The Slave Who Stole the Confederate Codes—and a Rebel Warship
When three Confederate officers decided to go ashore for a night in Charleston, they left their gunboat in the hands of an enslaved pilot. It was a critical mistake.
We don’t know precisely why the three white officers on board a Confederate transport and gunboat called the CSS Planter decided to go ashore in Charleston, South Carolina, the night of May 12, 1862.
Maybe they went to see their families. Maybe they went drinking or whoring. Certainly they were acting against orders, but they seemed to think the slave they left in charge of the Planter, a skilled 23-year-old harbor pilot named Robert Smalls, would take good care of the ship for them.
On board were pieces of naval artillery, including a 32-pounder on a pivot, a 24-pounder howitzer, and a gun that had been at Fort Sumter. There were 200 rounds of ammunition, and according to several accounts there was a book of codes and signals that were currently in use by the Confederate Navy. Perhaps most importantly, there was Smalls himself, a true fount of information about Confederate defenses around Charleston harbor.
A couple of hours before dawn, the Planter started its engines and its paddle wheel began to turn. It pulled away from the wharf in plain site of the Confederate commanding general’s headquarters, but nobody moved to stop it.
Probably Smalls had encouraged the white officers to go ashore. He knew they wanted to get away—they may well have done so before; he knew the way they thought; he knew what they wanted. The ways of white Southerners had never been a mystery to him.
Smalls had been born in Beaufort, South Carolina, the son of the slave woman Lydia Polite. His father, it is generally agreed although it was never publicly acknowledged, was Henry McKee, the white son of Lydia’s white owner.
Many people observed that when Robert was a little boy, the McKee family favored him over other slave children on their properties. Henry took him on errands and social visits, and it’s said by Robert’s descendants that his enslaved mother eventually worried that the little boy was too coddled.
When Robert was about 10, according to family lore, his mother arranged for him to go to work in the fields to get a taste of slavery’s grim realities. She also had him watch at the whipping post where field hands were scourged for any number of infractions, or just to set an example.
According to Michael Boulware Moore, president of the International African American Museum, and Smalls’s great-great grandson, Robert’s mother would tell him “you may be enslaved, but you are not a slave.”
That was hard for the child to reconcile with what was going on around him. “Robert lived in a little bit of a bubble,” says Moore. He had trouble accepting a world in which he played with white children during the day, then was forced to quit when curfew came for slaves. “He was, as the story goes, disturbed and angered by having a different set of rules.”
By the time Robert was 11, according to the stories handed down to his descendants (his eldest daughter lived until 1959), his background of special privilege and newfound anger had made him rebellious, and even as a child he was thrown in Beaufort jail, where Henry McKee would post his bail. Finally, Robert was sent to Charleston by the McKees, who rented him out for odd jobs, and doubtless hoped he would stay out of trouble.
This was the decade before the American Civil War, and there at the epicenter of the Southern secession movement, amid all the talk of defending “states’ rights”— in fact the “right” to own Negroes as chattel, giving them no rights whatsoever as human beings—the day-to-day relations between blacks and whites were full of what seem today like strange paradoxes.
Armed white militias enforced curfews against blacks, and there was a special jail in ostensibly cosmopolitan Charleston where delicate whites could take their slaves to have them beaten for a fee.
But there was also a substantial population of people who were listed in the census as “f.p.c.,” free persons of color, often working as tradesmen, seamstresses, and the like. And of the slave population of Charleston, which was at least as great as the white population, many were people who worked earning money for their owners. If they were lucky, like Smalls, they made a bit for themselves.
“He worked odd jobs before finding work on the docks,” Moore told me over the phone from Charleston, “and quickly he gravitated toward piloting boats.”
That night of May 12, 1862, was one year and one month exactly after the Civil War began with the secessionists firing on Fort Sumter. Now in Confederate hands, it loomed, dark and menacing, at the entrance to the harbor. By that point, after at least three years at the wheel of the Planter and other ships, Smalls knew as well as anyone the treacherous channels where the Yankees had tried sinking ships full of stones, and the Confederates had laid crude naval mines.
He also knew the signs and countersigns that could be used to pass the Confederate forts.
A couple of years earlier, while still in his teens, Smalls had met a somewhat older slave woman named Hannah who worked in one of the Charleston hotels; they had married, and by 1862 they had a little girl, Elizabeth, and a little boy, Robert Jr.
