CHARLESTON, S.C. — On a foggy spring night 150 years ago, slave Robert Smalls commandeered a Confederate ammunition ship, steamed upriver to pick up family and friends, then slipped past five Southern batteries on Charleston Harbor to reach Union blockade ships.
Smalls would return to Charleston a year later to pilot a Union ironclad in an attack on Fort Sumter, and after the war served in the South Carolina General Assembly, Congress and as a federal customs inspector.
May 13 is the anniversary of Smalls’ daring escape aboard the CSS Planter, and a series of events are planned next weekend in Charleston to mark the event and celebrate his life.
Helen Boulware Moore, Smalls’ great-granddaughter, said she heard about him through family stories. Her grandmother, a toddler at the time, was one of those who made it to freedom aboard the Planter.
Moore estimated there are 75 direct descendants of Smalls still alive.
Smalls was born in the Beaufort area and brought to Charleston in the 1850s. There, he became a harbor pilot – a valuable skill in Charleston because of the dangers posed to shipping by a bar offshore, shoals and the tidal creeks in the area.
He was conscripted by the Confederates to serve as a pilot on the Planter, a Confederate side wheel ammunition ship.
Smalls took the Planter about 2 a.m. May 13, 1862, after the white officers aboard left for a night in town.
“An interesting thing about those officers is they were not part of the Confederate Navy – they were actually civilian contractors,” said Carl Borick, the assistant director of the Charleston Museum. “The military really couldn’t take much recourse against them for leaving their posts.”
Not every black on the Planter crew was in on the plot. Those who weren’t went ashore but never raised an alarm. Smalls and the seven crewmen headed back up river to pick up the nine family members and friends. The group included his wife, Hanna.
Smalls knew the harbor channels and the signals to make it past the Confederate batteries.
“The biggest challenge he faces is when he gets past Fort Sumter, he has to go past the federal Navy. And as far as they know, it’s a Confederate ship coming out to attack them,” Borick said.
Smalls got help from nature and his bride. It was foggy, so the Planter couldn’t be made out distinctly. And Hanna Smalls, who worked in a hotel, brought a bedsheet with her.
“My great-grandmother hasn’t gotten enough credit for this,” Moore said. “A federal ship turned its cannon on the Planter. At that point my great-grandmother got her bedsheet out and gave it to the men to take the Confederate flag down and run the white sheet up. At that point, the Union forces began
to realize this wasn’t a Confederate ship.”
Smalls and the Planter left Charleston for Philadelphia. Less than a year later, he was back in Charleston Harbor, piloting the ironclad USS Keokuk in an assault on Fort Sumter, held by the Confederates. The attack was unsuccessful, and the Keokuk took 90 hits before withdrawing. It was so badly damaged, it sank the next day.
After the war, Smalls worked on legislation that mandated the first compulsory public schools in South Carolina. He also helped lay the groundwork for the establishment of the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot near Beaufort, Moore said.
She said her great-grandfather hired a tutor when he was in Philadelphia to teach him to read and write, one of the few skills he had not acquired as a slave. His legacy has been the importance of education.
His nine children, seven of them women, who survived to adulthood all went to college, and that has been something that has been passed down.
“That was his legacy. That has come down through all the generations,” Moore said. “Going to college is not a question. It is what we do.”