Which Slave Sailed Himself to Freedom?
Just before dawn on May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls and a crew composed of fellow slaves, in the absence of the white captain and his two mates, slipped a cotton steamer off the dock, picked up family members at a rendezvous point, then slowly navigated their way through the harbor. Smalls, doubling as the captain, even donning the captain’s wide-brimmed straw hat to help to hide his face, responded with the proper coded signals at two Confederate checkpoints, including at Fort Sumter itself, and other defense positions. Cleared, Smalls sailed into the open seas. Once outside of Confederate waters, he had his crew raise a white flag and surrendered his ship to the blockading Union fleet.
In fewer than four hours, Robert Smalls had done something unimaginable: In the midst of the Civil War, this black male slave had commandeered a heavily armed Confederate ship and delivered its 17 black passengers (nine men, five women and three children) from slavery to freedom.
Sailing From Slavery to Freedom
Robert Smalls, S.C. M.C. Born in Beaufort, SC, April 1839. (Library of Congress, prints and photographs division).
Our story begins in the second full year of the war. It is May 12, 1862, and the Union Navy has set up a blockade around much of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Inside it, the Confederates are dug in defending Charleston, S.C., and its coastal waters, dense with island forts, including Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired exactly one year, one month, before. Attached to Brig. Gen. Roswell Ripley’s command is the C.S.S. Planter, a “first-class coastwise steamer” hewn locally for the cotton trade out of “live oak and red cedar,” according to testimony given in a U.S. House Naval Affairs Committee report 20 years later.
After two weeks of supplying various island points, the Planter returns to the Charleston docks by nightfall. It is due to go out again the next morning and so is heavily armed, including approximately 200 rounds of ammunition, a 32-pound pivot gun, a 24-pound howitzer and four other guns, among them one that had been dented in the original attack on Sumter. In between drop-offs, the three white officers on board (Capt. C.J. Relyea, pilot Samuel H. Smith and engineer Zerich Pitcher) make the fateful decision to disembark for the night — either for a party or to visit family — leaving the crew’s eight slave members behind. If caught, Capt. Relyea could face court-martial — that’s how much he trusts them.
At the top of the list is Robert Smalls, a 22-year-old mulatto slave who’s been sailing these waters since he was a teenager: intelligent and resourceful, defiant with compassion, an expert navigator with a family yearning to be free. According to the 1883 Naval Committee report, Smalls serves as the ship’s “virtual pilot,”but because only whites can rank, he is slotted as “wheelman.” Smalls not only acts the part; he looks it, as well. He is often teased about his resemblance to Capt. Relyea: Is it his skin, his frame or both? The true joke, though, is Smalls’ to spring, for what none of the officers know is that he has been planning for this moment for weeks and is willing to use every weapon on board to see it through.