Smalls and Hannah had gotten permission from their owners to move into a small apartment together and Smalls set his sights on freeing them both along with their children. First he offered to pay the Kingman family for Hannah—one slave buying the freedom of another. (“Robert had a power of persuasion,” as Moore puts it.) But there was a bubble market in Negroes at the time, and the McKees asked $700 for Hannah, which was slightly below market price. All Smalls had was $100, according to the stories passed down to his descendants, some of which can be found on the website “Robert Smalls: A Traveling Exhibition.”
So Smalls developed another plan. According to a U.S. House Naval Affairs Committee report written years later (and cited here), Smalls told the other black crewmen on board the Planter what he was about to do. Some of them probably knew already, but two, who may have been surprised, decided to stay onshore. Four decided to take their chances with Smalls. “The design was hazardous in the extreme,” said the Naval Affairs report. “Failure and detection would have been certain death.”
After pulling out of the dock, the Planter stopped at the West Atlantic Wharf to pick up Hannah and the children along with four other women, three more men, and another child.
The Planter passed Fort Johnson, giving the correct signal with its horn, and then it passed Fort Sumter. Smalls, dimly visible by lantern light, had donned the distinctive straw hat the captain of the ship was known to wear. The Confederate stars and bars and the South Carolina palmetto flag were flying high. Nobody in the forts suspected what was going on.
Just outside the harbor lay the Union fleet, blockading the port and looking for some opening that might allow it to take Charleston, which had major strategic value and huge symbolic importance as the cradle of the secession.
In the dim early light, the Planter approached a magnificent clipper ship, the USS Onward, which had been converted to military service. It readied its guns to fire.
But Hannah Smalls had come prepared with a white sheet. The Confederate flags were struck, the white sheet raised.
U.S. Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont, wrote immediately afterward, “The bringing out of this steamer, under all the circumstances, would have done credit to anyone.” He noted the inventory of guns and ammo aboard, the quality of the ship itself, and found its pilot especially interesting:
“This man, Robert Smalls, is superior to any [other escaped slave] who has yet come into the lines, intelligent as many of them have been,” DuPont wrote. “His information has been most interesting, and portions of it of the utmost importance.”
Indeed, Smalls, who was illiterate at the time, had brought with him the books of codes and signals being used by the Confederate Navy. But, according to Stephen Wise, co-author of Rebellion, Reconstruction, and Redemption, 1861-1863, which deals extensively with the Smalls story, the most important information he brought was what he had in his head.
The Confederates would have changed their codes quickly, knowing they were lost, Wise told me in a phone call from the U.S. Marine Corps Parris Island Museum, where he is director. But Smalls told the Union officers the Rebels had been drawing down their defenses along the Stono River, which lies south and east the peninsula on which Charleston is built.
The information Smalls provided, and his piloting “sped up the movement of the Federal troops into the Stono River,” says Wise, giving the Union an opportunity to move up the waterway and use it as a base to move overland, where it could to cut off the top of the Charleston peninsula and take the city, as the British had done in 1780 during the Revolutionary War.
But, as happened many times in 1862, the Union commanders hesitated, and the moment was lost. “The Federals blew it,” says Wise.
The Smalls story does not end there. Far from it. In those days, months before the Emancipation Proclamation, he was held up as a hero to black Americans and to whites in the North alike. He went on to serve with the Union Navy throughout the war, sometimes at the helm of the Planter, sometimes on other ships, and was commended for his bravery.
Smalls also receive a substantial sum of “prize money” for turning over the Planter, and after the war he was able to go back to Beaufort, where he bought the McKee house. He lived there until his death in 1915.
Smalls became a leading figure in Reconstruction politics and a stalwart of the Republican Party—which in those days really was “the party of Lincoln.” He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives five times before, finally, South Carolina’s Jim Crow laws made that impossible.
In 1890, Smalls wrote an article in the North American Review that described in excruciating detail the way the old secessionists had re-taken control of government in South Carolina. The Ku Klux Klan outrages “which aroused the indignation of the the entire North,” had given way to something that sounded more benign, but certainly was not: “murderous gangs called ‘rifle clubs,’ who, acting in concert, terrorized nearly the entire State, overawing election officers and defying the courts.”
Smalls, so long accustomed to perilous journeys in the extreme, ended on a note he wanted nobody to forget then, and that nobody should forget now. “Negroes of the country gave 186,000 men who fought in 252 battles for the perpetuity of this great nation,” wrote Smalls. “We do not intend to go anywhere, but will remain right here and help make this the most powerful of all governments.”