This day in 1862 one of the greatest escapes in the Civil War took place

Robert Smalls (1839 – 1915) was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, on April 5th, 1839, in a slave cabin behind his mother’s master’s house on 511 Prince Street. In 1862 he escaped from Charleston harbor aboard a steamer called the Planter with his family and several friends too. The boat had to pass by five Confederate check-points and then surrender its contents to the northern Naval fleet out in the harbor where it was blockading the important southern port.

His escape succeeded and Robert would meet Abraham Lincoln personally a couple weeks later. Lincoln was quite impressed with a black man, also a slave, who had learned how to pilot and navigate the coastal waterways around Charleston. Smalls was eventually handsomely rewarded with bounty-money. Lincoln also allowed Admiral DuPont to offer Smalls the position of Captain of the Planter, though an official commission was not permitted at the time. Nonetheless, Robert Smalls became the first black Captain of a U.S. Naval vessel.

Three months later Smalls would visit Abraham Lincoln in the White House to plead the opportunity for blacks to fight for the Union. Just days afterwards Lincoln approved the raising of the first black troops in the Blue uniform and Robert Smalls was instrumental in helping to start the 1st South Carolina Infantry of U.S. Colored Troops.

Join the Robert Smalls Facebook Group

Smalls would go on to pilot the Planter for the Union cause and take place in several important engagements around Charleston and the Sea Islands. After the Civil War he was elected among a few other blacks as they became the freshman class of blacks to serve as U.S. Congressmen.

Robert Smalls’ story is an amazing one of courage, determination, sacrifice, risk and reward – from slavery to Congressman!

Charleston celebrated the amazing feat on the 150th anniversary with several community engagements. Read these articles:

See my visual guide to Robert Smalls and Beaufort

25+ pages of news coverage of the 150th Anniversary weekend in one PDF here.


A new book has just been published on Robert Smalls titled, Be Free or Die: The amazing story of Robert Smalls’ escape from slavery to Union hero, by Cate Lineberry. Order from Amazon.

Facing death rather than enslavement—a story of one man’s triumphant choice and ultimate rise to national hero

It was a mild May morning in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1862, the second year of the Civil War, when a twenty-three-year-old slave named Robert Smalls did the unthinkable and boldly seized a Confederate steamer. With his wife and two young children hidden on board, Smalls and a small crew ran a gauntlet of heavily armed fortifications in Charleston Harbor and delivered the valuable vessel and the massive guns it carried to nearby Union forces. To be unsuccessful was a death sentence for all. Smalls’ courageous and ingenious act freed him and his family from slavery and immediately made him a Union hero while simultaneously challenging much of the country’s view of what African Americans were willing to do to gain their freedom.

After his escape, Smalls served in numerous naval campaigns off Charleston as a civilian boat pilot and eventually became the first black captain of an Army ship. In a particularly poignant moment Smalls even bought the home that he and his mother had once served in as house slaves.

Be Free or Die is a compelling narrative that illuminates Robert Smalls’ amazing journey from slave to Union hero and ultimately United States Congressman. This captivating tale of a valuable figure in American history gives fascinating insight into the country’s first efforts to help newly freed slaves while also illustrating the many struggles and achievements of African Americans during the Civil War.

Enjoy staying at the Andrew Pinckney Inn while visiting Charleston

On a recent visit to Charleston visit our family stayed at the Andrew Pinckney Inn.  It is a very nice place and centrally located to everything downtown.  Their web site says:

The Andrew Pinckney Inn, in historic downtown Charleston, features 37 beautifully appointed guest rooms, 3 townhouse suites, and our majestic St. Philip’s Suite. Decorated in an elegant yet casual West Indies style, our rooms feature all of the modern amenities a distinguished traveler has come to expect.

Meticulously restored, the Andrew Pinckney Inn is a Charleston boutique hotel surrounded by over 300 years of history. The hotel gracefully couples old world charm and sophisticated amenities. Overlooking the historic Charleston market area in the heart of the historic district, the Andrew Pinckney Inn is truly “Charleston’s Historic Charm…Redefined”.

Here are some pics of the Inn.

Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina

A visit to Fort Sumter is a must-stop for any Civil War buff when visiting Charleston. About Fort Sumter, the National Park Service says:

Decades of growing strife between North and South erupted in civil war on April 12, 1861, when Confederate artillery opened fire on this Federal fort in Charleston Harbor. Fort Sumter surrendered 34 hours later. Union forces would try for nearly four years to take it back.

