"Roundheads and Ramblings"
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
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.
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
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.
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
“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
“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.
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
“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.”
This week is a full-time, writing-intensive drive to finish the draft of "The Road to Frogmore." While I'm busy with that, I'll be posting a 5-part story of a South Carolina slave who played a crucial role in the Civil War. Robert Smalls is not a major character in any of my South Carolina books, but he appears in every one of them.
The Story of Robert
Robert Smalls had an unusual upbringing for a
slave. As the son of a much-favored black kitchen-slave and a
never-identified white man, little Robert soon became something of a family pet
of the Henry McKee family of Beaufort. He grew up in their household,
played with their children, and shared their lessons, even though it was
illegal to teach a slave to read in South Carolina.
His mother, Lydia, worried that her son would grow up not realizing that in the
eyes of the law he was still a slave. Because she wanted him to
understand the meaning of slavery, she used to take him down to the Arsenal on
Saturday mornings and force him to witness the public slave beatings that took
place there. When he became a bit older, she sent him to live for a time
with the field slaves on the McKee’s Ashland Plantation.
“I’m not gonna hoe cotton for a living, Mama. Why do I have to go live out
“I wants you to understan’ how mos’ black folk be livin’ der lives,” she told
him. “Massa McKee ain’t always gonna be ‘round to protects you, and when
you not under his wing, you jis’ be ‘nother slave to mos’ folks. You needs to
learn to survive on de plantation, and you needs to feel a few blisters
on yo’ hands. Den if’n you hasta live dat life fo’ real, you be gonna know how
In the end, Robert did not stay at Ashland long enough to see his blisters turn
into calluses, but he saw enough to convince him that he never wanted to earn
his living as a cotton slave. Instead, he appealed to Henry McKee to help
him find a job on a boat. The young mulatto slave worked on ships in Charleston
Harbor from the time he was twelve. In many ways, Lydia Smalls’ fears for
her son were justified. He came to understand the evils of slavery all too
well, but he would always have trouble applying the slave label to himself. He
knew he was different, and he chose to emphasize that difference. He grew up to
be willful and headstrong, firmly believing that he could have whatever he
wanted. It was a dangerous attitude for any young man, let alone a South