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.

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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.

Robert Smalls escaped aboard the CSS Planter exactly 150 years ago today

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 (slave) who had learned how to pilot and navigate the coastal waterways around Charleston. Lincoln rewarded Smalls handsomely with bounty-money and a commission into the Union Navy as a captain of a vessel – the Planter! He was the first black Captain of a U.S. Naval vessel.

Three months later Smalls would visit Abraham Lincoln in the Whitehouse 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.

Smalls would go on to pilot the Planter for the Union cause and take pace 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’s story is an amazing one of courage, determination, sacrifice, risk and reward – from slavery to Congressman!

Charleston is celebrating the amazing feat with several community engagements this weekend. 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.


 

The Life and Legacy of Robert Smalls of South Carolina’s Sea Islands

This book tells the story of the life of Robert Smalls, an enslaved African American, born in Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1839. During and after the American Civil War, he became a ship’s pilot, a sea captain, and a politician. He freed himself and his family from slavery and was instrumental in the creation of South Carolina’s public school system. He wrote in 1895, “My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”

This item is proudly printed in the USA. Text by Lu Ann Jones and Robert K. Sutton, published by Eastern National, 48 pages, ISBN: 978-1-59091-117-4.

265527

Just $5.95  Order here

Robert Smalls and Beaufort, South Carolina

One of the reasons I love Beaufort, South Carolina is because former slave and Congressman Robert Smalls lived in Beaufort before the Civil War, on 511 Prince Street. I love his true heroic story from the Civil War.

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 (slave) who had learned how to pilot and navigate the coastal waterways around Charleston. Lincoln rewarded Smalls handsomely with bounty-money and a commission into the Union Navy as a captain of a vessel – the Planter! He was the first black Captain of a U.S. Naval vessel.

Three months later Smalls would visit Abraham Lincoln in the Whitehouse 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.

Smalls would go on to pilot the Planter for the Union cause and take pace 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’s story is an amazing one of courage, determination, sacrifice, risk and reward – from slavery to Congressman!

Here is a photo gallery of various images I have taken related to Smalls and Beaufort.

Corner of Carteret and Craven Streets in Beaufort. Site of former slave mart.

Corner of Carteret and Craven Streets in Beaufort. Site of former slave mart.

Model of The Planter; the ship Robert Smalls escaped upon.

Desk belonging to Smalls as a Congressman.

Images of Robert Smalls.

Bust of Robert Smalls; Tabernacle Baptist Church in background.

Robert's master was John and Henry (s0n) McKee. They are buried in nearby St. Helena Parish in Beaufort.

18th Connecticut soldier sees “The Planter”, Robert Smalls ship

This letter is written from Fort McHenry in Baltimore by Private Rufus P. Munyan, Co. D of the 18th Conn. Infantry.  Munyan writes about seeing the Confederate transport ship the “Planter” that slave, Robert Smalls, ran out of Charleston Harbor on the morning of May 13, 1862, escaped with 6 other blacks and delivered the ship to the Federal forces.
That boat that the seven ni**ers captured down to Charleston runs up here some times.  It is in the government servis it is the Planter and it is the handsomest steemer that runs on this river it is one hundred and twenty feet long I should jug and about twenty five feet beam it has three decks and two gang ways on each side of the lower deck it has a high pesure engine and side wheals and to take it all in all it is the prettiest craft that travels these waters and if the ni**ers got what she was worth they can be comortabley without work the rest of thare days for she had over fifty thousand dollars worth of freight on board when captured.
Copyright 2012, The Civil War Gazette

First Union black regiment was NOT the 54th Massachusetts

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1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry

In the June 2009 Civil War Times edition (p. 32) the author states, [The] “54th Volunteer Massachusetts . . . [was] the first black regiment raised in the North.”

This is not entirely accurate. The 54th Mass was the first Union black regiment formed in Massachusetts, but NOT the first-ever black Union troops raised to fight for the North. The 54th was initially formed in late February 1863 and then began to be mustered into service in late March 1863.

