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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

April 2012

Memphis News from 150 Years Ago

In recognition of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, "Civil War-Era Memories" features excerpts from The Memphis Daily Appeal of 150 years ago.

April 23, 1862 COURT SQUARE. -- Our little emerald gem of a park in Court Square now presents a most beautiful appearance, and is a very popular place of resort.

April 24, 1862 The Free Market. -- This benevolent and altogether praiseworthy institution, is dispensing valuable blessings to the families of soldiers now absent in their country's service. It is a credit to the city of Memphis. ...Persons in the country will confer a great benefit by sending to the market, No. 10, Shelby street, supplies of vegetables and produce.

April 25, 1862 The Federal Congress has passed the bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, and Lincoln, true to his abolition instincts, has signed it. Consequently it is now law.

April 27, 1862 Correspondence of the New York Tribune. -- Fort Pillow, as is well known, is the sole obstruction between the island (Island 10) and Memphis, and spies who have lately come up the river, say there is no fortification worthy of the name between Memphis and New Orleans.

April 29, 1862 BURN THE COTTON. We published in our last issue the order of General Beauregard, urging upon the planters of the Mississippi valley the necessity and duty of burning all cotton that is in danger of falling into the hands of the enemy. We cordially unite with him in this injunction, and believe that the tried loyalty and patriotism of our people will be fully equal to the sacrifice.

Our Paper. The APPEAL will continue to punctually be issued in Memphis so long as the city is in possession of the Confederate authorities. Should it, however, be occupied by the enemy, ...we shall discontinue its publication here and remove to some safe point in Mississippi, where we can express our true political sentiments, and still breathe the pure and untainted atmosphere of Southern freedom. Compiled by Rosemary Nelms and Jan Smith, The Commercial Appeal News Library

The Importance of Robert Smalls


For Mr. Philbrick and the other Gideonite leaders, however, Small’s actions meant much more than a grand nose-thumbing gesture at the Confederates.  Here was proof positive that the Negroes were clever, quick learners, full of initiative, capable of great heroism, and willing to fight for their own freedom.  The Abolitionists had been making that claim for years. Robert Smalls embodied their wildest dreams.

The Reverend Mansfield French wasted no time in exploiting the advantage his cause had gained.  He hustled Robert Smalls onto the first ship that could be found headed north, and he personally accompanied him to Washington, D. C. and into the office of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, where Smalls spent a hour regaling Chase with the story.  The Treasury Secretary was so impressed that he set in motion a resolution giving General Saxon permission to recruit Negroes into the United States Army, and, after  the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22nd, 1862, to create the First South Carolina Volunteers. This regiment would be the first to be manned almost entirely by former slaves, most of whom could neither read nor write, but now stood ready to fight for their own country.

Robert Smalls, himself, followed up his triumph in a singularly middle-class sort of fashion.  He had been awarded a prize of $1500 for capturing the Planter and turning it over into Union hands.  He used the money to purchase the McKee House on Prince Street in Beaufort, where he had grown up as a slave.  He also opened a store on Bay Street and set himself up in business as a grocer. In time he became a United States Congressman.

 

Putting Plan into Action

On the evening of May 12th, the Planter docked at Charleston. Captain Relyea and the other white officers left the ship to visit their homes.  Gen. Ripley was attending a party in Charleston, leaving Smalls in charge of the ship. Smalls made no move until 3:00 a.m. Then he hoisted the Confederate flag and sailed out into the harbor, observing every protocol as it would have been carried out under Relyea's command. The ship made one quick stop to take aboard the five women and three children who were huddled in their small boat and then sailed straight for Fort Sumter.

To further the subterfuge, Smalls put on the captain's braided jacket and trademark straw hat, taking on the captain's jaunty stance on the deck and hoping that the shadows of early dawn would hide the difference in pigmentation. As they passed Fort Sumter, he gave the secret countersign by blowing the whistle in a pre-arranged code. It worked. Waved on by the Officer of the Day, the Planter sailed out into the harbor mouth. Then it made a quick turn, hoisted a white flag of truce, and headed straight for the nearest ship in the Union fleet that had been blockading the southern coast ever since November.

When officers of the U. S. Onward boarded the smaller ship, Smalls saluted and announced proudly, "I have the honor, sir, to present the Planter, formerly the flagship of General Ripley . . . I thought these guns might be of some service to Uncle Abe."

