By Brad Dison
In the Fall of 1861, Robert Smalls became the pilot of the CSS Planter, “the most valuable war vessel the Confederates had at Charleston.” Robert, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, had been piloting vessels in Charleston harbor for several years and knew it well.
The Planter was “a high-pressure, side-wheel steamer, 140 feet in length, and about 50 feet beam, and [drew] about five feet of water.” Before the war, the Charleston-built vessel was used to transport up to 1400 bales of cotton per trip. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Confederate Navy converted the vessel into a gunboat armed with a 32-pound rifle on its forward deck and a 24-pound howitzer on its aft deck.
The boat’s captain, Charles Relyea, along with his first and second mates, had a habit of sleeping in comfortable beds in homes near the wharf. Pilot Robert Smalls, engineers John Smalls and Alfred Gradine, and crew members Abraham Jackson, Gabriel Turno, William Morrison, Samuel Chisholm, Abraham Allston, and David Jones had to sleep in the cramped quarters aboard the boat.
One night in the spring of 1862, after the captain and first and second mates had gone ashore for the night, one of the crew aboard the Planter, unhappy about their situation, joked that they should defect to the north by running the vessel to the sea. Some of the crew members readily agreed. Robert, the senior most crew member, immediately warned the crew not to discuss the defection while onboard the vessel. Robert suggested that if they wanted to discuss the defection “in sober earnestness,” that they meet at his home in Charleston.
During their clandestine meeting, the entire crew, including Robert, decided that they would defect. Knowing that Robert was born and raised in Charleston, and that he had piloted vessels in the Charleston harbor for several years, the crew left the plan entirely up to Robert. They agreed to follow Robert’s orders without question, to be ready at a moment’s notice, and swore to absolute secrecy. All of the men knew that if they were caught trying to defect, or even discussing defection in the prized boat, they would surely be hung.
Robert and the other crewmen waited for the right opportunity to defect. Robert hid provisions for the crew members in the hold of the boat. On the night of May 12, 1862, Captain Relyea and his first and second mates went on shore to spend the night. The Planter was scheduled to leave for Fort Ripley on the following morning with supplies for the fort which included a 7-inch rifled gun, an 8-inch columbiad cannon, an 8-inch howitzer cannon, a long 82-pounder cannon, and about 200 rounds of ammunition. This, Robert decided, was the perfect opportunity.
Robert quickly put his secret plan into motion. He sent for his wife and three children, and John Smalls sent for his wife, child, and sister. The rest of the crew members had no family in Charleston. The men secreted the women and children onto the boat and aroused no suspicion. Leaving them in Charleston was not an option because the captain would have arrested them until the crew members returned to face charges. At about 3:00 a.m., the crew lit the fires under the boilers and waited for the pressure to build. Their hearts beat fast as the minutes felt like hours. Finally, steam had built up enough for them to depart and the vessel paddled away from the harbor.
The crew hoped to pass the batteries of Fort Sumter in the cover of darkness, but the tide was against the Planter and the vessel moved slowly through the water. It was fully daylight when the boat neared Fort Sumter. Robert wore clothing which, at a distance, resembled the hat and uniform of the Planter’s captain. As the boat approached the fort, Robert could see the sentinel. He reached for the whistle cord. If the sentinel suspected anything, Robert’s horn blasts would be answered by cannon fire. Otherwise, the sentinel would motion for the boat to continue. Robert gave the usual signal—two long pulls and a jerk at the whistle cord. He watched the sentinel’s every move. To Robert’s relief, the sentinel motioned for the boat to continue.
Robert steered the Planter away from the Confederacy and toward the American ships he knew would be waiting. As the vessel came within sight of the US Navy’s blockading squadron, the crew hoisted the white flag of surrender. US sailors boarded the Planter, learned of their plan to defect, and allowed them to pass through the blockade. The boat then proceeded to Port Royal, via St. Helena Sound and Broad River, and reached the Wabash, the flagship of the US Navy, at 10:00 p.m. The defection was mutually beneficial for the US Navy and the Planters’ crew and its passengers. The US Navy got what they wanted— “the most valuable war vessel the Confederates had at Charleston.” The Planters’ crew and its passengers got what they so desired—their freedom. Robert and the rest of the defectors were slaves.
Source: Fall River Daily Evening News (Fall River, Massachusetts), May 20, 1862, p.2.