"Pass the Planter."
The cry from the sentinel at Fort Sumter was the response Robert Smalls had been hoping for. He put the Planter, a Confederate steamboat, in motion and headed straight for the ships that blockaded the coast. The first ship that saw the Planter, the USS Onward, almost fired.
Then they saw the white flag.
Robert Smalls had just executed perhaps the most daring escape of the Civil War. He'd swiped a Confederate ship, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, Howitzer guns, other weapons, and seventeen slaves, among them his own wife and children -- and did it all right under the noses of the Confederacy.
Smalls was born in 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina, the son of a black slave and a white man. As a child, his mother, a house slave, sent her son into the fields to experience true slavery. She wanted her son to see the inhumanity of slavery, and she succeeded. That experience gave him the spirit he would need to later escape to freedom.
Smalls was sent to Charleston when he was 12. He learned to sail, and proved himself a capable and worthy seafarer. Slowly, he earned the trust of his slave masters. When he was assigned to steer the Planter, an armed Confederate steamship, he began thinking of his escape plan. He knew the waterways, and he knew the signals that the Planter's whistle would give. Now, all he needed was the chance.
It came on the night of May 12, 1862. The three white officers in charge of the Planter, instead of spending the night aboard the ship, decided to stay on shore instead. Smalls, and eight other crewmen, were left aboard. When Smalls told them his plan, most of them decided to go with him.
Remembering a remark a fellow crewman had made -- "Boy, you look 'jes like de captain" -- Smalls put on the jacket and straw hat of the ship's captain and set out on his journey. They made one stop, at a nearby wharf, to pick up other slaves, including Smalls' wife and children. If caught, Smalls matter-of-factly stated to his wife, he'd be shot.
But the Planter was passed, and when it reached the USS Onward, the now-free slaves broke into celebration, singing, dancing, and laughing. When Smalls met the captain of the Onward, he commented, "I thought the Planter might be of some use to Uncle Abe."
After the Civil War ended, he returned to South Carolina and bought his former owner's house. He then began several business ventures, including a store, a school for black children, and a newspaper. Smalls also began a political career that culminated in his serving for five terms in the US House of Representatives.
Smalls once stated, "My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life."
Robert Smalls' courage and ingenuity proves the truth of his statement.
White, Micah, "Black History Unsung Heroes: Robert Smalls." Biography.com
Roberts, Blain and Kytle, Ethan, "Robert Small's Great Escape," New York Times website, May 12, 2012
"Smalls, Robert, 1839-1915," United States House of Representatives, History, Art and Archives