How a slave made off with a Confederate war ship — and became an American hero

By Nick Poppy | New York Post


For weeks, Robert Smalls had been watching them. Noting their comings and goings. It was risky, but it was the only way his plan would work.

The year was 1862, and Smalls was an enslaved man, working on a Confederate steamship named the Planter. He had been observing the schedules of the Planter’s white crew to learn if and when they would all leave the ship for an entire night. For when they did, Smalls knew what he would do: steal the ship out of Charleston Harbor in South Carolina and deliver it — along with his family, some friends and himself — to the Union. To freedom.

It was a plan as daring as it was genius, and Smalls, a 23-year-old African-American born into slavery, was determined that it would work.

The unlikely story of this remarkable man is told in Cate Lineberry’s thoroughly researched new history “Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero” (St. Martin’s, published June 20).

“I was really impressed with his determination, his ability to overcome such incredible odds,” Lineberry tells the Post. “His determination in a world that wanted to keep him down as much as possible was what drew me to the story.”

Smalls was the Planter’s wheelman, essentially its pilot, responsible for guiding it through the complicated waterways around the harbor. Although he was its most knowledgeable sailor, he could not operate the ship alone. He convinced his fellow black crew members to go along with the getaway — and swear to secrecy.

The crew waited for Smalls’ sign, for that moment when the white officers would be gone. That moment came on May 12, 1862.

It would have been impossible to spirit the Planter through the harbor without anyone noticing, so Smalls had to make it seem as if the ship was traveling on routine business. Critical to this was the resemblance Smalls bore to the ship’s white captain, one Charles Relyea. Harbor guards would need to be convinced that a white man was at the helm. As he prepared to launch the Planter into the harbor, Smalls put on Captain Relyea’s straw cap.

In the early morning hours of May 13, Smalls and his crew unmoored the Planter from its berth in Charleston’s Southern Wharf. Their first stop: to pick up several other escapees, including Smalls’ wife, Hannah, and their children.

Their next hurdle was Fort Johnson, a Confederate stronghold. As the Planter paddled its way past the fort, the mood on board was fraught. Smalls and his group knew they had crossed a critical threshold. If at any point they were caught, they had all agreed, they would join hands and jump to their watery deaths.

If they could not be free, they would not live in slavery, either.

Somehow, they made it past Johnson.

Finally, and perhaps most terrifyingly, Smalls had to avoid the suspicion of the night watch of the famous Fort Sumter. Tense minutes ticked by as the Planter crept past the heavily armed fort.

By this point, the Planter’s Captain Relyea realized that his ship was gone and was asking questions back in the harbor. But he failed to raise the alarm in time, and the Planter was able to slip past Sumter and into the channel leading to the Atlantic. As soon as they were in the clear, the crew lowered the Planter’s Confederate flag and raised a white sheet in its place.

In the foggy early dawn, the Planter was intercepted by the clipper Onward, part of the Union blockade of Charleston Harbor. Initially thinking the Planter was a Confederate ironclad bent on ramming his ship, the captain of the Onward trained his ship’s guns on the escaped steamer. Then he saw the white flag.

Smalls and his co-conspirators had done the seemingly impossible. Throughout this harrowing experience, one of the crew later said of Smalls, “If he lost his nerve for a single minute, no one noticed it.”

When they discovered the Planter was missing, Confederate authorities were incredulous. So poor was the Southern white opinion of African-Americans, they couldn’t or didn’t believe that the escape of the Planter had been engineered solely by slaves. An English correspondent in Charleston wrote, “There was doubt and speculation, and finally rage and unmitigated spleen.”

Word of the escape spread quickly to Union states. The New York Herald gushingly described Smalls’ act as, “One of the most daring and heroic adventures since the war was commenced,” a plan executed by “plucky Africans who have distinguished themselves by this gallant service.” Smalls in particular became a national celebrity, an inspiration to other former slaves and a bridge between black and white communities at a time when there were few such connections.

Smalls and his fellow escapees had dealt the South a humiliating moral and physical defeat. The Planter itself was a valuable asset; it quickly became part of the Northern fleet. The steamer was carrying several large cannons and hundreds of pounds of ammunition. These were now subtracted from the arsenal of the Confederate Army and added to the Union’s. Valuable also were the Planter’s human assets: 16 enslaved people, including Smalls and the other experienced members of its crew.

“What strikes me the most is the remarkable courage that it took,” Lineberry says, “for someone who was illiterate, who has always been told his entire life that he’s not equal to anyone else . . . to then say, ‘I am not going to sit here and take this. I’m going to find a way to save my family.’ ”

So impressed were Union officials by Smalls’ courage and intelligence, that he was brought to meet President Lincoln. He continued to prove himself a highly skilled, brave member of the Union cause, and was rewarded for his efforts by becoming the first black captain of a Navy ship. That ship was none other than the Planter.

After the war, Smalls represented South Carolina in the House of Representatives for five terms. And he learned to read and write. He died in 1915 at the age of 75, in the house where he was born. He had bought it. It was an incredible reversal of fortune for a man who had been born in bondage. Later in life, Smalls summed up his fateful flight to freedom, claiming, “Although born a slave I always felt that I was a man and ought to be free, and I would be free or die.”

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