Which Slave Sailed Himself to Freedom?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Life took him from a daring sea escape to a stint in Congress.

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"She was supposed to be the guard boat and allowed to pass without interruption," Confederate Aide-de-Campe F.G. Ravenel explains defensively in a letter to his commander hours later. It is only when the Planter passes out of Rebel gun range that the alarm is sounded -- the Planter is heading for the Union blockade. Approaching it, Smalls orders his crew to replace the Palmetto and Rebel flags with a white bed sheet his wife brought on board. Not seeing it, Acting Volunteer Lt. J. Frederick Nickels of the U.S.S. Onward orders his sailors to "open her ports." It is "sunrise," Nickels writes in a letter the same day, an illuminating fact that may have changed the course of history, at least on board the Planter -- for now Nickels could see.

In The Negro's Civil War, the dean of Civil War studies James McPherson quotes the following eyewitness account: "Just as No. 3 port gun was being elevated, someone cried out, 'I see something that looks like a white flag'; and true enough there was something flying on the steamer that would have been white by application of soap and water. As she neared us, we looked in vain for the face of a white man. When they discovered that we would not fire on them, there was a rush of contrabands out on her deck, some dancing, some singing, whistling, jumping; and others stood looking towards Fort Sumter, and muttering all sorts of maledictions against it, and 'de heart of de Souf,' generally. As the steamer came near, and under the stern of the Onward, one of the Colored men stepped forward, and taking off his hat, shouted, 'Good morning, sir! I've brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!' " That man is Robert Smalls, and he and his family and the entire slave crew of the Planter are now free.

After "board[ing] her, haul[ing] down the flag of truce, and hoist[ing] the American ensign" (his words), Lt. Nickels transfers the Planter to his commander, Capt. E.G. Parrott of the U.S.S. Augusta. Parrott then forwards it on to Flag Officer Samuel Francis Du Pont (of the "du Pont" Du Ponts), at Port Royal, Hilton Heads Island, with a letter describing Smalls as "very intelligent contraband." Du Pont is similarly impressed, and the next day writes a letter to the Navy secretary in Washington, stating, "Robert, the intelligent slave and pilot of the boat, who performed this bold feet so skillfully, informed me of [the capture of the Sumter gun], presuming it would be a matter of interest." He "is superior to any who have come into our lines -- intelligent as many of them have been." While Du Pont sends the families to Beaufort, he takes care of the Planter's crew personally while having its captured flags mailed to Washington via the Adams Express, the same private carrier that had delivered Box Brown to freedom in 1849. 

The Reception

Smalls may not have had the $700 he needed to purchase his family's freedom before the war; now, because of his bravery and his inability to purchase his wife, the U.S. Congress on May 30, 1862, passed a private bill authorizing the Navy to appraise the Planter and award Smalls and his crew half the proceeds for "rescuing her from the enemies of the Government." Smalls received $1,500 personally, enough to purchase his former owner's house in Beaufort off the tax rolls following the war, though according to the later Naval Affairs Committee report, his pay should have been substantially higher.

The Confederates seemed to know this already; after Smalls' escape, biographer Andrew Billingsley notes, they put a $4,000 bounty on his head. Still, those on the scene had a hard time explaining how slaves pulled off such a feat; in the aftermath, Aide-de-Campe Ravenel even intimated to his commander that the night before, "it would appear that … two white men and a white woman went on board of her, and as they were not seen to return it is supposed that they have also gone with her." Suppose all they wanted -- there was no record of any white passengers aboard the Planter the morning of May 13 -- Smalls and his crew had acted alone. As his contemporary steamer pilot Mark Twain famously wrote: "Facts are stubborn things."

In the North, Smalls was feted as a hero and personally lobbied the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to begin enlisting black soldiers. After President Lincoln acted a few months later, Smalls was said to have recruited 5,000 soldiers by himself. In October 1862, he returned to the Planter as pilot as part of Admiral Du Pont's South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. According to the 1883 Naval Affairs Committee report, Smalls was engaged in approximately 17 military actions, including the April 7, 1863, assault on Fort Sumter and the attack at Folly Island Creek, S.C., two months later, where he assumed command of the Planter when, under "very hot fire," its white captain became so "demoralized" he hid in the "coal-bunker." For his valiancy, Smalls was promoted to the rank of captain himself, and from December 1863 on, earned $150 a month, making him one of the highest paid black soldiers of the war. Poetically, when the war ended in April 1865, Smalls was on board the Planter in a ceremony in Charleston Harbor.

Robert Smalls' Postwar Record

Following the war, Smalls continued to push the boundaries of freedom as a first-generation black politician, serving in the South Carolina state assembly and senate, and for five nonconsecutive terms in the U.S House of Representatives (1874-1886) before watching his state roll back Reconstruction in a revised 1895 constitution that stripped blacks of their voting rights. He died in Beaufort on February 22, 1915, in the same house behind which he had been born a slave and is buried behind a bust at the Tabernacle Baptist Church. In the face of the rise of Jim Crow, Smalls stood firm as an unyielding advocate for the political rights of African Americans: "My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life."

For those interested in learning more about this daring Civil War hero, Helen Boulware Moore and W. Martin Dulaney, with help from the National Endowment for the Humanities, have curated a traveling exhibit, "The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls." You can also find him on YouTube, including in a South Carolina state educational video; a fourth grader's Black History Month presentation; even a realtor's tour of his former home in Beaufort, most recently listed for $1.2 million.