Robert Small and "The Planter"
by Laurie Chambliss

Actually, this story, like many we tell, starts with a group of naked men. It was Monday, May 13th, 1862, on one of the many little islands which both fill and make up Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. What is called the Coosaw River runs more salt than fresh, but on a hot Carolina spring afternoon, it looked extremely appealing to members of the 8th Michigan Infantry. In short order the regulation wool uniforms were shucked and everybody was splashing in the river, naked as jaybirds, happy as clams.

There are few things worse than being naked and surprised. The men of the 8th Michigan, who had become accustomed to an exceedingly peaceful “war” of unthreatened camp and picket duty even though in technically enemy territory, were quite horrified to see a steamship coming towards them from the direction of the Union blockade fleet. The ship, you see, was spewing thick black coal smoke. Soft bituminous coal was only used by the Confederacy. Federal vessels used clean-burning Pennsylvania anthracite. This must, therefore, be an enemy ship bearing down upon the bare group of soldiers. In the mad scramble for the bank, as everyone clutched for uniforms and all manner of weaponry, accoutrements, undergarments and comrades, it was not until everyone had reached the safety of the woods and turned back to look at the strange ship that matters took yet another strange turn, as they saw that the mystery ship was flying the Stars and Stripes, not any Confederate or Palmetto flag. And the only things pointing at their position were fingers, not guns, and the owners of same were laughing fit to choke, but making no threats to anything but egos. The answer to the mysterious ship with the right flag but the wrong coal did not get to the men of the 8th Michigan for awhile, but you, dear reader, will get the story from the beginning. It starts something like this..hum any tune you find appropriate....

Just sit right back and you’ll hear tale, a tale of a fateful trip, That started from this Southern port, aboard this tiny ship.

In these days of the War, in Charleston at least, the Confederate Government did not have the infrastructure needed for defense, therefore they were obliged to lease ships and supplies from private owners. One of the ships was called the “Planter”, and one of the slaves was a man named Robert Smalls. You, dear reader, may think of yourself as a slave to your job, but it is unlikely that you really are, definitely not to the extent Robert Smalls was. He was the pilot of the “Planter”, not an unimportant job in the tricky and ever-shifting currents of the mass of islands, rivers, sand bars and other obstructions which make up Charleston Harbor. But he and his knowledge and skills were considered as much a part of the boat as the boilers, tiller and wheel. Both were property, and he was included in the lease. The remainder of the crew, besides the the (white) captain C. T. Relyea, the mate and the engineer, were also slaves. Many businessmen had found over the years that the advantage of using slave labor over paying employees allowed them to keep their shipping business very lucrative indeed.

Roswell Ripley was a wealthy man in Charleston, although not a civic leader in a political sense, he was definitely a Big Man Around Town. He had recently been far more concerned with military defenses than mere business. He devoted his resources to the cause of providing prompt transport to any need of the Confederate commander, Gen. John C. Pemberton. The mission of May 12 was to transport the last four pieces of artillery from an outpost up-harbor called Coles Island. Pemberton had decided the position was too far away and too easily overcome by the Federals, and that the guns should be moved closer in. Ripley, who was intimately involved with the planning, did not agree with this but reluctantly bowed to orders and ordered the “Planter” to do the job. Ship and crew collected the guns, took them to the flatteringly-named Fort Ripley, then docked at Charleston for the night.

Now, the rules for shipmasters were very clear: when in port overnight, the captain was supposed to remain on board. But this was home, wives and/or girlfriends warm beds awaited, and the rule was commonly ignored.

Robert Smalls and his crewmates knew this.

Charleston was their home too, their womenfolk’s beds were just as inviting , but they had no choice in the matter, they HAD to stay with the boat. On the night of May 12 this was not a problem, because they had no intention of leaving the ship. They were leaving WITH the ship, you see!

