The Day A Slave Named Robert Smalls Purloined A Steamer And Handed It To The Union Navy.

by Daniel Russ on April 16, 2016

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Robert Smalls April 5, 1839 -February 22, 1915

On May 12th 1862, the Civil War is burning effulgent in the countryside. Charleston harbor is blockaded by the massive Union Navy, and the defiant Confederates have bolstered their redoubts, bristling with cannons and ironclads. The coastal steamer Planter carried a crew of slaves as it came into port, loaded with cannons, parrot rifles, gunpowder and shells. At 2 in the morning, the captain disembarked, against regulations, leaving the steamer in the possession of the slave crew.

 

Slave Robert Smalls decided to take control of the helm and bring the steamer out of the dock, hoisted the Confederate colors and slipped past the guards, paused at the West Atlantic Wharf and picked up his family, nbrining the complement to 17 slaves.

 

Smalls donned the captains hat and at this time of night no one could tell it was on a Black man. Smalls also knew enough about navigating a steamer in these harbors that he used the whistle to sound the proper passing codes.

 

By 3:25 AM, the Union blockade as in sight and the Planter crew hoisted a white flag and surrendered the boat and all its bounty. Small went on to become the Planter’s captain after he served in the Union Navy and prevailed in skirmishes with Confederate river forces in South Carolina’s Folly Beach. On April 7th, 1863, the Planter took part in the assault on Fort Sumter, and its white commander hid in the coal bunker. Smalls was promoted and earned $150 a month, unheard of for a Black man of any type

 

Smalls served in the South Carolina state assembly and senate, and for five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1874 until 1886. He died in Beaufort, S.C. in the same house he was born in.

 

Source: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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