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The author is Professor of History at Morgan State College, Baltimore. He holds the Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, has published Frederick Douglass and The Negro in the Civil War, and is on the board of the Journal of Negro History. The Abduction of the"Planter" BENJAMIN QUARLES t? the confederate capital on a spring afternoon in the second year of the war came a one-sentence dispatch addressed to General R. E. Lee: "I have }ust learned by telegraph that [the] steamer "Planter," with five guns aboard, intended for the harbor, was stolen in Charleston this morning." Dated May 13, 1862, from the Savannah headquarters of the Department of South Carolina and Georgia, the terse report concluded with a "Very respectfully," and bore the name of the commanding officer, J. C. Pemberton . Pemberton's dispatch referred to the "abduction" by a group of slaves of a Confederate vessel, a dramatic deed which made its instigator, Robert Smalls, "an object of interest in Dupont's fleet," as Admiral David D. Porter phrased it. The spectacular escape of Smalls and his party became one of the war's oft-told stories. Requiring careful planning and brilliant execution, the feat in truth was unparalleled in audacity. "I thought," said Smalls, as he delivered the vessel to the Union Navy, "that the 'Planter' might be of some use to Uncle Abe." A native South Carolinian, Smalls was bom in Beaufort in 1839. When he was twelve his master brought him to Charleston, where, after a succession of occupations, he finally became a rigger and began to learn boating and the twisting coastal waters. When the war came, the stockily built young slave was impressed into the Confederate service, and in March, 1862, he was made a member of the crew of the "Planter." Formerly a cotton steamer plying the Pee Dee River and capable of carrying 1,400 bales, the "Planter" had been chartered by the war government and converted into a transport running from point to point in the Charleston harbor and the neighboring waters. Built of live oak and red Ò BENJAMIN QUARLES cedar, the boat measured 150 feet in length, had a 30 foot beam, a depth of 7 feet 10 inches, and drew 3 feet 9 inches of water. As a Confederate dispatch boat, she mounted two guns for her own use, a 32-pounder pivot gun and a 24-pounder howitzer. Attached to the engineering department at Charleston, the "Planter" carried a crew of eleven, of whom three were whites—captain, mate, and engineer—and the remainder slaves. By far the ablest of the slave crew was Smalls. Determined to escape, Smalls hit upon the idea of making off with the "Planter." Wherever the Union Navy extended its blockade along the Southern seacoast, freedomminded Negroes had sensed a new opportunity. By scow, oyster boat, barge, homemade canoe, or anything that would float, they made their way to the Union men-of-war. But no plan of escape was as imaginative and as daring as Smalls's. The young wheelsman worked out the details in his mind. The escaping party would number sixteen, of whom half would be women and children, including Smalls's wife and their two young ones. The "Planter" would put out to sea casually, as though making a routine run to reconnoiter. Knowing they could expect little mercy if caught, Smalls bound the party to agree that if they were unable to make good their flight, they would blow up the vessel rather than be taken alive. Smalls's plan embraced one final but essential detail—all three white officers would have to remain ashore for the night. Such an absence would be contrary to standing general orders which stipulated that officers of light draft vessels were to remain "on board day and night" when their boat was docked at the wharf. Finally came such a night as Smalls waited for—the night of May 12. Coincidentally, on the afternoon of that day, 200 pounds of ammunition and four guns—"a banded rifle 42, one 8-inch columbiad, one 8-inch seacoast howitzer, and one 32-pounder"—had been loaded on the "Planter" for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 5-10
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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