Robert Smalls: The Slave Who Stole a Confederate Warship and Became a Congressman

Robert Smalls circa 1870-1880
Robert Smalls circa 1870-1880
Mathew Brady, Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The CSS Planter
The CSS Planter

It was the spring of 1862, and Robert Smalls—a 23-year-old enslaved man living in Charleston, South Carolina—was desperate to buy the freedom of his wife and children. The asking price was $800.

He had money saved up. Since the age of 12, Smalls had worked odd jobs in Charleston: lamplighter, rigger, waiter, stevedore foreman. At around age 15, he had found work on the city’s docks and joined the crew of the ship CSS Planter. For every $15 he earned, Smalls was allowed to keep $1. The rest of the money went to his owner.

Smalls tried earning extra cash on the side, buying candy and tobacco and reselling it at a higher price. But it was hardly enough. When he asked to buy the freedom of his wife and children, he barely had $100 to his name. He knew, at that rate, the task could take him decades. Smalls had to think of something new—something drastic.

An unwitting bystander might have mistaken Robert Smalls and his wife Hannah Jones for freed slaves. The couple had met when Robert was 16, working at a hotel where Hannah was employed as a maid. They married, had two children, and lived in a private apartment above a horse stable in Charleston. Each day, Robert walked alone to the docks and wharves of Charleston, eventually finding himself work on the CSS Planter.

But appearances of freedom were an illusion. Smalls and Jones had to give nearly all of their income to his owner. Worse yet, the couple was constantly burdened with worry. Smalls knew that his wife and children could be stripped from his life on his owner’s whim. He knew the only way to keep his family together was to buy them.

Born in 1839 behind John McKee’s house, Smalls had grown up as the family’s household favorite (potentially because McKee, or McKee’s son, was his secret father). Whatever the reason, Smalls did relatively limited housework, was allowed inside his owner’s house, and was permitted to play with the local white children.

Smalls’s mother watched her son being coddled and was afraid he’d grow up without knowing about the horrors of slavery, so when Smalls was 10, she dragged her son into the fields. He picked cotton, rice, and tobacco. He slept on dirt floors. He watched slaves in town be tied to a whipping post and lashed. The experience changed him.

Smalls began to rebel. He protested slavery and started appearing more frequently in jail. Eventually, his mother grew concerned for his safety and asked McKee if Smalls could be sent to Charleston to work. Their owner agreed. It was in Charleston that Smalls would discover the woman who became his wife, as well as a talent for sailing.

By the spring of 1862, Smalls was working aboard the CSS Planter, an old cotton steamer-turned-warship. It was the midst of the Civil War, and Smalls helped steer the boat, plant sea mines, and deliver ammunition and supplies to Confederate outposts along the coast. Whenever Smalls looked out toward sea, he saw a blockade of Union ships bobbing on the horizon.

The captain of the CSS Planter, C.J. Relyea—known for wearing a trademark wide-brimmed straw hat—had a crew comprised of multiple slaves. One day, another enslaved crew member grabbed the captain's hat while he was away and planted it on Smalls’s head. “Boy, you look just like the captain,” he said.

Smalls looked out at the ocean, past Fort Sumter and toward the fleet of Union ships in the distance.

He had an idea.

Smalls knew he could steal the Planter. He knew the shipping routes. He knew the checkpoints. He knew the codes and signals to get past the forts. And, of course, he knew how to pilot the boat. As the Planter’s wheelman, Smalls was basically the boat’s unofficial captain.

Late on May 13, 1862, the Planter returned to Charleston from a two-week trip. The white crewmembers were supposed to stay aboard after docking, but the Planter was scheduled to begin another long mission the next morning, and the white crew supposedly missed carousing and sleeping on land. They left the boat for a night out on the town, trusting the enslaved crew would take care of the ship.

It was exactly what Smalls had hoped for.

Around midnight, Robert slipped the skipper’s jacket over his shoulders and ordered the other enslaved crewmembers to light the boilers. At 2 a.m., the CSS Planter eased into Charleston Harbor.

Smalls quietly directed the boat to a rendezvous point where he picked up Hannah, his children, and eight other enslaved people (Smalls had warned his family in advance of the possibility that May 13 could be the fateful night). Hannah later told a reporter that, in his words, “The whole party had solemnly agreed in advance that if pursued, and without hope of escape, the ship would be scuttled and sunk; and … they should all take hands, husband and wife, brother and sister, and jump overboard and perish together.” Her husband was more terse. When she asked what would happen if they were caught, Smalls said, “I shall be shot.”

The crew intended to fight to the death. The boat was loaded with 200 rounds of ammunition and five large guns, including a howitzer and a giant pivot gun. If cornered, they’d dynamite the boiler.

Moonlight glinted off the water. Smalls raised the Confederate and Palmetto flags and pointed the boat at the open ocean. As the Planter approached the first checkpoint, Fort Johnson, Smalls began to pray, “Oh Lord, we entrust ourselves into thy hands.” He sounded a signal on the steam whistle and was waved through. The boat slipped deeper into the harbor.

As the boat approached Fort Sumter, Smalls adjusted the captain’s straw hat and leaned out the pilot-house window. He had watched Captain Relyea pass the fort dozens of times before. He had studied his body language. So Smalls stood on the deck, arms crossed, his face obscured by the hat’s brim and the night’s darkness.

At 4:15 a.m., the Planter sounded the steam whistle again. According to a report filed by the Committee on Naval Affairs, “The signal ... was blown as coolly as if General Ripley [the commander of Charleston’s defense] was on board.”

The guards at Fort Sumter sounded their signal in return: “All right.”

