It has just gotten dark on the evening of May 12, 1862. General Roswell Ripley and the other white confederate officers of the Steamer Planter have just gone ashore to attend a party in Charleston, leaving the black crew alone. This was not unusual except that the crew had planned on these events. Quickly, the black crew's families left their hiding places on other vessels and came aboard the Planter.
Robert Smalls was the quartermaster, or wheelman of the ship vestidos cocktail. In this capacity he had become knowledgable of all navigation channels in Charleston harbor as well as all the gun and troop positions of the confederate armies guarding the harbor. Smalls and the other slaves quietly got the ship underway and headed for the mouth of the harbor and the blockading Union fleet. Soon they would have to pass under the guns of Fort Sumter. To increase their chances of success, Smalls donned the clothing of Planter's confederate captain. The trick apparently worked because they are not fired upon until after they are out of range.
Planter eventually approached the U.S.S. Onward, of the blockading fleet to surrender. She brought with her a 24-pound howitzer, a 32-pound pivot gun, a 7-inch rifle and 4 smooth-bore cannons. Planter had served as headquarters ship for General Ripley and was a valuable ship because she could carry as many as one thousand troops and her shallow draft gave her freedom throughout much of the coastal waters. Robert Smalls had been born on the Sea Islands and knew the waters from Beaufort, South Carolina to Florida. Together they were important prizes for the Union.
Generally, any enemy ships taken in this manner are treated as prizes for the men who performed the courageous act. Commander Du Pont submitted the claim's for these men to Washington despite his misgivings that they would be honored. Since these men had been slaves and the Dred Scott Decision said they were merely contraband, it took a special act of congress to award the ship as a prize, and even so it was valued at $9168, or 1/3 it's true value.
Robert Smalls was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant, Company B, 33rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops. He was then detailed as Pilot to the Planter. Later Smalls was assigned to the ironclad Keokuk for an attack into Charleston Harbor. Things soon went awry and the order of battle was abandoned, each ship fighting for itself. Keokuk eventually suffered over 90 shell hits and was soon sent to the bottom. Smalls survived and was transferred back to Planter. In late November of 1863, Planter saw action that prompted it's white captain to surrender. Smalls knew he could expect extremely poor treatment from the confederates and instead urged the gunners to carry on. The captain took cover in the coal bin for the duration of the battle while the crew fought on under Smalls' leadership. This action prompted the dismissal of the captain of record and the promotion of Robert Smalls to the position of Captain.
Robert Smalls gained promotion to the rank of Major General in the South Carolina Militia. He eventually became a congressman after the Civil War. He lived in Beaufort, SC. Smalls tried for years to collect a pension from the navy, but was unsuccessful. There is a memorial bust of him in front of the African Baptist Church in Beaufort. He is buried at the Tabernacle Baptist Church.
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Lest We Forget - People
Lest We Forget - The Civil War
Civil War @ Charleston - Biographies, Charlestonians In the War
Civil War @ Charleston - Civil War Military Actions Around Charleston, SC
Civil War @ Charleston - 54th. Mass. Volunteer Infantry, Co. I
Individuals in South Carolina history - South Carolina Information Highway