Just a dash out of the harbor, but a push towards emancipation: Robert Smalls

One-hundred and fifty years ago today, as the sun rose over Charleston Harbor, the transport CSS Planter started out on what seemed like an ordinary run carrying supplies, cannons, and other equipment to the outer harbor batteries.  But the trip was anything but ordinary.

The Planter as a cargo ship before the war

Robert Smalls, a slave but an experienced pilot, along with seven other slaves as crew, slipped past the sentries and guards, using the established signals to avoid suspicions.  In addition to the military cargo, the Planter sailed with eight family members of the crew.  Once safely past Fort Sumter, Smalls ordered the Confederate flag hauled down and the white flag posted.  He surrendered the ship and cargo to the blockaders at the mouth of the harbor.

Smalls’ escape proved advantageous to the Federals in many ways.  The cargo, deprived from the Confederates, meant four (or five) less guns aimed at the blockaders.  The Planter herself proved a valuable addition to the Navy (and later Army) in great need of light draft ships.  On board were charts, signal books, and other documents – all valuable to the blockading fleet.

And perhaps the greatest military benefit was the addition of Smalls himself to the Federal ranks.  With experience piloting the South Carolina inlets, Smalls became one of the Federal’s most important hands.  Over the next three years, Smalls, often captaining the Planter, patrolled the waterways.  Cited for his bravery in action, Smalls became the Navy’s first African-American ship captain.  After the war, he represented South Carolina in Congress.

But the real impact of Smalls’ escape lay outside the military sphere.  Context is important.  Actions through the spring of 1862 brought the contraband question to the fore.  Only day’s earlier General David Hunter had declared all slaves in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina to be free (General Orders No. 11).  The Lincoln administration had to peddle and countermand those orders.  But the general’s actions reflected the need to deal with a problem the military encountered almost every day – what was the status of escaped slaves?

The coverage of Smalls’ escape pushed the question to the front again.  Now not only was the question if the Federals should grant freedom to the slaves, but should the Federals arm the former slaves.   Smalls pushed the issue forward by yards, if not miles.

What I find interesting, looking back just fifty years this time, is how our view of Smalls’ escape changes.  A quote from an article in the Charleston Post and Courier sums this up:

Michael Moore, a great-great-great-grandson of Smalls, said that he hopes this weekend will make his story known to more people.

“For a long time, his legacy has been a little bit in the shadows,” Moore said. “Over the last few years, more people have come to know about him. He has a great story, one that people can relate to. He took his life into his own hands, dreamed big and achieved it.”

This weekend, the National Park Service unveils two markers in Charleston, as part of a weekend long commemoration to Smalls’ achievements.  In addition, a bit further down the coast, Beaufort, South Carolina adds a marker recalling Smalls.  Such are additions to the marker from 1980 and memorial from 1976.

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