Learning Lincoln On-line
FROM-- SET SEVEN, CIVIL WAR STUDIES
Topic Sixty-four: The Navy and Ironclads in the Civil War
ROBERT SMALLS, CAPTAIN USN CONDITION OF THE BLACK MAN IN THE CIVIL
Robert Smalls---Escape from the Confederacy
The Gun–boat "Planter", run out of Charleston, SC, by Robert Smalls, May 1862
Map of early African-American involvement in the Civil War, including Robert Smalls' liberation of the Planter
In the fall of 1861, Smalls was assigned to steer the CSS Planter, an armed Confederate military transport. On May 12, 1862, the Planter's three white officers decided to spend the night ashore. About 3:00 a.m. on the 13th, Smalls and seven of the eight enslaved crewmen decided to make a run for the Union vessels that formed the blockade, as they had earlier planned. Smalls dressed in the captain's uniform and had a straw hat similar to that of the white captain. He backed the Planter out of what was then known as Southern Wharf around 3 a.m. The Planter stopped at a nearby wharf to pick up Smalls' family and the relatives of other crewmen, who had been concealed there for some time. With his crew and the women and children, Smalls made the daring escape. The Planter had as cargo four valuable artillery pieces, besides its own two guns. Perhaps most valuable was the code book that would reveal the Confederate's secret signals, and the placement of mines and torpedoes in and around Charleston harbor. Smalls used proper signals so the Confederate soldiers would not know he was escaping in the ship.
Smalls piloted the ship past the five Confederate forts that guarded the harbor, including Fort Sumter. The renegade ship passed by Sumter approximately 4:30 a.m. He headed straight for the Federal fleet, which was part of the Union blockade of Confederate ports, making sure to hoist a white sheet as a flag. The first ship he encountered was USS Onward, which was preparing to fire until a sailor noticed the white flag. When the Onward's captain boarded the Planter, Smalls requested to raise the United States flag immediately. Smalls turned the Planter over to the United States Navy, along with its cargo of artillery and explosives intended for a Confederate fort.
Robert Smalls---Service to the Union
Because of his extensive knowledge of the shipyards and Confederate defenses, Smalls provided valuable assistance to the Union Navy. He gave detailed information about the harbor's defenses to Admiral Samuel Dupont, commander of the blockading fleet.
Smalls quickly became famous in the North. Numerous newspapers ran articles describing his daring actions. Congress passed a bill, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, that rewarded Smalls and his crewmen with the prize money for the captured Planter. Smalls' own share was $1,500 (about $34,000 adjusted for inflation in 2012 dollars), a huge sum for the time. He met Abraham Lincoln in late May 1862 (two weeks later) and gave the President his personal account.
His deeds became a major argument for allowing African Americans to serve in the Union Army. Smalls served under the Navy until March 1863, when he was transferred to the Army. He was never enrolled in either branch of service but served as a civilian. By his personal account, Smalls served in 17 different engagements during the Civil War.
With the encouragement of Major-General David Hunter, the Union commander at Port Royal, Smalls went to Washington, DC., with Mansfield French in August 1862, to try to persuade President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to permit black men to fight for the Union. He was successful and received an order signed by Stanton permitting up to 5,000 African Americans to enlist in the Union forces at Port Royal. These men were organized as the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.
Smalls served as a pilot for the Union Navy. In the fall of 1862, Planter had been transferred to the Union Army for service near Fort Pulaski. The Union got Smalls as a naval pilot. Smalls was later reassigned to the USS Planter, now a Union transport. On April 7, 1863, he piloted ironclad USS Keokuk in a major Union attack on Fort Sumter. The attack failed, and Keokuk was badly damaged. Her crew was rescued shortly before the ship sank.
In December 1863, Smalls became the first black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States. On December 1, 1863, the Planter had been caught in a crossfire between Union and Confederate forces. The ship's commander, Captain Nickerson, decided to surrender. Smalls refused, fearing that the black crewmen would not be treated as prisoners of war and might be summarily killed. Taking command, Smalls piloted the ship out of range of the Confederate guns. For his bravery, Smalls was named to replace Nickerson as the Planter's captain. Smalls returned with the Planter to Charleston harbor in April 1865 for the ceremonial raising of the American flag upon Ft. Sumter.