The Charleston slave who sailed to freedom

The Charleston slave who sailed to freedom

CHARLESTON, SC (WIS) - On May 13, 1862, Charleston slave Robert Smalls took his life, and his freedom, into his own hands.

Smalls stole and piloted the Confederate steamship the Planter out of the heavily-fortified Charleston harbor with with his wife, child and several friends on board. Just barely missing taking fire from the Union Navy, Smalls turned the Planter over to the Union and it was used along the Lowcountry coast throughout the Civil War.

Smalls' accomplishment has been the subject of several books, most recently one written by North Carolina journalist Cate Lineberry, Be Free or Die the Amazing Story of Robert Smalls' Escape from Slavery to Union Hero.

"When I read an article about Robert Smalls a few years ago, I was amazed that I had never heard of him and his incredible heroism and perseverance," Lineberry said. "I wanted to know how an illiterate enslaved man had accomplished so much in such a short period of time and against all odds. I also wanted to understand why he was not more widely known and celebrated—and hoped to change that through this book."

With his familiarity with the South Carolina coast, Smalls was hired by the Union Navy to pilot the Planter and several other ships throughout the war. His daring escape took him to Washington, D.C. to meet Abraham Lincoln and offer advice to his Cabinet.

"Robert Smalls is an American hero who triumphed over incredible difficulties. His story is as inspiring as it is riveting, and it showcases so many important aspects of our country's history, particularly the struggles of African Americans during the war and immediately following it. Unless we understand that history fully, it's unlikely that we'll be able to move forward with the racial issues that plague our country today," Lineberry said.

Smalls was 23 years old, illiterate, and owned by another human when he made his escape. He was able to earn the trust of his longtime master, Henry McKee of Beaufort. Because McKee hired him out to ship owners and commercial men in Charleston, Smalls was familiar with the Planter and the navigation and wartime procedures of Charleston Harbor.

"Smalls was not only smart and hardworking but he had a charm about him that served him well throughout his life. I think it was these characteristics that endeared him to McKee and, following his escape, the nation," Lineberry said.

Once free, he was a frequent speaker at meetings at northern anti-slavery societies.

"I focused the book on Smalls' Civil War years because I felt that those times were the ones that shaped him the most and helped him discover the skills that launched his political career after the war," Lineberry said. "I also saw his story during the war as incredibly dramatic and exciting and thought it would captivate readers. His escape from slavery was a derring-do that highlighted his tremendous bravery, courage and intelligence. I also hoped to illustrate through Smalls' story some of the many issues faced by the country and particularly African Americans at the time."

Smalls was instrumental in convincing northerners that African American people would be willing to fight for the Union.

"I fully appreciated just how significant his role was in helping change the country's attitude toward African Americans," Lineberry said. "It's hard to imagine that many people, even in the North, questioned whether blacks would fight for their freedom and their country. Smalls' daring act on May 13, 1862, and the steps he took afterwards, helped change that. And though he was nearly as famous as Frederick Douglass at the time, today many Americans do not know his story. Smalls deserves to be remembered and honored for his heroism and all that he accomplished."

Because Smalls was born in Beaufort and lived in Charleston before his escape, Lineberry traveled to the Lowcountry for her research.

"It's important to have a sense of place and understand how geography and culture impact a story, so spending time in both Charleston and Beaufort was critical. I also accessed various library collections in both places and met with local experts on the history of the area, the Civil War and African American history," she said.

Her researched uncovered a document that affected her deeply.

"Probably the most striking and unsettling document I came across was an 1847 bill of sale for Smalls' wife Hannah, and her three children to Samuel Kingman. The price for all four souls was $850. I also found the claim Kingman put into the state of South Carolina for Hannah and her children after they escaped. Both of these documents underscored the horrific nature of slavery and its absolute disregard for human life."

With the money he earned by working for the Union Navy, Smalls eventually bought the Beaufort home of his former master, Henry McKee.  After the war, he owned a business and served five terms representing South Carolina in the U.S. Congress.

He died in 1915 at his home on Prince Street in Beaufort at the age of 75.

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