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.