someone I know that loves Charleston and is going to spend a couple of weeks there.

  3. He and his crew were awarded prize money for delivering the Palmer to the Union. He used his portion to buy the mansion that he had been a slave in.
    The Confederates put a $2000+ reward out for his capture. He still stayed in the area working with the Union forces.

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