April 11th, 1861 – Anderson refuses to surrender Ft. Sumter

April 11th, 1861 – Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregaard demands the surrender of Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor from Major Robert Anderson.

The reply was: “I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication, demanding the evacuation of this fort, and to say, in reply thereto, that it is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor and my obligations to my Government prevent my compliance.”

Archived related posts:

Image, Source: digital file from original neg. of left half

The burning of Charleston (1861) – as told in Harper’s Weekly

THE BURNING OF CHARLESTON.

WE devote this and the preceding page to illustrations of the CITY OF CHARLESTON, South Carolina, which, we hear by telegraph, was mainly destroyed by fire on 11th and 12th. The dispatch from Fortress Monroe states :

The fire commenced in Charleston last night (December 11), at nine o’clock, in Ruzel & Co.’s sash factory, at the foot of Hazel Street, and communicated to the opposite side of Hazel, to Cameron & Co.’s machine shops.

Under the impulse thus given and a stiff breeze, with a small supply of water, the conflagration assumed a formidable character, nearly equaling the most extensive conflagration on the American continent.

The Theatre, Floyd’s coach factory, opposite the Express office, the old Executive Building, and all the houses between that point and Queen Street, are burned. The whole of one side of Broad Street is destroyed, from Colonel Gadsden’s residence to Mazyck Street. A considerable portion of the city, from East Bay to King Street, is destroyed. Among the prominent buildings burned are the Institute and St. Andrew’s halls, Theatre, Catholic Cathedral, and the Circular Church.

At last accounts from Charleston the fire had crossed Broad Street, and was sweeping furiously on. Nearly all that part of the city from Broad Street on the south, East Bay Street on the east, and King on the west, is said to be destroyed.

An extra train had left Augusta with supplies for the sufferers—thousands of whom roamed the streets—and assistance to fight the fire.

There are rumors of a negro insurrection and negro incendiarism. One account states that a plot was disclosed by the body-servant of a military officer, who said that the negroes of the city were to be joined by large bands of negroes from the country, who were to come in armed at night. He said that the sash factory had been fired by a free negro, whom he designated, and who has been arrested. A small quantity of arms had been found

under the floor of a negro cabin. They were all new and in good order. In other negro cabins knives and hatchets were found secreted.

The greatest consternation prevailed. Families were closing and barring their windows.

The fire companies being composed of men who are engaged on military duty elsewhere, the fire-engines were worked by negroes, who broke and rendered useless the two best ones. The offices of the Courier and Mercury are said to be destroyed.

Another account states that negro insurrections broke out in the interior of South Carolina two days before the fire, and are still raging unchecked; but this last report is not well authenticated.

Source: Dec 28, 1861. Harper’s Weekly. page 823

Photograph shows ruins in area adjacent to the Mills House in Charleston, South Carolina.

Harper’s Weekly, June 14, 1862 – account of the abduction of the Planter

Harper’s Weekly published a prominent article called “The Steamer Planter and Her Captor,” June 14, 1862: pp 372-373.

This may be a reprint from the NY Herald.

The article reads in full:

THE STEAMER “PLANTER” AND HER CAPTOR.

WE publish herewith an engraving of the steamer Planter, lately run out of Charleston by her negro crew, and a portrait of her captain, ROBERT SMALLS-both from photographs sent us by our correspondent at Hilton Head. The following, from the Herald correspondence, will explain the transaction:

One of the most daring and heroic adventures since the war commenced was undertaken and successfully accomplished by a party of negroes in Charleston on Monday night last. Nine colored men, comprising the pilot, engineers, and crew of the rebel gun-boat Planter, took the vessel under their exclusive control, passed the batteries and forts in Charleston harbor, hoisted a white flag, ran out to the blockading squadron, and thence to Port Royal, via St. Helena Sound and Broad River, reaching the flag-ship Wabash shortly after ten o’clock last evening.

The following are the names of the black men who performed this gallant and perilous service: Robert Smalls, pilot; John Smalls and Alfred Gradine, engineers; Abraham Jackson, Gabriel Turno, William Morrison, Samuel Chisholm, Abraham Allston, and David Jones. They brought with them the wife and three children of the pilot, and the wife, child, and sister of the first engineer, John Smalls. The balance of the party were without families.