He delivered to the Yankees the four cannons that were aboard the Planter, but his more important contribution was his knowledge of what the Confederate forces were planning. He knew that the Confederate Marion Rifles and the Eutaw Battalion had joined the effort to evacuate Cole's Island. They had constructed footbridges across the Stono River as an avenue of escape in case the road was cut off along the Stono to Battery Island. Then, to "keep up appearances," they had placed dummy cannon where they had removed the real ones. The flag still flew and the men simulated complete military occupation although there were only about thirty soldiers there. All buildings were prepared for destruction by burning when fired upon by the federal fleet. That news meant that the way was open for Union troops to move onto James Island via the Stono River in preparation for the taking of Charleston itself.

The Plan


Robert Smalls was a persuasive talker, and he soon convinced his fellow slaves that it would not only be possible to steal the ship, it would be easy. “Clem asked me why I’m always whittling on deck,” Robert said to the others.  “Let me show you.  What do you see, Manny?” He held up a small piece of wood.

“Look kinda like a bird.”

“It is, indeed, a bird, and if any white man asks, it’s a toy for my children. But look closely at the bird’s feathers.”

“Dey doesn’t look much like fedders ta’ me,” manny said. “Dey’s jis’ a bunch a’ lines and squiggles.”

“Those squiggles are numbers, and the lines are codes.  That little piece of wood contains all the navigation information I need, and all the signals, to let us sail right outta Charleston Harbor.”

“Dat be what  yo’ be  list’nen’ fo?”

“That’s right. All I need is a crew.  Are you with me?”

“I’s not so shure,” Joshua said. “Yo steal dis here boat — what yo be gonna do wid’ it?”

“I’m gonna give it to the Yankees, and they are gonna be so grateful, they’re gonna give me whatever I want, for me and for my crew, too.”

“But I’se gots a fam’bly,” Joshua said.  “I’s not gonna leave my chilluns behind.  Cap’n kill ‘em fo’ shure, if’n he t’inks we done stealed his boat.”

“I have a family, too, Josh, one I dearly love.  We’re gonna take the families with  us. I’ll make arrangements with each man separately, once you tell me you are in on the plan.”

As Smalls kept watching the developments on Cole's Island, he stored away every tidbit he could gather, always looking forward to the day when he could carry out the escape. By May 10th, when Hunter announced that he was freeing the slaves, Smalls had his plans well organized. He had convinced the other slaves in the ship's crew, promising them that he could take them, along with their families, safely into Union hands. Smalls' wife and small children were in hiding, along with several other wives, on a boat concealed near Coffin Point. Everyone was waiting for the chance to present itself.

The Young Robert Smalls Makes Plans


On a Christmas Eve impulse in 1856, Robert Smalls married a thirty-three-year old hotel slave named Hannah Jones. At the age of seventeen, he became a family man, and no one could convince him that he had made a bad decision. By the spring of 1862, the twenty-three-year-old Robert Smalls had small children to support — a daughter, Elizabeth, his son and namesake, Robert, Jr., and a third baby on the way. His wife and family lived on the Coffin Point Plantation, located on the far shore of St. Helena Island.  The Philbricks, who managed the plantation for the Gideonites, knew them well.

Robert himself was employed on the side-wheeler Planter, flagship of Brigadier General Roswell Ripley, deputy commander of all Charleston defenses. This shallow-draft boat, 150 feet long and 46 feet wide, supplied Confederate outposts along the coasts because it could carry heavy loads of armaments through the shallow passages of the Sea Islands.

In the days just prior to Hunter's emancipation proclamation, the captain, C. J. Relyea, and his crew of three whites and eight slaves had been helping to evacuate General Hagood's troops from their base on Cole's Island. Smalls was a better seaman than the ship's captain, and often worked in the wheelhouse, actually steering the ship while the captain struck a swashbuckling pose on the deck. Ripley and Relyea trusted Smalls but gravely under-estimated his intelligence. They freely discussed military orders, strategies, passwords, and secret signals in front of the slaves, wrongly assuming they would not understand or remember what they heard.

“Why does yo’ always be sittin’ on de deck whittlin’ ‘way at some piece o’ wood?” one of the other slaves asked him. “Dere’s a good game a’ chance goin’ on below decks.”

“But I can’t hear what the Captain is sayin’ when I’m below deck,” Robert explained.

“What yo’ care what he be sayin’?”

“ ‘Cause he’s telling me how I can steal this ship.”

“Gwan wid’ you. He not be tellin’ yo’ nuttin.’”

“Oh, yes he is, Clem.  He just doesn’t know it.”

“Yo never gonna be stealin’ no ship.” Clem shook his head in irritation.

“Yes, I am.  And you and the others are going to help me.”

“Shure we is! An den maybe we’s gonna take over de rest o’ de world, too.”

“I’m serious, Clem.  Tonight, when we tie up for the night, meet me back of that old bait shed on the dock, and bring the other members of the crew with you.  I have a plan that will set us all free and make us heroes.”