As the war escalated, Robert heard stories of thousands of slaves seeking freedom with the Union Army. He could see the Union blockade just outside of Charleston Harbor. He knew if he could get his family to the Union, they would be free. Several of the crewmen aboard the Planter were also slaves. Robert hatched a plan where he would use the Planter to escape. He began to watch for the right moment to move.
A Daring Escape
The early morning of May 13, 1862 presented the perfect opportunity for escape. The ship had recently been loaded with several large cannon as well as ammunition. The munitions, together with the Planter itself, would prove a valuable asset to the Union. Also, the white officers went ashore to spend the night, leaving Robert and his fellow slave crewmen in charge of the ship. Earlier, Robert's family, as well as family members of the crew, had boarded a ship just to the north of where the Planter was docked. Everything was in place, just as Smalls had planned.
Around three in the morning, Robert and the crew took the ship out. In order to pass the checkpoints, Robert dressed in the captain's uniform. To cover his face, he wore a straw hat that the captain often wore. He even copied the captain's body language and movements. As they approached the first checkpoint, the rest of the crewmen hid from view. Robert gave the appropriate signals and began to move past the checkpoint. If his planned failed, he would be shot and his family punished.
The Planter Author: Charles Henry Alston
The Planter made it past the checkpoint and picked up the family members. Then it headed out of the harbor towards the Union Blockade. After successfully getting past the big guns at Fort Sumter, the ship began to approach the blockade. Robert changed out the Confederate Flag for a white flag and prayed that the Union would see it before they fired on the ship. Fortunately, a Union ship called the Onward spotted the white flag and approached the Planter without firing. Robert Smalls, his family, and all the slaves on board were now free.
Joining the Union
The story of Smalls' daring escape was published in Union newspapers making Smalls and his crewmen heroes throughout the Union. Not only were they free, but they were awarded prize money for bringing the ship and ammunition over to the Union. Smalls then joined the Union forces so he could help fight against the Confederacy and slavery.
During the war, Smalls was involved in around seventeen fighting engagements. He piloted several ships including the Planter and an ironclad ship called the Keokuk. Smalls also used his fame to advance the cause of African Americans in the North. He helped to convince Abraham Lincoln to allow black men to fight for the Union and also played a role in the integration of public transportation in Philadelphia.
The Robert Smalls House Source: Historic American Buildings Survey
After the War
When the Civil War ended, Robert Smalls returned to his hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina. With his military retirement as well as the prize money he received for handing the Planter over to the Union, Robert was able to buy his former masters' house. Robert spent the first few months learning to read and write. He then opened several businesses including a school for black children, a store, and a newspaper called the Southern Standard.