A month earlier the slave crew had been chatting among themselves when one of the men joked that the ship would be easy to steal, if the right opportunity was seized. Robert Smalls heard him. At that moment something happened in the mind of one who had been born a slave.

He decided not to die as one.

Over the next few weeks some clandestine meetings were held at a house Smalls had in Charleston darktown. As soon as they had the schedule for the cannon retrieval mission the Rubicon was crossed. Smalls’ wife and child, along with four other women and and another child, had by prearragement snuck after dark on this Sunday night onto an empty ship named “Etiwan” docked at the North Atlantic Wharf. At 3 o’clock on that Monday morning the Confederate flag, along with the Palmetto flag of South Carolina, were quietly raised aboard the Planter. There was no way to fire up the boilers without making some noise, though, so Smalls proceeded just as though this was any other trip. As they backed away from the dock, he blew the ship’s whistle as custom required. They chugged slowly past a Confederate sentry fifty yards away, and he paid them no attention whatever.

Soon they were pulling up to North Atlantic Wharf, barely slowing down as the women and children were picked off the “Etiwan”, and headed out into the channels and canals of Charleston Harbor. As the Planter cleared the island where Fort Johnson stood sentinel, they blew the whistle again. The eastern sky was starting to brighten, an alert sentry might have noticed the oddity of this Confederate ship with no white men aboard. Smalls was heard to say, “Oh Lord, we entrust ourselves into thy hands.”

Again no alarm was raised. Only one more hurdle remained: Fort Sumter itself, a massive hulk whose symbolism as the site of the opening shots of the war exceeded even its huge sandstone walls. For this one Smalls did not leave in the hands of the Lord what he could provide for himself: a captain’s straw hat. He stood, arms folded, with his back to the fort and the hat worn just a bit farther back than was perhaps the usual custom. He ordered the whistle blown again in the signal for Sumter: two long blasts and one short. The officer of the day recorded the routine passage in his log as required. If they noticed that the “Planter” did not start to swing south as usual to head past Morris Island, no note was made of it.

In fact Robert Smalls, free man and captain of the “Planter” gave the orders to rip the Confederate and Palmetto flags from the mast, and raised a plain white sheet. Straight into the rising sun and the waiting Federal blockade they steamed, free men and women all.

Amazingly enough, the rest of the story gets even better. The understandably alarmed ships of the Union blockade loaded to fire a broadside, fearful that this was the Confederate ironclad gunboat rumored to be in the area, but held off when they saw the white flag. Coming alongside the USS “Onward”, they took down the bedsheet and ran up the Stars and Stripes and gave it three cheers before recounting their story to the astonished Union men. One of the Union men was Alexander Campbell of the 79th New York, who had been a resident of Charleston himself not too long ago. He wrote: “I was aboard [the Planter after she reached the Union forces] and had a talk with the hands, and one of them says he recollects of me in Charleston. He told me the boat belonged to a Scotch man named Ferguson. I know him very well.” Old Home Week it was for some it was that day.

“Planter”, her pilot in command, with US Acting Master Watson aboard to prevent any problems of a political sort, was by 11 o’clock that same morning steaming back past Cole’s Island, where she was observed by the lookouts of the 24th South Carolina Infantry. In the early afternoon she was passing down the Coosaw River, where she scared the bejeesus out of the naked bathers of the 8th Michigan Infantry (remember them?). Before midnight she had docked at Port Royal Sound, and Robert Smalls, free man less than one day old, was giving a comprehensive intelligence report to Admiral Samuel du Pont. If duPont had made good use of this report it is believed by many that Charleston could have been back in Union hands before the start of summer. One can only speculate what the resulting course of the Civil War might have been! Less than three weeks later, the Congress of the United States of America voted Robert Small and his crew a reward equal to half the value of the ship and its cargo. The “Planter” was drafted--into the Navy. And Robert Smalls wound up walking the halls of Congress in Washington again...but that’s another story.

 

 



 

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