On this day in Black history, future South Carolina politician and naval captain Robert Smalls escape slavery with the CSS The Planter in 1862.
Robert Smalls was a slave born in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1839. He worked around shipyards since he was a teenager and was very familiar with ships. Smalls’ time around ships saw him graduate up the ranks until he was able to pilot them.
He came to pilot the steamer, the CSS Planter, in late 1861. His captain at the time was Brigadier General Roswell S. Ripley. The Planter’s role was primarily as a supply and messenger vessel and May 1862 was much of the same.
THE MIDNIGHT RUN
On this day, the CSS Planter was traveling along the coast of South Carolina with the intent to take armaments from a dismantled post elsewhere in Charleston. The ship’s Confederate command left Smalls in charge of the ship and went to sleep on shore.
It was then that Robert Smalls put on a CSA uniform, Captain C.J. Relyea’s signature hat and took the ship. Assisting him were several slaves working as crew. Smalls and company swung by a wharf to gather his family and the families of his crew.
In a feat that could’ve seen the Black ship pilot killed if captured, he navigated the CSS Planter up the coast of South Carolina, past several forts. Wearing Ripley’s clothes, he made sure to imitate the ship’s commander, fooling Confederate watchmen from afar.
Early the following morning, the CSS Planter sailed into Union waters and Smalls surrendered the ship to USS Onward Captain John Frederick Nickels.
LATER MILITARY SERVICE
The immediate aftermath saw Robert Smalls and company awarded much less than the CSS Planter was forth. The ship had guns, ammo, sea maps, supplies, and a Confederate code book. The payment was purely for the prize of the ship and his amount was $1,500 (or almost $36,000). The shortchanging of his service to the U.S would continue in the following decades with him being given the run around on payment due.
Between 1862 and 1864, he piloted several ships for the Union and was involved in several sea skirmishes. Smalls was also responsible for the Union bringing Black men into service. With the end of the war, Smalls entered service with the Freedman’s Bureau.