Southern slave holders long ago staked out the public position that their African slaves are happy and fulfilled in their lives of bondage. Africans’ inherent intelligence, so the reasoning goes, is suitable–at its best– for a life of enslavement consisting of social and racial isolation, hard work, meager rations, primitive housing, no familial bonds, and severe punishment in instances of disobedience. Such is God’s revealed will for the black race. That slaves by the thousands are fleeing to Union Armies as Northern forces relentlessly drive southward is an inconvenient fact that Southern whites uneasily gloss over.
And so it is that as night falls on Charleston, South Carolina, all is seemingly well in the Confederate stronghold safely guarded by the guns of Fort Sumter. The white officers of the Confederate steamer Planter retire to a party in town and leave the craft in the hands of their slave crew with orders to finish their chores.
Among the slave crew is Robert Smalls, the Planters’ wheelman. Born in 1839 in nearby Beaufort, South Carolina, Smalls is the son of a slave woman, Lydia, and (probably) her white master. As a result of the sexual favors Lydia was forced to give, her master treated her somewhat better than most of his other slaves, providing her with better food and clothing. Lydia, however, yearned for freedom, instilling this desire in her son, who took advantage of opportunities (rarely given to slaves) to learn to read and write. Later, as a young married man, the enterprising Smalls, allowed to earn his own wages on the side in Charleston, earns enough money to purchase the freedom of his wife and son. Among the skills acquired by the enterprising slave is navigation of the Charleston Harbor.
By the time war is imminent, Smalls is hired out as the pilot of the Confederate gunboat (formerly a cotton steamer) Planter. As the war progresses, the white officers of the ship place more and more trust in their compliant slave crew. Beneath the surface of the master – slave relationship, however, Robert Smalls quietly plots freedom for his crew and their families.
Tonight the slaves finally make their break for freedom in a high stakes drama.
With the officers away, a signal is given. In the dead of night, the families of the crew materialize from nearby hiding places and clamber aboard the Planter. Realizing they are risking their lives, Smalls offers a prayer:
“Oh Lord, we entrust ourselves into thy hands. Like thou didst for the Israelites in Egypt, Please stand over us to our promised land of freedom.”
Donning the captain’s uniform, Smalls directs his fellow slaves, navigating the harbor and sailing past Fort Sumter and to the Union blockade ships off the coast of Charleston. Surrendering the ship to the Union Navy, Smalls, his crew of eight and their families thus obtain freedom.
On the following day, Smalls is questioned by U.S. Admiral Du Pont, who then writes Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles: “this man, Robert Smalls, is superior to any who has yet come into our lines, intelligent as many of them have been. His information has been most interesting, and portions of it of utmost importance. … I shall continue to employ Robert as a pilot on board The Planter for inland waters. “
In the months ahead, Robert Smalls becomes a Northern celebrity, featured in Harper’s Weekly and (along with his crew) received by President Abraham Lincoln as heroes. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in Company B, 33rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, Smalls the following year rises to the rank of captain and commands the Planter for the United States for the remainder of the war.
The former slave also helps found a colony for freemen in Port Royal, Beaufort County, and following the war becomes a politician and vocal advocate for education for freedmen. Initially serving in the South Carolina House of Representative, Smalls is elected to the United States House of Representatives, serving five terms from 1875 to 1887. Afterwards, he remains on the national political scene for many years, forever stamping his imprint in South Carolina and beyond.
Robert Smalls is also a Baptist layman, a member of the First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, formed in 1861 by free blacks during Union occupation of the city. Yet his Baptist influence extends beyond his home congregation. Upon his death, he is buried in the cemetery of the nearby Tabernacle Baptist Church of Beaufort, a congregation also formed by freed blacks during Union occupation. Smalls’ funeral is said to have been the largest ever in the city. Later, a statue of Smalls is placed atop his grave.
Sources: “Robert Smalls, Beaufort, South Carolina” (link); “Robert Smalls: War Hero and Legislature, 1839-1915” (link); “First African Baptist Church” and “Tabernacle Baptist Church” in African American Historic Places of South Carolina by the South Carolina State Historic Preservation Office (2009) (link); “Tabernacle Baptist Church, Beaufort, South Carolina” (link); “Robert Smalls” official website (link)