Slaves Hijack the CSS Planter, Sail it to Freedom

May 13, 1862 (Tuesday)

Robert Smalls was born a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina, moving to Charleston with his master when he was twelve. There, through being hired out to other slave owners, he was able to learn the art of navigating the water, and to finally become a seaman. In Charleston is where he found himself when Fort Sumter was bombarded and surrendered in April of 1861. The man who owned him, hired him out as a stevedore aboard the CSS Planter just as hostilities were getting underway.

The Planter, a speedy, 140-foot, shallow-draft steamer, had been mounted with two large naval guns, and used as a transport vessel, carrying up to 1,000 men, materials, and messages throughout Charleston Harbor and along the nearby coast.1

For the past several weeks, the defenses of Charleston were being rearranged by General Roswell S. Ripley, military commander over the area. Specifically, the batteries on Cole’s Island were being moved to the Middle Ground Battery at Fort Ripley, placed upon a man-made island off Folly Island.

The CSS Planter

On May 12, the Planter, along with her white officers and crew of eight black men, was under orders to run to Cole’s Island, take aboard four pieces of artillery bound for Ripley. Since it was late in the day, the captain decided to tie up at the city’s Southern Wharf and deliver the guns the following day. Completely disobeying the order for all officers to stay aboard their ships, the Captain, Mate and Engineer decided they could get a better night sleep on shore, leaving the Planter under the command of her wheelman, the slave, Robert Smalls.2

Over the past several months, the crew of the Planter, all slaves, had been batting around the idea of stealing the ship and gaining their freedom. Smalls took it upon himself to mastermind the plot, holding several meetings in his house while he and the rest of the crew worked out the details. For a slave to even hold the idea of commandeering a Confederate Naval vessel to obtain his freedom meant certain death if discovered. Once the plan was in action, the dangers grew exponentially, as they would have to steam unnoticed past the guns of Fort Sumter. However, when the ship’s Captain docked at South Wharf for the night, they saw their chance.

Smalls, and probably other crewmen, quietly left the ship to retrieve their families. Until it was time to make their run, they squirreled wives and children away on a ship in the North Atlantic Wharf. Though two of the crew backed out at the last minute, at 3am, Smalls, now the Captain he was always meant to be, ordered his men to bring the Planter up to steam and to run up the Confederate ensign.3

A few of the crew spoke up, worried that someone might smell the smoke and think it was a fire, alerting the authorities who would break up their design before it even got underway. But all fears were for naught, as when the steam was up, Smalls pulled out of the berth and began his run towards the harbor, blowing the whistle, as was routine, to avoid suspicion. The ruse worked.4 A Confederate sentinel, not fifty yards away, saw the Planter leave the Wharf and thought nothing of it at all.5

Once in the Harbor, he steamed towards North Atlantic Wharf to retrieve their families. After taking on board five women, three men and three children, they made for the sea. While running near Fort Johnson, their first obstacle, they blew the whistle to signal her passing. When the sound echoed across the silent water, Smalls prayed, “Oh Lord, we entrust ourselves into Thy hands.”

CSS Planter

The first fingers of yellow dawn had begun to edge their way into the eastern sky, illuminating the outline of Fort Sumter. The Planter would have to receive permission to pass by the fort. Smalls, hoping to complete the deception, replaced his own hat with the Captain’s and stood with his back towards to fort, hoping they wouldn’t realize that he was not a white man. He gave the signal – two long blasts, one short – and waited for Sumter’s reply. Like nothing was out of place, the reply came and the Planter was permitted to leave Charleston Harbor.6

As she ran past Morris Island, Smalls could see the camp of a light artillery battery on the shore. Some stories have it that a watchman signaled the battery to try and stop the Planter, as after she cleared the range of the fort’s guns, it was obvious that she was headed towards the Federal Naval fleet.7

Noticed or not (the Confederate reports in the Official Records make no mention of such notice), the Planter was indeed headed for the Northern Fleet. Lt. J.F. Nickels of the USS Onward spotted the mysterious steamer at sunrise.

