May 13, 1862: Robert Smalls Seizes CSS Planter


Born in 1839 as a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina, Robert Smalls freed himself and his family in a dramatic fashion on May 13, 1862.  Sent to Charleston when he was 12 by his master Henry McKee, who may also have been his father, Robert made his way holding a series of jobs.  He early developed a love for the sea, and began working on the docks as a stevedore.  He was eager to learn and worked himself up to being a pilot aboard ships.  In 1856 he married his wife Hannah, a hotel maid.  In 1858 their daughter was born, and in 1861 their family welcomed a son.

With the coming of the War, Robert served as a pilot aboard the CSS Planter, an armed transport.  On the evening of May 12, 1862, the white officers decided to sleep onshore.  Robert and his fellow slave members of the crews decided this was their opportunity to steam to freedom.  At 3:00 AM, they cast off, stopping at a nearby wharf to pick up their families.

Under the command of Smalls the CSS Planter sailed past the five Confederate forts guarding the harbor and passed out of the harbor to the Union blockading fleet.  Smalls and his colleagues found themselves national heroes throughout the North.  Smalls’ share of the CSS Planter as a prize of war was $1,500.00, a huge sum when one considers that Union privates were paid $15.00 a month.  Smalls met with Lincoln who was impressed by his intelligence and resourcefulness.  Smalls went on to have an interesting career during the War both on land and sea, and a spectacular political career after the War.  One post can’t do justice to the man, and I will have two future posts dealing with his additional service during the War and his post war political career in South Carolina.  Here is the report of Flag Officer S.F.  Du Pont on the capture of the CSS Planter:

Report of Flag-Officer Du Pont, U. S. Navy. FLAGSHIP WABASH, Port Royal Harbor, S. C., May 14, 1862.

SIR: I enclose a copy of a report from Commander E. G. Parrott, brought here last night by the late rebel steam tug Planter, in charge of an officer and crew from the Augusta. She was an armed dispatch and transportation steamer attached to the engineer department at Charleston, under Brigadier-General Ripley, whose barge, a short time since, was brought out to the blockading fleet by several contrabands.


The bringing out of this steamer, under all the circumstances, would have done credit to anyone. At 4 in the morning, in the absence of the captain, who was on shore, she left her wharf close to the Government office and headquarters, with palmetto and Confederate flag flying, passed the successive forts, saluting as usual by blowing her steam whistle. After getting beyond the range of the last gun she quickly hauled down the rebel flags and hoisted a white one.

The Onward was the inside ship of the blockading fleet in the main channel, and was preparing to fire when her commander made out the white flag.

The armament of the steamer is a 32-pounder, on pivot, and a fine 24 pounder howitzer. She had, besides, on her deck, four other guns, one 7-inch rifle, which were to be taken the morning of the escape to the new fort on the middle ground. One of the four belonged to Fort Sumter, and had been struck, in the rebel attack on that fort, on the muzzle.

Robert, the intelligent slave and pilot of the boat, who performed this bold feat so skillfully, informed me of this fact, presuming it would be a matter of interest to us to have possession of this gun.

This man, Robert Smalls, is superior to any who has yet come into the lines, intelligent as many of them have been. His information has been most interesting, and portions of it of the utmost importance.

The steamer is quite a valuable acquisition to the squadron, by her good machinery and very light draft. The officer in charge brought her through St. Helena Sound and by the inland passage down Beaufort River, arriving here at 10 last night.

On board the steamer when she left Charleston were 8 men, 5 women, and 3 children. I shall continue to employ Robert as a pilot on board the Planter for the inland waters, with which he appears to be very familiar.

I do not know whether, in the views of the Government, the vessel will be considered a prize; but, if so, I respectfully submit to the Department the claims of this man Robert and his associates.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant, S. F. DU PONT, Flag-Officer, Comdg. South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Published in: on May 13, 2022 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on May 13, 1862: Robert Smalls Seizes CSS Planter  
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