The Planter is a high-pressure, side-wheel steamer, one hundred and forty feet in length, and about fifty feet beam, and draws about five feet of water. She was built in Charleston, was formerly used as a cotton-boat, and is capable of carrying about 1400 bales. On the organization of the Confederate navy she was transformed into a gun-boat, and was the most valuable war vessel the Confederates had at Charleston. Her armament consisted of one 32-pound rifle gun forward, and a 24-pound howitzer aft. Besides, she had on board when she came into the harbor one seven-inch rifled gun, one eight-inch Columbiad, one eight-inch howitzer, one long 32-pounder, and about two hundred rounds of ammunition, which had been consigned to Fort Ripley, and which would have been delivered at that fortification on Tuesday had not the designs of the rebel authorities been frustrated. She was commanded by Captain Relay [sic] Relyea, of the Confederate navy—all the other employes of the vessel, excepting the first and second mates, being persons of color.

Robert Smalls, with whom I had a brief interview at General Benham’s head-quarters this morning, is an intelligent negro, born in Charleston, and employed for many years as a pilot in and about that harbor. He entered upon his duties on board the Planter some six weeks since, and, as he told me, adopted the idea of running the vessel to sea from a joke which one of his companions perpetrated. He immediately cautioned the crew against alluding to the matter in any way on board the boat, but asked them, if they wanted to talk it up in sober earnestness, to meet at his house, where they would devise and determine upon a plan to place themselves under the protection of the Stars and Stripes instead of the Stars and Bars. Various plans were proposed, but finally the whole arrangement of the escape was left to the discretion and sagacity of Robert, his companions promising to obey him and be ready at a moment’s notice to accompany him. For three days he kept the provisions of the party secreted in the hold, awaiting an opportunity to slip away. At length, on Monday evening, the white officers of the vessel went on shore to spend the night, intending to start on the following morning for Fort Ripley, and to be absent from the city for some days. The families of the contrabands were notified and came stealthily on board. At about three o’clock the fires were lit under the boilers, and the vessel steamed quietly away down the harbor. The tide was against her, and Fort Sumter was not reached till broad daylight. However, the boat passed directly under its walls, giving the usual signal—two long pulls and a jerk at the whistle-cord—as she passed the sentinel.

Once out of range of the rebel guns the white flag was raised, and the Planter steamed directly for the blockading steamer Augusta. Captain Parrott, of the latter vessel, as you may imagine, received them cordially, heard their report, placed Acting-Master Watson, of his ship, in charge of the Planter, and sent the Confederate gun-boat and crew forward to Commodore Dupont. The families of the crew have been sent to Beaufort, where General Stevens will make suitable provision for them. The crew will be taken care of by Commodore Dupont.

The Planter is just such a vessel is needed to navigate the shallow waters between Hilton Head and the adjacent islands, and will prove almost invaluable to the Government. It is proposed, I hear, by the Commodore, to recommend an appropriation of $20,000 as a reward to the plucky Africans who have distinguished themselves by this gallant service—$5000 to be given to the pilot, and the remainder to be divided among his companions.

Our correspondent sends us a drawing of an infernal machine, drawn by one of the negro hands of the Planter named Morrison. This chattel, Morrison, gives the following account of himself:

Belonged to Emile Poinchignon; by trade a tinsmith and plumber; has lived all his life in Charleston; was drum-major of the first regiment of the Fourth Brigade South Carolina Militia, and paraded on the 25th of last month; has a wife and two children in Montgomery, Alabama, whom he expects to see when the war is over. I asked him how he learned to read and write. Answer: “I stole it in the night, Sir.”

11th Maine soldier writes about activity at Fort Strong, Morris Island in Charleston, 1864

The following letter was auctioned on eBay (Feb 2007). As listed, the seller did not know the identity of the soldier writing. I figured out it was Lewis W. Campbell of the 11th Maine Infantry. His identity was verified by comparing names of people mentioned in the letter with records on Civil War Data.

Campbell was 21 years old when he enlisted 8/11/62 as a private. His residence was listed as Machias, Maine. He mustered out 2/2/66. His record indicates he was sick and in a hospital in Yorktown, VA, sometime in 1862. He was wounded 8/16/64 in Deep Bottom Run, VA. Campbell was promoted to sergeant in 1863, which was his rank at the time of this letter (2/10/64). On 4/17/65 he was promoted to 2nd Lt. and transferred from Company B to Company A.

In February 1864, Campbell’s regiment (the 11th ME) was part of The Department of the South, Northern District (Corps), Morris Island Division, 1st Brigade.

