Robert Smalls's Great Escape: How A Slave Stole A Confederate Ship And Sailed To Freedom
Born into slavery and forced to work as a ship's captain without any of the respect usually afforded to a ship's captain, Robert Smalls was a man who refused to live by the rules set by the Confederate Army during the Civil War. For his ultimate act of defiance, he stole a Confederate ship and sailed his family and friends to freedom, after which he continued subverting expectations by becoming a successful businessman and politician. Smalls ended his life as one of the wealthiest men of the South, and not just for a former slave.
Smalls was born into slavery
Born on April 5, 1839, Robert Smalls was raised in a shack behind his master's house in Beaufort, South Carolina. No one knows who his father was, but his descendants believe his owner, John McKee, sired the boy. Others have suggested McKee's son, Henry, and his plantation manager, Patrick Smalls, as likely suspects. (Interestingly, the shared last name of "Smalls" may be a complete coincidence.)
It's a depressing fact that the brutal reality of life as a slave often meant forgoing the privilege of knowing exactly who fathered their children, but because it was believed that Smalls was related to someone high up on the plantation food chain, he led a relatively comfortable existence in his childhood. Worried that her son didn't truly understand how terrible life was for slaves, his mother sent Smalls to work in the fields near the whipping post.
The experience seemed to have a lasting effect on the young man. When he was 19, Smalls was sent to the city, where he worked as a lamplighter before securing a job on the USS Planter. While working his way up to wheelman (Confederates refused to bestow the title of captain upon him), he met his wife, Hannah, and began devising a plan to purchase her freedom.
Smalls hatched a daring escape plan
It took months for Smalls to plot his escape plan, which he put into action in the early morning hours of May 13, 1862. Though it was against military rule for soldiers to leave their boat while it was manned by slaves, Smalls knew that wouldn't stop Captain Charles Relyea and his subordinates from heading to shore that night, so he bid goodnight to the three white Confederate officers as they left the boat for the evening.
Once Relyea and his men were home, Smalls donned one of Relyea's outfits before taking the Planter out of the dock and toward the Union blockade anchored outside Charleston Harbor. With 16 people on board, it was imperative that Smalls do everything in his power to make sure the Planter made it beyond the Confederate docks unnoticed. With the darkness and his wits to help him, the ship passed out of Confederate territory, but another problem was waiting.
Union soldiers almost destroyed the Planter
After the Planter was out of Confederate territory, the next step in his plan required him to remove the Confederate and South Carolina flags that were hanging from the mast and raise a white bed sheet to indicate that the crew meant no harm to the Union cause. As they sailed past Fort Sumter at around 4:30 A.M., however, a fog settled on the ship, obscuring the white sheet. As the Planter approached the USS Onward, the Union soldiers prepared to fire until a crewman spotted the flag at the last moment. Later, a witness described the scene:
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!'
After the Union soldiers authenticated Smalls's story, he and the rest of his crew surrendered the Planter and received refuge from the U.S. Navy, who agreed to take them north. Smalls requested that he be allowed to display a United States flag.
Following the escape, Smalls joined the Union Army
After making his way to the north with his crew, Smalls received $1,500 in prize money (about $37,645 in 2018 dollars). He was offered a job raising money for ex-slaves, but Smalls felt he could better serve the cause as part of the Union Navy.
Before officially joining the military, however, he needed to travel to Washington, D.C. to convince President Lincoln to allow black men to fight. It took some arm-twisting, but Smalls and Reverend Mansfield French convinced Lincoln and his Secretary of Defense to allow 5,000 African-Americans to enlist in the Union forces at Port Royal. These men became the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Regiments. Smalls didn't waste any time in his career in the Civil War; he found his way into 17 major battles.
Smalls went into business after the Civil War
Once the war came to an end, Smalls found himself a truly free man, neither a slave nor a military asset, for the first time in his life. He celebrated in a way that many former slaves could only dream about: He went back to Beaufort and purchased his former master's house, which had been seized by Union tax authorities. His former owner sued for it, but Smalls put together a winning testimony, which set the bar for similar cases across the South.
With that latest milestone behind him, he threw himself into his studies before going into business with a store that specifically catered to the needs of freed men. Aside from filling that much-needed gap in the economy, Smalls founded the Enterprise Railroad with Joseph Rainey, Alonzo Ransier, and others. The railroad transported cargo and passengers the 18 miles between the docks of Charleston and inland stops.
He went on to have a stunning political career
Never content to rest on his laurels, Smalls launched a second (third? Fourth?) career as a politician when he became a delegate at the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention. His mission at that time was to make sure that every child in South Carolina received a free education. The same year, he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. In 1870, when Jonathan Jasper Wright was elected judge of the South Carolina Supreme Court, Smalls filled his role in the Senate until 1872. In 1874, Smalls continued his winning streak when he served two terms in the United States House of Representatives for South Carolina's 5th congressional district.
When Smalls finally retired, he decided to stay in Beaufort, where he lived to the ripe age of 75. A combination of malaria and diabetes finally struck the old fighter down in 1915. He was buried in the churchyard of downtown Beaufort's Tabernacle Baptist Church, which features a monument to Smalls engraved with a quote from a speech he gave to the South Carolina legislature in 1895:
My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.
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