Today, I have an American Civil War story for you. On this day, in 1892, a man named Robert Smalls stole a Confederate ship in Charleston, South Carolina and sailed it straight towards the ships of the Union blockade. It was an incredibly brave thing for anyone to do. But it was all the more remarkable as Robert was a slave.
Robert Smalls was born an enslaved African American in the year 1839 in Beaufort South Carolina. When he was twelve, his owners, the McKee family, hired him out as a dockworker at Charleston. He later became a rigger, sail maker, and eventually a wheelman. This meant that he was able to pilot boats and he became very knowledgable about Charleston’s harbour. In 1856, he married Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel worker in the town. He desperately wanted to raise the money to buy his wife and their children out of slavery but, as a slave, he was only allowed to keep one dollar a week from his wages, the rest was sent to his master. With his dollar, he would buy sweets and tobacco and re-sell them at the docks for a profit and, by 1862, he had almost saved enough to buy his own wife and children.
But Robert could see another way out. It was dangerous, but, if they lived, they would all be free. His job was to pilot vessels which carried supplies and ammunition for the Confederates and he knew all the correct signals given to various forts which would allow a boat to pass in safety. He bided his time and, on the night of May 12th, 1892 he was working on a steamer called the Planter. The Planter’s three white officers had decided to spend the night ashore, leaving Robert and the rest of its slave crew aboard.
Robert had made an escape plan. In the early hours of the next morning he put on the captain’s uniform and a straw hat to hide his face. Then he and the crew sailed the ship to a nearby wharf where they picked up his family members and also the families of the other crewmen who were hiding there. He was perfectly able to steer the ship and also pass by five Confederate forts without arousing any suspicion, as he knew all the appropriate signals.
Once past these obstacles he turned towards the Union blockade. When the Unionists saw an enemy ship heading straight for them, they almost opened fire. But Hannah, Robert’s wife had had the good sense to bring a white sheet with her from the hotel and they hoisted it as a sign of surrender. His actions earned the freedom of seventeen people (nine men, five women and three children) Not only that, but he was able to turn over to the northern army; the ship, it’s supplies, weaponry and also the code book that contained the signals and a map showing the location of the mines and torpedoes that were laid out in Charleston Harbour.
Robert was a hero and was given a reward for liberating the ship from the enemy. He could have lived quietly and comfortably on that money, but instead continued to pilot the Planter through the Civil War and, in 1863, was made its captain. After the war, he continued to pilot the steamer to bring supplies for black people who had lost their homes and their livelihood. He used some of his money to buy the house of his former owner and settled there with his family, including his mother who had also been owned by the McKees. When Jane Bond McKee, the wife of his old master became ill with dementia, she turned up at the house, thinking that she still lived there. Robert allowed her to live with them and even sleep in her old bedroom, which I think was extremely generous of him.
If you would like to know more about Robert Smalls, you could take a look at this TED talk given by his great-great grandson, Michael B Moore. He will tell you all about his escape as well as his many other reasons to be very, very proud of his ancestor.