In the letter he mentions his regiment has only had two men killed since engaging at Fort Morris. Indeed, my research shows they were Horace F. Albee from East Machias, Maine; and Bradley L. Kimball from Hermon, Maine. Albee was a member of Company C., and was killed 12/8/63. Kimball was a member of Company E.Captain Charles Pierce Baldwin

In the letter he mentions Captain Baldwin & Capt Mudgett. Baldwin is Charles Pierce Baldwin of New Sharon, ME; who was 26 years old when he enlisted on 9/8/62 as Captain. Baldwin went on to become a Briagdier-General and a Lt. Col. His brother was Brigadier-General William H. Baldwin of the 83rd Ohio. Baldwin’s picture is right.

Captain Madgett is most certainly Captain Albert G. Mudgett who was 34 years old when he enlisted as a Captain from Newburg, ME., in 1861.

Campbell refers to the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Infantry. The 3rd was part of the 3rd Battallion assigned to Morris Island from January to April 1864.

He mentions G. Strahan who “commanded the fort” [Fort Strong]. This is Charles G. Strahan who was from Providence, R.I., when he enlisted in August 1861 as a 2nd Lt. On November 15, 1863 he took command of the 3rd R.I. Heavy Artillery. He was made Captain 10/2/61.

The Official Records details the following of the 3rd R.I. Heavy Infantry and the engagement at Charleston the Winter of 1863/1864:

During the winter of 1863-4 a large part of the Regiment remained on Morris Island and was almost constantly, day and night, under fire.

SERVICE IN CHARLESTON HARBOR.-After the reduction of Sumter in October, 1863, even until the surrender of Charleston in February, 1865, several companies remained on Morris Island and manned the guns in Wagner, Chatfield, Gregg and the smaller batteries, which were equipped with 300, 200, 100 and 30 pounder Parrots and mortars, and were almost incessantly under fire in artillery contests with the forts in the harbor, Moultrie, Beauregard, Johnson and others, as also in shelling the city, firing sometimes 10,000 shot and shell a month. Men were lost, at times, almost daily. Even a synopsis of the varied and important services performed here by the Regiment, for a year and a half, would render this brief account of the history of the Regiment too extended. Such services require a separate book. During the spring and summer of 1864, the companies on Morris Island were E, F, H, I and DIP, under Lieut.-Col. Ames. Companies D, G, E and L were at Fort Pulaski, under Major Bailey. Battery A was in Florida and C in Virginia, and Co. B at Hilton Head, the headquarters of Col. Brayton, who was Chief of Artillery on the staff of Gen.Gillmore.

Source: Official Records
PAGE 320-65 S. C., FLA., AND ON THE GA. COAST. [CHAP. LIII.
[Series I. Vol. 35. Part I, Reports and Correspondence. Serial No. 65.]

Campbell also mentions Lt. L. Newcomb. This is Lemuel E. Newcomb who was 25 years old, hailing from East Machias, Maine, when he enlisted as a Sergeant into Company C, in early November 1861. Newcomb would later rise to Captain, and was wounded at Petersburg.

Cambell also mentions some men of the 11th Maine are relieving the 9th Maine as of February 1864. It appears that the 9th Maine had been at Morris Island since the previous July. Of the 9th Maine, the Union Army, Volume I, says the following about the 9th’s related activity to Charleston during this timeframe:

on June 24th went to St. Helena island as part of a force under Gen. Strong for the assault on Morris island, S. C. July 4 it went to Folly island, and on the 10th landed on Morris island, where it carried the enemy’s rifle pits in front of their works. The regiment formed a part of the assaulting forces in the attacks on Fort Wagner, July 11 and 18, and Sept. 6. Its casualties in the several assaults were over 300 men in killed, wounded and missing. The 9th continued at Black and Morris islands, S. C., until April 18, 1864.

Cambell also mentions a Major Wood. I have not been able to positively identify him in the Civil War Data records yet. My best estimate at this time is that he is referring to Charles I. Wood but that is uncertain.

Campbell refers to H. C. Adams who is identified as Henry C. Adams of Cherryfield, Maine, at the time of enlistment in 1861. Adams was a 1st Lt. in January 1864.

F. Mason (of Company B) is mentioned by Campbell. This is Fred T. Mason of Waterville, Maine. Mason was a 2nd Lt., at the time Campbell was writing.

Edward Smith of the 9th Maine is mentioned. It is uncertain who this is in the CWD database. It may be Edward M. Smith from Machias, Maine.

*******************************************************

Enlarge to 800 pixels wide

*********************************************************

Fort Strong
Morris Island
S.C.

