Robert Smalls steals Confederate ship
May 12, 1862
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. 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.
For the Benefit of Robert Smalls and Others.....
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 eventually became a congressman after the Civil War. He lived in Beaufort, SC. There is a memorial bust of him
in front of the African Baptist Church in Beaufort, SC.