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Well tonight I thought I'd better start writing some new tidbits. The ones from Christmas on have been ones I did years ago. But the holidays have come and gone and my siggies are done. I have to admit that I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew when I took this one on but I am thrilled that I actually got them done. Now all I have to do is patiently (yeah right) wait for the return package.

On to the tidbits. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, DH and I went to Charleston, South Carolina. It's a glorious city and has a lot of Civil War history. As you know, Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, is there and Fort Wagner, as seen in the movie "Glory" is there. This fort was pretty much impenetrable. Being located atop a dune on the sandy beach of an island made it impossible to successfully attack without huge losses of life. I would highly recommend the movie. It's about the organizing of the 54thMassachusetts and the storming of Fort Wagner is a small part of it.

Having said that I'll once again try to get on with the tidbits for tonight which by the way don't have anything to do with Forts Sumter and Wagner or the movie "Glory".

Many people think that slaves were confined to the plantations and knew nothing of life outside of them. However, this was not true. Slaves were oftentimes hired out to rice, sugar and grist mills, construction and building locations, turpentine distilleries, flour mills and gold mines. I'm sure there are more. Slaves often served onboard steamboats as servants, waiters, barkeepers, cooks, deckhands and woodcutters. Tonight I'm going to tell you about a man from Charleston, Robert Smalls, who was a pilot on one such steamer, the Planter. He was well trusted and taught to read the charts. He would oftentimes take the wheel for the captain so he knew well the area he sailed and knew the correct signal whistles when going into and leaving the harbor.

Robert had seen the Union blockading ships from the pilothouse and had been thinking about leaving Charleston and joining forces with them for some time. He had heard of the Union enlisting colored men into service and that all contraband refugees were being treated kindly. He was anxious to go and when he formulated a plan he presented it to his brother, John, also employed on the steamer. His brother immediately agreed and of course could be trusted. Then after cautiously feeling out fellow slaves' patriotism, Robert included them in the plan. They were going to sail the Planter right out of Charleston harbor and head for the Union blockade

They all knew the chances they were taking and how dangerous it was going to be sailing right past Castle Pinckney, and Forts Moultrie and Sumter. They decided that if they were fired upon they would not be taken alive, they would use the Planter's guns to put off pursuit and attack.

On Monday evening, May 12, 1862, the Planter's officers told Robert to make sure things were ready for the next day's delivery of valuable cargo to Fort Ripley and Fort Sumter. Robert, however, knew the cargo was not going to reach the forts but showed none of what was going on in his head. After the officers left the vessel for the night, Robert's and John's wives and children boarded the steamer. The wharf guard thought nothing of this since the families often visited and brought food to their husbands and fathers. A little later a Colored man from the steamer Etowah joined them.

After midnight, when all was quiet, fires were started and steam raised so that between 3 and 4 o'clock Robert gave orders to cast off. Slowly he backed away from the wharf and blew the signal whistles. He proceeded as if heading for Fort Sumter but went right on past once again sounding the signal whistles. Although reported, the officer of the day thought nothing of this maneuver since the Planter was familiar to the fort and was often seen at these early hours. The Planter went right on by without being fired upon.

Once past Fort Sumter, those on board felt the stress of the operation falling away. They rigged a white flag and headed straight for the Union ships. But they were still in great danger for what if the white flag wasn't seen. None of the Union navy knew anything about the escape plan.

An eye witness, a crew member of the Union ship Onward, and a war correspondent, told of the Planter's arrival in this way: "We have been anchored in the ship channel for some days, and have frequently seen a secesh steamer plying in and around the harbor. Well, this morning, about sunrise, I was awakened by the cry of 'All hands to quarters!' and before I could get out, the steward knocked vigorously on my door and called 'All hands to quarter, sah! De ram am a comin', sah!; I don't recollect of ever dressing myself any quicker, and got out on deck in a hurry. Sure enough, we could see, through the mist and fog, a great black object moving rapidly, and steadily, right at our port quarter". Springs were bent on, and the Onward was rapidly warping around so as to bring her broadside to bear on the steamer that was still rapidly approaching us; and when the guns were brought to bear, some of the men looked at the Stars and Stripes, and then at the steamer, and muttered 'You----! If you run into us we will go down with colors flying!' Just as No. 3 port gun was being elevated, some one cried out, 'I see something that looks like a white flag' and true enough there was something flying on the steamer that would have been white by application of soap and water. As she neared us, we looked in vain for the face of a white man. When they discovered that we would not fire on them, there was a rush of contrabands out on her deck, some dancing, some singing, whistling, jumping; and others stood looking towards Fort Sumter, and muttering all sorts of maledictions against it., and 'de heart of de Souf,' generally. As the steamer came near, and under the stern of the Onward one of the Colored men stepped forward, and taking off his hat, shouted, 'Good morning, sir! I've brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!; ' " (p159)

Congress awarded half of the prize money for the Planter to Robert and his men and Robert in return gave much significant information to Union authorities. During the rest of the war, he served as pilot on the Plante rand other vessels sailing the coast of South Carolina. Robert later played an important role in South Carolina's Reconstruction politics serving in the state's House of Representatives and Senate and was later elected to Congress.

Franklin, John Hope and Schweninger, Loren, "Runaway Slaves, Rebels on the Plantation", Oxford University Press, 1999. 26, 36

McPherson, James M., "The Negro's Civil War, How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union", New York, Ballantine Books, 1991.

© 2006 Winifred Ledoux