The Planter successfully passed five Confederate gun batteries. Once outside of Fort Sumter’s cannon range, Smalls lowered the rebel flag and raised a white bed sheet. The Planter aimed for the Union blockade.

Seeing a Confederate ship hurtle in their direction, sailors aboard the union USS Onward panicked. It was dusky, and they couldn’t see the surrender flag.

“Open her ports!” Acting Volunteer Lt. J Frederick Nickels ordered. The crew pointed the No. 3 port gun in the direction of the Planter and was ready to fire when somebody aboard cried, “I see something that looks like a white flag!”

The command to fire was dropped. The group aboard the Planter began to dance and sing. As the Planter reached the blockade, Smalls stepped forward and removed his hat. “Good morning, sir!” he yelled. “I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!”

Within minutes, the stars and stripes were flapping high from the Planter’s mast.

The McKee-Smalls House in Beaufort, South Carolina
The McKee-Smalls House in Beaufort, South Carolina
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Smalls quickly became a folk hero. “If each one of the Generals in our army had displayed as much coolness and courage as [Smalls] did when he saluted the Rebel flag and steamed past the Rebel fort, by this time the Rebellion would have been among the things that were [past],” The New York Daily Tribune wrote. Navy Admiral S.F. Dupont would call Smalls “superior to any who have come into our lines.”

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, a $4000 bounty was placed on Smalls’s head and Captain Relyea was court-martialed, sentenced to three months in prison for negligence (although this was later overturned). The Confederate brass was dumbstruck. They couldn’t fathom that a crew of slaves was clever enough to outfox their navy. (Unable to give the credit, F.G. Ravenel, a Confederate Aide-de-Camp, believed that “two white men and a white woman” must have conspired to make it happen.)

Smalls didn’t care. He was too busy enjoying the freedom and money that he had long been denied. A few weeks after surrendering the ship, the U.S. Congress awarded Smalls and his crew half of the Planter’s value. Smalls received $1500 and an audience with President Lincoln.

At one meeting with Lincoln, Smalls was joined by Frederick Douglass. The famed abolitionist implored the president to allow African-Americans to join the military—and convinced him that Smalls should lead the cause.

Smalls did. He joined the U.S. Navy, revealing the location of enemy mines, and personally recruited about 5000 African-American soldiers. He joined the USS Planter on missions to the south, including an attack on Fort Sumter. During a battle at Folly Island Creek, South Carolina, the Planter’s white captain abandoned his post in despair. Smalls stepped into the pilot-house and led the ship to safety. For his bravery, he was awarded the rank of Navy Captain.

When he wasn’t fighting battles at sea, Smalls was fighting civil rights battles on land. In December 1864, Smalls was tossed out of an all-white streetcar in Philadelphia. Enraged, he used his budding fame to protest the segregation of public transit. Three years later, the streetcars of Philadelphia were integrated.

After the war, Smalls returned to South Carolina with the money he earned and bought his former owner's house.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Smalls helped establish a local school board in Beaufort County and one of the first schools for black children in the region. Then he opened a store. In 1868, he ran for—and won—a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives, then two years later in the state Senate. In 1872, he started a newspaper called The Southern Standard. And in 1874, he ran to become a representative in the U.S. Congress.

He won 80 percent of the vote.

During five nonconsecutive terms, Congressman Smalls pushed for legislation to desegregate the military and restaurants in Washington D.C. His work successfully led to the opening of the famous South Carolina marine base at Parris Island.

All that time, Smalls kept his mind and heart open. Legend has it that when his former owner’s wife was stricken with dementia, she’d often wander into his house, believing it was still hers. Rather than send her packing, Smalls invited her inside.

In 1915, Robert Smalls died in the same house. Today, it’s a National Historic Landmark.

This story first ran in 2017.

Why Beatrix Potter Ended Up Self-Publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Tale of Peter Rabbit was Beatrix Potter’s first book—and is still her best known. But had the beloved author not had the confidence to publish the book on her own terms, we might not have ever known her name (or Peter Rabbit's) today.

The origin of Peter Rabbit dates back in 1893, when Potter wrote the beginnings of what would become her iconic children’s book in a letter she sent to Noel Moore, the ailing five-year-old son of Annie Carter Moore, Potter's friend and former governess. “I don't know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were—Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter,” the story began.

According to The Telegraph, it was Carter Moore who encouraged Potter to turn her story and its illustrations into a book. Initially, she attempted to go the traditional route and sent the book to six publishers, each of whom rejected it because Potter was insistent that the book be small enough for a child to hold while the publishers wanted something bigger (so that they could charge more money for it). It wasn't a compromise that Potter was willing to make, so she took the matter into her own hands.

On December 16, 1901, a 35-year-old Potter used her personal savings to privately print 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The book turned out to be a hit—so much so that, within a year, Frederick Warne and Co. (one of the publishers that had originally rejected the book) signed on to get into the Peter Rabbit business. In October 1902, they published their own version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, complete with Potter's illustrations, and by Christmastime it had sold 20,000 copies. It has since been translated into nearly 40 different languages and sold more than 45 million copies.

In August 1903, Frederick Warne and Co. published Potter's next book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. A few months later, Warne published The Tailor of Gloucester, which Potter had originally self-published in 1902 for reasons similar to her decision to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

"She was very dogmatic about what she wanted it to look like and couldn’t agree with Warne," rare book dealer Christiaan Jonkers told The Guardian about why Potter self-published The Tailor of Gloucester. "Also he wanted cuts, so she published 500 copies privately. By the end of the year Warne had given in, cementing a relationship that would save the publishing house from bankruptcy, and revolutionize the way children's books were marketed and sold."

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

Getty Images
Getty Images

Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

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