Robert Smalls: Civil War hero


Excerpted from Slavery and the Making of America by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (New York: Oxford university Press, 2005), pp. 182–183.


One of the fugitives from slavery, Robert Smalls, came into the U.S. lines bringing the navy an extraordinarily valuable gift.  Smalls, enslaved in South Carolina, had been hired out by his master at the age of twelve to work in the Charleston shipyard.  By the time Confederates fired on Fort Sumpter, he was a twenty-three-year-old boat pilot navigating the waters of Charleston Harbor and adjacent waterways.  The Confederates used him and eight other slaves on the crew of a steam-powered side-wheeler vessel refitted as a gunboat named Planter.  Each night, while the white crewmen retired to their homes, Smalls and the other blacks worked to clean and ready the ship for the next day’s duty.

Smalls devised a plan to escape, and when he explained it to his brother John and the other black crew members, they signed on enthusiastically.  They informed their families, who planned to escape with them, and waited for their best opportunity.  Well aware of the risk they were taking and of the consequences for failure, the entire party resolved not to be taken alive. If discovered, they would use the Planter’s guns to fight the Confederates and go down with the ship rather than be captured.

On the evening of May 12, 1862, the white officers and sailors left as usual, but this night the Planter was loaded down with a special shipment, valuable supplies to be delivered the following day to two Confederate forts.  The black men moved normally about the boat that night.  The arrival of family members sometime after eight didn’t arouse the suspicions of the dock patrol, since they sometimes brought supper to the crew.  Nor was the patrol alarmed when a black man from another crew came aboard.  Very early the next morning, Smalls ordered the boilers fired and the Planter, flying the Confederate flag, moved slowly out of port and into the harbor.  They saluted the harbor forts with the customary blasts on the whistle and passed under forts’ heavy guns manned by Confederate guards.  When the vessel was safely past the Confederate outposts, Smalls and his tense but jubilant crew brought down the Confederate flag and replaced it with a white flag.  The vessel they delivered to the U.S. forces was, according to Smalls, “a gunboat which cost nearly thirty thousand dollars,” fitted with “six large guns, from a 24-pounder howitzer to a 100-pound Parrott rifle.”40  They also brought invaluable knowledge of Confederate defenses and local waterways.  As he turned over the prize to the U.S. commander, Smalls was reported to have said, “I thought the Planter might be of some use to Uncle Abe.”41

The northern press hailed Smalls and his crewmen as heroes, and Congress ruled that they should receive half the value of the prize they presented to the U.S. cause.  Smalls joined the fight against slavery, enlisting in the U.S. Navy.  He was commissioned as second Lieutenant with the thirty-third Regiment, United States Colored Troops, and was assigned as the pilot on the Planter.  In November 1863 the Planter engaged in fierce combat with Confederate forces, and the ship’s captain contemplated surrender.  Fearlessly, Smalls rallied the crew and urged the gunners to continue firing, saving the ship and the crew from being captured.  When word of his actions reached the military hierarchy, navy officials dismissed the captain and promoted Smalls to his position.  Former slave Robert Smalls, captain of the Planter, became an African American hero of the Civil War.

40.  Liberator, September 12, 1862.

41.  Katz, William Loren; Eyewitness: The Negro in American History, 3rd edition (Belmont, Calif.: Fearon Pitman Publishers), p. 219.