By BRUCE SMITH
CHARLESTON, S.C. — On a foggy spring night 150 years ago, slave Robert Smalls commandeered a Confederate ammunition ship, steamed upriver to pick up family and friends, and then slipped past five Southern batteries on Charleston Harbor to reach Union blockade ships.
Smalls would return to Charleston a year later to pilot a Union ironclad in an attack on Fort Sumter, while after the war he served in the South Carolina General Assembly, the U.S. Congress and later as a federal customs inspector.
“His story, I think, is lost in the larger picture of the Civil War – Grant and Lee; Appomattox and Gettysburg. It’s important locally, but I would say it’s a story often overlooked,” said Carl Borick, the assistant director of the Charleston Museum.
May 13 is the anniversary of Smalls’ daring escape aboard the CSS Planter, and a series of events are planned next weekend to mark the event and celebrate Smalls’ life. Events begin at the museum Saturday with recollections from Smalls’ descendants and conclude Sunday evening with a harbor tour tracing the route the planter took.
Commemorative signs marking where Smalls took the vessel, near what is now the city’s High Battery, and where he picked up family members, in what is now Waterfront Park, will also be unveiled.
Helen Boulware Moore, Smalls’ great-granddaughter, says she heard about Smalls not through books, but family stories.
Her grandmother, a toddler at the time, was one of those family members who made it to freedom aboard the Planter.
“She lived with us the first 22 years of my life, so I heard through her voice a lot of the stories,” Moore said from her home in Florida. Moore estimated there are about 75 direct descendants of Smalls still alive.
A traveling museum exhibit about Smalls that she helped put together with the help of the South Carolina State Museum is currently on display at the Charleston Museum.
Smalls was born in the Beaufort area and brought to Charleston in the 1850s. There, he became a harbor pilot – a valuable skill in Charleston with the dangers posed to shipping by a bar offshore, shoals and the tidal creeks in the area. He was later conscripted by the Confederates to serve as a pilot on the Planter, a Confederate side wheel ammunition ship.
Smalls took the Planter about 2 a.m. May 13, 1862, after the white officers aboard left the ship for a night in town.
“An interesting thing about those officers is they were not part of the Confederate Navy – they were actually civilian contractors,” Borick said. “The military really couldn’t take much recourse against them for leaving their posts.”
With the officers gone, Smalls faced another challenge. Not every black on the Planter crew was in on the plot. Those who weren’t went ashore but never raised an alarm. Smalls and the seven crewmen headed back up river to pick up the nine family members and friends. The group included his wife, Hanna.
Smalls knew the harbor channels and the signals to make it past the Confederate batteries.
“It didn’t look like he was doing anything unusual. The biggest challenge he faces is when he gets past Fort Sumter, he has to go past the federal Navy. And as far as they know, it’s a Confederate ship coming out to attack them,” Borick said.
But here Smalls got some help from nature and his bride.
It was foggy, so the Planter couldn’t be made out distinctly. And Hanna Smalls, who worked in a local hotel, brought a bed sheet with her.
“My great-grandmother hasn’t gotten enough credit for this,” Moore said. “A federal ship turned its cannon on the Planter. At that point my great-grandmother got her bed sheet out and gave it to the men to take the Confederate flag down and run the white sheet up. At that point, the Union forces began to realize this wasn’t a Confederate ship.”
Smalls and the Planter left Charleston for Philadelphia.
But less than a year later, he was back in Charleston Harbor, piloting the ironclad USS Keokuk in an assault on Fort Sumter, held by the Confederates. The attack was unsuccessful, and the Keokuk took 90 hits before withdrawing. It was so badly damaged, it sank the next day.
“There’s no question about his bravery from commandeering the Planter and getting it out of the harbor to being in a pretty major action in this ironclad,” Borick said.
After the war, Smalls worked to help people of both races, working on legislation that mandated the first compulsory public schools in South Carolina. He also helped lay the groundwork for the establishment of the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot near Beaufort, Moore said.
She said her great-grandfather hired a tutor when he was in Philadelphia to teach him to read and write, one of the few skills he had not acquired as a slave. His legacy has been the importance of education.
His nine children, seven of them women, who survived to adulthood all went to college, and that has been something that has been passed down.
“That was his legacy. That has come down through all the generations,” Moore said. “Going to college is not a question. It is what we do.”