In the entry “May 12, 1862: Robert Smalls’ Midnight Run,” we went into the event that put Robert Smalls on the national stage. That night a 23-year-old Smalls and eight other slaves made off with the CSS Planter, handing the ship over to Union hands and getting their families to freedom. Now we go more into his military service with Union.
That same year, Robert Smalls intended to head to New York to raise funds for former slaves. Instead he was brought into the Union Navy by Admiral Samuel DuPont who viewed him as having more use on the seas than as a lobbyist of sorts. It was to DuPont who Smalls related information on the Confederates’ coastal defenses and where he had laid mines for the CSA’s forces.
That summer Smalls would go to Washington D.C. to get Black people a place in the military. His appeal to Lincoln and Edwin Stanton—then Secretary of War—worked and 5,000 Black men made up South Carolina’s 1st and 2nd Colored Regiment.
Smalls would become somewhat of an official part of the U.S. Navy in March the following year. Prior to this, he operated as a civilian in the Navy and was the pilot of the USS Crusader and would also return to operating the USS Planter. His main tasks now were as a mine hunter—the same ones he’d laid down—and blockade duty.
Throughout the year, he was involved in several battles navigating the Crusader, the Planter, the Keokuk, and the Isaac Smith. He moved around in several positions but always served as pilot.
His first role as captain—or rather acting-captain—was in Secessionville, late 1863. The new captain James Nickerson fled to the safety of the pilot house’s coal-bunker. Smalls took command of the ship as Black soldiers were instantly up for execution or return to their former owners if captured. For getting the Planter to safety, he was said to have been promoted to captain.
Robert Smalls spent time in Philadelphia while the Planter was improved. There he gained an education in literacy and backed a project aimed at literacy for former slaves. In late 1864, Smalls would back up General Sherman as his March to the Sea ended in Savannah, Georgia. His service ended in the summer of 1865, but he remained on towards the end of the 1860s.
For years afterward his status as a member of the military and his commission were constantly in the air. His position as pilot was viewed as questionable since he never graduated a naval academy despite having years of experience. When he went to pick up his pay from the Navy it turned out he hadn’t been commissioned as an officer.
He had to be put on the retirement list in 1883 via a bill to receive a pension. It was also noted that the 1862 prize for the CSS Planter was extremely low. It took Congress acting in 1897 for him to be paid a captain’s pension of $30 a month—or over $800. Three years later he was paid more for the Planter.
And so ended the military career of Robert Smalls, but so began his career in business and politics.
PART ONE: ROBERT SMALLS’ MIDNIGHT RUN : blackthen.com/robert-smalls-css-planter/