The first Union black regiment to be raised and formed was the 1st South Carolina Infantry.  The story of how the approval for the first black regiment came about is fascinating.

Escaped slave and Union war hero Robert Smalls went to Washington in August with Mansfield French to seek permission from President Abraham Lincoln to allow blacks to serve in the Union forces.  That meeting took place on August 20, 1862.  Lincoln no doubt remembered meeting Smalls in late May 1862 when he awarded Smalls his reward-bounty for turning the Confederate steamer – The Planter – over to the Union navy in mid May. Smalls surely used his leverage as a war hero to implore the President to allow the first black troops to be officially organized.

On August 25th, 1862, Secretary of War Stanton officially authorized the raising of the first black soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Rufus Saxton.

According to McPherson (p. 167, The Negro’s Civil War), by November 7th the ranks of the first black Union regiment were filling up rapidly and the 1st South Carolina Infantry was mustered in. The first black recruits were mostly made up of Sea Island blacks, otherwise known as Gullah.  Robert Smalls himself was a Sea Island former slave.  Robert was born in Beaufort but his mother Lydia was born on Ladies Island in the low country.

Thus the first black Union soldiers wearing the blue uniform, and officially recognized by the war department, were largely Gullah blacks from the low country of South Carolina.

According to Dyer’s Compendium, the 1st South Carolina Infantry saw the following action before the 54th Mass was even mustered into service (late March 1863).

  • 3 Companies on Expedition along coasts of Georgia and Florida November 3-10, 1862.
  • Spalding’s, on Sapello River, Ga., November 7 (Co. “A”).
  • Doboy River November 8.
  • Expedition from Beaufort up St. Mary’s River in Georgia and Florida January 23-February 1.
    Read Higgonson’s Report
  • Duty at Beaufort, S. C., and Port Royal Island till March, 1863.

Source: Frederick A. Dyer “A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion” vol. 3

About 200,000 blacks fought for the Union during the American Civil War. Many historians agree that without the assistance of the black Union soldiers, the war would have gone on much longer or may not have even been won by the North.

Sources referenced:

* James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War. 2003 (revised).
* Stephen V. Ash, Firebrand of Liberty. 2008.

Book Review: Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families

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Robert Smalls (1839 – 1915) is a little known figure outside of South Carolina but he deserves to be known by everyone, especially by those who love great stories.

I stumbled upon the story of Smalls’s infamous escape as a slave during the American Civil War (May 1862) by accident. Several years later after thorough ongoing research has rewarded my diligence with finding this book by Billingsley.

The author takes a sociological approach throughout making it for an interesting angle to consider the life and accomplishments of Smalls.

There are several other fine books available about Robert Smalls – mostly out of print – so this edition is updated, accurate, fairly comprehensive and a rich source for understanding Smalls.

Well-documented and carefully researched.

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Book Review: story of escaped slave Robert Smalls well-told in book aimed at middle school audience

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I recall reading biographies of Jacques Cartier, John Paul Jones, and Davy Crockett when I was in the 4th grade. These stories took my imagination along great paths of discovery and ignited a love for history for me.

I wish I could have read Halfmann’s version (Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story) of the Robert Smalls (1839-1915) story of escaping from the Confederacy during the Civil War when I was 10 or 11. It would have fired my imagination and interest in the American Civil War much earlier.

Halfmann’s version of the Smalls story is refreshingly accurate and very well written. The text moves along at a good pace. Unlike Kennedy’s new book on Smalls (Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s American Heroes: Robert Smalls, the Boat Thief), Halfmann is faithful to the true story in what she covers and what she has to omit for a children’s audience.

A real surprise is the bibliography in the back of Halfmann’s book which will serve the curious teacher and student well.

I would add one book to the reading list (for the teacher) that Halfmann does not cite as a source for her book: Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families, by Andrew Billingsley.

Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story book should be in every elementary school library in the United States.

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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.”