Feb 10 1864

It has been a long time since I wrote you, for I have been so busy the most of the time that I have hardly had the time to devote to my own folks. That I wanted, for I want to write Mother as often as twice a week for I know that she worries more about me than there is any need of but I suppose that is natural. But this morning as I have a few hours that I can stop in my tent I shall try to give you some account of the 17th. Perhaps it will be interesting to you to know how the boys from down east are getting along.

We have moved quite a number of times since I joined the regiment. 13 different times I believe. So you see that we are used to moving. We left (somewhere), FLA the fifth day of Oct 1863. I landed here the 8th. The bombardment commenced the 26th of Oct & has been going on most all of the time since. Although for the last 2 or 3 weeks we have not fired a great deal.

Our Reg- has been very lucky since we came here for we have only had two men killed & 12 or 13 more wounded & have lost 7 or 8 by death. Our Reg- has numbered more for duty since we came here than for some time before. I think that it is very healthy here. But fear that it will not be this summer, for this island is something of a graveyard. After every rain storm we have a …. part out burying the bodys that wash out of the sand & in one place where we commence to dig a well we dug out a man’s boot with his foot in it.

You will see by the date of my letter that I am at Fort Strong [Formerly Fort Wagner] Companies of our Regiment came here the 23rd as Garrison … B. Captain Baldwin & Capt Madgett. There is also one co. of the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery here in the fort. Of course you have had a better description of the place than I can give you. I therefore shall only say that it is the strongest & best earth work I have ever seen & everything looks neat and clean. Capt. (?) …G. Strahan of the 3rd command the Fort. He is a fine officer & is liked very much by his men. Capt. Baldwin is second in command. Leut L. Newcomb of … is attached to our Co-. * Companies of our Reg- leave the island today to relieve the 9th Maine on Black Island, while they go home on furlough. I believe that nearly all of the 9th are veterans. About 125 of our Reg- have reenlisted & I suppose will soon be furlough home. They will not let our company reenlist but if they had the chance I think every man would have done so.

Well 1/2 our time has expired & if they do by us as they promised to we shall get out next November. For that was the inducement held out that if we went into an old Regiment we should not have so long to serve. If you know how that is I wish you would inform us. We were paid off yesterday by Major Wood for the months of Nov & Dec 1863 & $20 of my wages are allotted to H.C. Adams. I wish you would tell him that I would like to know wether he has ever gotten any money from me or not. I have never heard wether my money that I allotted goes or not- Col. (?) is still in command of the first brigade & F. Mason of our company is on his staff. Leut H.C. Adams is acting Regimental (?) Master.

By the way our Reg- has got some recruits … I believe & from that number we got one in our co. they have been here about a week. I hear this morning that… a number of our recruits have the measles & one in the hospital.

Well something about our duty in the Fort. We have no night duty at all except when we are fighting. We do the guard duty during the day & are relieved at night by the picketts. Drill 2 hours a day on Artillery. Something quite new to me but I like it much. Garrison inspection twice a week & yesterday as we were paraded for inspection a shell burst over the fort & the pieces came in amongst us but fortunately no one was hurt. & but a few moments after it struck before the boys had in there arms. That’s the first one that has been thrown in to the Fort for sometime. It came from Fort Moultrie {Reb}. We have a fine view of the City of Charleston and hear there fire bells ringing most all of the time for our folks keep throwing a few shots at them & set some of their buildings on fire. By the aid of a good glass we can tell the time of day there from their clock.

Fort Sumter is 2600 yards from here & it looks ragged enough. We knocked the flag staff down a few days ago & I see now they have put up another with a new flag on it. Well it won’t stand long when we get to firing at it.

As it is nearly Drill time I must close hoping soon to hear from you. Give my respects to all ….. Capt Longfellow Co Adams … and tell me who is the next President. The soldiers all say Uncle Abe is the man. I believe that Edward Smith is in the 9th with me but I have not seen him yet. I have seen James Hathaway several times since he came out.

Major General Gillmore was here a few days ago & Admiral Dahlgren was here the 8th. They are both fine looking men.

Yours truly
Your obedient Servant

L[ewis] W Campbell
Serg … ….
Morris Island

Written on the front page of the letter sideways is this last note:

What are the prospects before us? Is the war soon to be closed up or will it live many years longer. I would like to have your opinion on the subject. I suppose before this reaches you, that you will George W Schopper of Jonesboro at home on a furlough from our company.
LW Campbell

Source: eBay auction item (February 2007)