Robert Smalls

“I immediately beat to quarters and sprung the ship around so as to enable me to bring her broadsides to bear,” reported Nickels, “and had so far succeeded as to bring the port guns to bear, when I discovered that the steamer, now rapidly approaching, had a white flag set at the fore.”

When the Planter pulled along side the Onward, Smalls explained the ordeal to Nickels, who came aboard the vessel, hauled down the white flag and ran up the flag of the United States.8

The ship and her crew were delivered to Commander E. G. Parrott, aboard his flagship the USS Augusta. He decided to send the ship to Flag Officer Du Pont at Port Royal, entrusting Robert Smalls, “the very intelligent contraband who was in charge,” with passing along all the information he knew about the Confederate defenses of Charleston.9

USS Planter

The Planter, Robert Smalls and crew, along with officers and a crew from the Augusta, made it to Port Royal and Flag Officer Du Pont before sunset. During the interview Smalls informed Du Pont that one of the heavy guns that he was carrying on board his ship had been in Fort Sumter during the April 1861 bombardment. The piece had been struck on the muzzle, but not badly damaged, by a Confederate shot during the bombardment.

Du Pont was so impressed with Smalls, describing him as “superior to any who has yet come into the lines, intelligent as many of them have been.” So impressed, that Du Pont insisted that he “continue to employ Robert as a pilot on board the Planter for the inland waters, with which he appears to be very familiar.”

Going one step farther, the Flag Officer believed that the Planter should be considered a prize, and that Smalls and his men should be compensated for her delivery.10

Robert Smalls, Post-War.

Over the next couple of months, the Planter was appraised at the value of $9,168 (thought to be a very lowball figure by some). Half of that total was ordered by Congress to be given to Robert Smalls and his men. Smalls received $1,500 (he was later given an additional $5,000), while the other crew received $400. The additional male, picked up from the ship where the women and children were hidden, received $384. The remaining $100 was split between the two “unprotected women,” who had no relation to anyone aboard the Planter.11

Smalls accepted the job with the Navy and continued to pilot the Planter, eventually becoming her Captain, taking home $150 per month. After the war, Smalls was elected to the South Carolina Constitutional Convention, and then to the State Legislature, where he introduced the Civil Rights bill. He was elected state Senator in 1872 and later became the Lt. Col. of the 3rd South Carolina State Militia. In 1875, he was elected to the US House of Representatives, a position he held until 1887, when he returned to Beaufort, South Carolina as the customs agent.12



  1. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Volume 2 edited by Junius P. Rodriguez, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. As well as Secessionville: Assault on Charleston by Patrick Brennan, Da Capo Press, Sep 21, 1996. []
  2. The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865 by E. Milby Burton, University of South Carolina Press, 1982. The term “wheelman” was used for blacks, as only white men could be pilots. The job, however, was identical. []
  3. Secessionville: Assault on Charleston by Patrick Brennan, Da Capo Press, Sep 21, 1996. []
  4. The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865 by E. Milby Burton, University of South Carolina Press, 1982. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 14, p15. []
  6. Secessionville: Assault on Charleston by Patrick Brennan, Da Capo Press, Sep 21, 1996. []
  7. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising by William J. Simmons and Henry McNeal Turner, 1887. []
  8. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, p822. Nickel’s Report. []
  9. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, p821-822. Parrott’s Report. []
  10. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, p820-821. Du Pont’s Report. []
  11. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, p824-825. The lowball figure was written about in Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising by William J. Simmons and Henry McNeal Turner, 1887. []
  12. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising by William J. Simmons and Henry McNeal Turner, 1887. And Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Volume 2 edited by Junius P. Rodriguez, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. []
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Slaves Hijack the CSS Planter, Sail it to Freedom by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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7 thoughts on “Slaves Hijack the CSS Planter, Sail it to Freedom

  1. There is an exhibit called “The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls” at the Charleston Museum through the 19th of June. We’re going to be in Charleston for several days seeing the sights and doing some exploring. We’ll probably check this out.

    1. I’d love that. I can’t image that it would fly in Hollywood. Look how poorly George “Star Wars” Lucas’ movie about black fighter pilots in WW2 did.

  2. smalls also “stole “the captains hat which apparently help them out of the harbor-wearing the wide brimmed hat sentrys thought it was the owner

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