Smalls was born on April 5, 1839, behind his owner’s city house at 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, S.C. His mother, Lydia, served in the house but grew up in the fields, where, at the age of nine, she was taken from her own family on the Sea Islands. It is not clear who Smalls’ father was. Some say it was his owner, John McKee; others, his son Henry; still others, the plantation manager, Patrick Smalls. What is clear is that the McKee family favored Robert Smalls over the other slave children, so much so that his mother worried he would reach manhood without grasping the horrors of the institution into which he was born. To educate him, she arranged for him to be sent into the fields to work and watch slaves at “the whipping post.”
“The result of this lesson led Robert to defiance,” wrote great-granddaughter Helen Boulware Moore and historian W. Marvin Dulaney, and he “frequently found himself in the Beaufort jail.” If anything, Smalls’ mother’s plan had worked too well, so that “fear[ing] for her son’s safety … she asked McKee to allow Smalls to go to Charleston to be rented out to work.” Again her wish was granted. By the time Smalls turned 19, he had tried his hand at a number of city jobs and was allowed to keep one dollar of his wages a week (his owner took the rest). Far more valuable was the education he received on the water; few knew Charleston harbor better than Robert Smalls.
It’s where he earned his job on the Planter. It’s also where he met his wife, Hannah, a slave of the Kingman family working at a Charleston hotel. With their owners’ permission, the two moved into an apartment together and had two children: Elizabeth and Robert Jr. Well aware this was no guarantee of a permanent union, Smalls asked his wife’s owner if he could purchase his family outright; they agreed but at a steep price: $800. Smalls only had $100. “How long would it take [him] to save up another $700?” Moore and Dulaney ask. Unwittingly, Smalls’ “look-enough-alike,” Captain Rylea, gave him his best backup.
To white Confederates, the Union ships blocking their harbors were another example of the North’s enslavement of the South; to actual slaves like Robert Smalls, these ships signaled the tantalizing promise of freedom. Under orders from Secretary Gideon Welles in Washington, Navy commanders had been accepting runaways as contraband since the previous September. While Smalls couldn’t afford to buy his family on shore, he knew he could win their freedom by sea — and so he told his wife to be ready for whenever opportunity dawned.
The Escape on the Planter
That opportunity is at hand on the night of May 12. Once the white officers are on shore, Smalls confides his plan to the other slaves on board. According to the Naval Committee report, two choose to stay behind. “The design was hazardous in the extreme,” it states, and Smalls and his men have no intention of being taken alive; either they will escape or use whatever guns and ammunition they have to fight and, if necessary, sink their ship. “Failure and detection would have been certain death,” the Navy report makes plain. “Fearful was the venture, but it was made.”
At 2:00 a.m. on May 13, Smalls dons Capt. Rylea’s straw hat and orders the Planter’s skeleton crew to put up the boiler and hoist the South Carolina and Confederate flags as decoys. Easing out of the dock, in view of Gen. Ripley’s headquarters, they pause at the West Atlantic Wharf to pick up Smalls’ wife and children, along with four other women, three men and another child.
At 3:25 a.m., the Planter accelerates “her perilous adventure,” the Navy report continues (it reads more like a Robert Louis Stevenson novel). From the pilot house, Smalls blows the ship’s whistle while passing Confederate Forts Johnson and, at 4:15 a.m., Fort Sumter, “as cooly as if General Ripley was on board.” Smalls not only knows all the right Navy signals to flash; he even folds his arms like Capt. Rylea, so that in the shadows of dawn, he passes convincingly for white.
“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.