On May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls, the pilot of the side-wheel steamer, Planter, led his crew and relatives to freedom in an act that would be soon acclaimed across the Union. Smalls later became the first black captain of a United States ship on the USS Planter, now an Army transport vessel.
May 18, 1862, The New York Herald
HILTON HEAD, S. C., May 14, 1862.
One of the most daring and heroic adventures since the war commenced was undertaken and successfully accomplished by a party of negroes in Charleston on Monday night last. Nine colored men, comprising the pilot, engineers and crew of the rebel gunboat Planter, took the vessel under their exclusive control, passed the batteries and forts in Charleston harbor, hoisted a white flag, ran out to the blockading squadron, and thence to Port Royal, via St. Helena Sound and Broad river, reaching the flagship Wabash shortly after ten o’clock last evening.
The following are the names of the black men who performed this gallant and perilous service: —
Robert Smalls, pilot; John Smalls and Alfred Gradine, engineers; Abraham Jackson, Gabriel Turno, William Morrison, Samuel Chisholm, Abraham Allston and David Jones. They brought with them the wife and three children of the pilot, and the wife, child and sister of the first engineer, John Smalls. The balance of the party were without families.
The Planter is a high-pressure, side-wheel steamer, one hundred and forty feet in length, and about fifty feet beam, and draws about five feet of water. She was built in Charleston, was formerly used as a cotton boat, and is capable of carrying about 1,400 bales. On the organization of the Confederate navy she was transformed into a gunboat, and was the most valuable war vessel the Confederates had a Charleston. Her armament consisted of one thirty-two pound rifle gun forward and a twenty-four pound howitzer aft. Besides, she had on board when she came into the harbor one seven-inch rifled gun, one eight-inch columbiad, one eight-inch howitzer, one long thirty-two pounder, and about two hundred rounds of ammunition, which had been consigned to Fort Ripley, and which would have been delivered at that fortification on Tuesday had not the designs of the rebel authorities been frustrated. She was commanded by Captain Relay, of the Confederate navy — all the other employes of the vessel, excepting the first and second mates, being persons of color.
Robert Smalls, with whom I had a brief interview at General Bonham’s headquarters this morning, is an intelligent negro, born in Charleston, and employed for many years as a pilot in and about that harbor. He entered upon his duties on board the Planter some six weeks since, and, as he told me, adopted the idea of running the vessel to sea from a joke which one of his companions perpetrated. He immediately cautioned the crew against alluding to the matter in any way on board the boat, but asked them, if they wanted to talk it up in sober earnestness, to meet at this house, where they would devise and determine upon a plan to place themselves under the protection of the Stars and Stripes instead of the stars and bars. Various plans were proposed; but finally the whole arrangement of the escape was left to the discretion and sagacity of Robert, his companions promising to obey him and be ready at a moment’s notice to accompany him. For three days he kept the provisions of the party secreted in the hold, awaiting an opportunity to slip away. At length on Monday evening, the white officers of the vessel went on shore to spend the night, intending to start on the following morning for Fort Ripley and to be absent from the city for some days. The families of the contrabands were notified and came stealthily on board. At about three o’clock the fires were lit under the boilers, and the vessel steamed quietly away down the harbor. The tide was against her, and Fort Sumter was not reached till broad daylight. However, the boat passed directly under its walls, giving the usual signal — two long pulls and a jerk at the whistle cord — as she passed the sentinel.
Once out of range of the rebel guns the white flag was raised, and the Planter steamed directly for the blockading steamer Augusta. Captain Parrott, of the latter vessel, as you may imagine, received them cordially heard their report, placed Acting Master Watson of his ship, in charge of the Planter and sent the confederate gunboat and crew forward to Commodore Dupont. The families of the crew have been sent to Beaufort, where General Stevens will make suitable provision for them. The crew will be taken care of by Commodore Dupont.
The Planter is just such a vessel as is needed to navigate the shallow waters between Hilton Head and the adjacent islands, and will prove almost invaluable to the government. It is proposed, I hear, by the Commodore to recommend an appropriation of $20,000 as a reward to the plucky Africans who have distinguished themselves by this gallant service — $5,000 to be given to the pilot and the remainder to be divided among his companions.
The contrabands who came by the Planter represent that the feeling in Charleston approaches nearer to a panic than at any time since the rebellion was inaugurated. The women and children have been ordered out of the place, and have taken whatever of value they could carry with them. The troops are in constant expectation of an attack, and the remaining citizens are nightly holding meetings to devise further means of defence. The steamers in the harbor are seven in number; but only one of them — the Marion — is armed, and she is not capable of doing any damage or offering any resistance to an attacking force. Provisions are terribly scarce and dear.