A Slave Steals a Confederate Warship and Sails to Freedom

Robert Smalls was a slave sailor for the Confederacy who became a hero during the Civil War.

In April 1861, the Civil War began with the Battle of Fort Sumpter in Charleston Harbor.  The Union Navy blockaded the harbor with a fleet of ships 10 miles off shore.

Smalls was a pilot on the CSS Planter.  He steered the gunship as it delivered Confederate troops, supplies, ammunition, canons, and laid mines around Charleston.

There were 8 other slaves on the crew.  The ship had a white captain and three white officers.

Smalls was desperate to gain freedom for family. So, he hatched a plan.

Smalls and the other slaves had gained the trust of the officers.  So much so, that the captain and his officers often left the ship at night to spend time on shore with their families.  This was a serious breach of procedures.  

CSS Planter

Smalls decided to seize the ship at night, sail across the harbor to retrieve their families, and sail to freedom. This was very risky, to say the least.

Smalls had to approach his fellow crew members. Just sharing his plan with the other crew members was dangerous. Smalls, however, had little choice. His only option was to recruit the men and trust them.

The subsequent Union Naval Committee report explained: “The design was hazardous in the extreme.” “Smalls and his men had no intention of being taken alive.  Either they would 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.”

At 3:00 am, May 13, Smalls put on the captain’s uniform and straw hat.   When the fog lifted Smalls ordered the steamer to leave.

The crew raised two flags. One was the Confederate flag, known as the Stars and Bars, and the other was South Carolina’s blue-and-white state flag. Both would help the ship maintain its cover as a Confederate vessel.

The Planter turned across the harbor where the families were sequestered aboard another ship. As the Planter crept alongside, the families jumped aboard. The women and children hid below deck.  There were 16 people on board. (Two of the crew members decided to stay behind rather than risk their lives.)

The Planter turned south toward Fort Johnson. The Planter created so much smoke and noise that Smalls knew that steaming past the forts and batteries undetected was impossible.  Impersonating the captain, he guided the ship past Fort Johnson and three other Confederate harbor forts and checkpoints.  He had memorized the passwords and whistle signals.

At 4:15 a.m., the Planter finally approached the formidable Fort Sumter, whose massive walls and canons towered ominously 50 feet above the water. Those on board the Planter panicked.  They were terrified. The crew and family began crying and praying, but Small kept his composure.

As the Planter reached Fort Sumpter, Smalls, wearing the captain’s uniform and straw hat, pulled the whistle cord, sounding two long blows and a short one. This was the passcode.  

The fort sentry yelled, “Blow the damned Yankees to hell!” Small shouted back, “Aye, aye!

By the time the Confederates realized what was happening the Planter was beyond gun range, and the Planter sailed straight for the Union fleet. 

Smalls quickly replaced the Confederate flags with a white sheet that his wife had brought.  However, it was still dark.

The USS Onward saw the approaching Confederate gunship and prepared to fire.  They loaded and aimed the canons and waited for the order to blow the Planter out of the water. 

Suddenly, a sailor yelled, “I see something that looks like a white flag.”  As the Planter neared, the Onward captain shouted, “Stop, or I will blow you out of the water!

The Union soldiers keep looking for the white crew.  All of a sudden a black man took off his straw hat and yelled back, “Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some United States guns, sir!” 

The Union sailors couldn’t believe it. When the Onward’s captain boarded the Planter, Smalls asked for a United States flag to fly.  Small formally surrendered the ship and its cargo, including the canons meant for Fort Sumpter.

Smalls’ plan had succeeded. He gained freedom for himself, his family, and his crew. Smalls provided valuable military intelligence to the Union Navy and Army.

Just 23 years of age, Small quickly became known in the North as a hero. Newspapers and magazines reported his actions. The U.S. Congress passed a bill awarding Smalls and his crewmen the prize money for the Planter. 

His example helped convince President Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union military.

Smalls became a pilot for the U.S. Navy. The CSS Planter was repaired and refurbish and became the USS Planter.

Smalls piloted several ships attacking targets around Charleston Harbor.

On April 7, 1863 he steered the ironclad USS Keokuk in attacking Fort Sumpter.

In December 1864, Smalls, piloting the USS Planter, supported General Sherman in Savannah, Georgia at the destination point of his March to the Sea.

Finally, Smalls returned with the Planter to Charleston harbor in April 1865 for the ceremonial raising of the American flag again at Fort Sumter.

After the American Civil War Smalls returned to the South and became a politician.  He joined the Republican party and was elected South Carolina State legislature.  He was also elected to the U.S. House of Representatives during Reconstruction.

Smalls authored state legislation for South Carolina to have the first free and compulsory public school system in the U.S. He founded the Republican Party of South Carolina. He was the last Republican to represent his South Carolina congressional district until 2010..

Robert Smalls deserves to be remembered and honored.

(The Thrilling Tale of How Robert Smalls Seized a Confederate Ship and Sailed it to Freedom,” Cate Lineberry, Smithsonianmag.com, 13 June 2017; “Robert Smalls,” Wikipedia.)

One thought on “A Slave Steals a Confederate Warship and Sails to Freedom

  1. The stories like this of brave, determined persons raises my spirits. I think it’s a wonder that brother Smalls managed to get elected to public office in the reconstruction-era South! He must have earned the respect of many. His vision of an innovative free public schools system is just wow. A true hero!


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