Steaming to Freedom

The gunboat “Planter,” run out of Charleston by Robert Smalls in May 1862. Harper’s Weekly, June 14, 1862.

The Planter, a 147-foot steamboat, began pulling away from the dock on May 13, 1862 at 4:00 am, just as the sky was beginning to show the light of another day. On board were seven slaves, which usually piloted, trimmed the riggings and packed/unpacked the cargo. With the Union Blockade outside the Charleston Bay, it wasn’t necessarily unusual for a boat to be headed toward the Atlantic Ocean before sunrise. From the shore, sentries saw the boat move out of the Southern Wharf and continued to make their rounds. What made this trip so unusual was that the white officers that normally captained the ship were still asleep in the house on shore.

In the captain’s seat was Robert Smalls, who normally piloted the boat for his master. Smalls bore a similar build as his master and with the captain’s straw hat on, he looked much him. Smalls and the other eight slaves on the boat yearned to be free, but only Smalls had a vision for how it could be accomplished. When his master and the other two white officers left the boat for the night on May 12, Smalls knew this would be his chance. He quickly called for his wife, their daughter, and the family members of the other slaves. Only Smalls’ wife knew the plan before they came to the boat. When the plan was explained, all the other women were afraid. After some time, tears and prayers, everyone was ready to proceed.

The Civil War was in full swing, and the Planter was a useful boat for the confederates in Charleston, South Carolina, because it had a relatively shallow bough – allowing it to navigate tributary rivers only four feet deep. The Planter also had two paddle wheels, which made it quick and maneuverable compared to older, single paddle boats. The Confederate military used it to run messages, transport troops and carry supplies. The day before the Planter was loaded with valuable munitions for the war – four cannons and 200 pounds of ammunition. This was going to be the biggest ship to be turned over to the Union and it would be a powerful blow to the Confederates. The challenge was getting the boat out of Charleston without raising suspicion.

The early hour was key because the lack of light would leave others to assume it was the captain leading the ship, even though they couldn’t see under the hat very well. After picking up the family members at a more remote point up river, the planter would pass four forts, which could easily sink the boat if an alarm was sounded. The incredible danger of the situation made everyone on board shake with fear – everyone except Smalls.

Under the straw hat and captain’s clothes, Smalls remained calm and focused as he piloted the ship to freedom. He remembered to blow his whistle at check points, he maintained a steady pace, and Providence helped them avoid detection. It was not uncommon for other ships to stop the Planter and request her take a message for them to other officials. If this had occurred, they would be discovered and they would all probably be killed or at least beaten and separated. However, on this morning, no one stopped the Planter.

The last fort they would pass was Fort Sumter. They would have to go right next to the fort to avoid the floating buoys that were stretched out across the mouth of the bay so the South could control the flow of traffic and keep the Union out. With the Union ships in sight, and under the shadow of the fort’s deadly cannons, Smalls blew his whistle as was required and continued calmly past the fort. A fog had rolled in during the morning, helping obscure Smalls’ features and the Confederate soldiers had no idea what was happening until the Planter was out of range and headed straight to the Union ships.

Though relieved to be out of the South’s control,  the fog which had been such a blessing before, now made it difficult for the Union officers to see the white flag the slaves had raised once out of the Charleston bay. With cannons loaded and ready to fire, the flag was finally seen and Smalls was able to explain the situation to the Union commander. Smalls, his family and the other 13 slaves on board, were now free. Smalls would continue to provide invaluable services to the Union during the war, and even became a congressional representative of South Carolina.

For you:

For a black slave to pilot a large steamer out of the second largest port in the Confederate South, takes a lot of bravery. But to do it with your wife, child and friends on board, knowing capture would mean almost certain death, it takes a vision worth the risk. Freedom was the goal, and Smalls showed great discipline to face the challenges and stay focused on the vision of making their escape.

It’s hard to fathom the trepidation all the slaves must have felt during the escape. In fact, one of the usual crew left during the night because he was too afraid of getting caught. But when your vision is great, the challenges will be great as well. The only way to overcome them is to stay focused on the vision and plan you set up to accomplish the vision.

Reflect on your vision for the future and see if you are still focusing your energy on achieving that vision. If so, keep going. If not, find a way to get back on board and sails to your goal.


I started writing short stories in elementary school, starting with a short story about twin track athletes. In college, I wrote for the college newspaper and studied communications. My first job out of college was with a magazine as an assistant editor, where I started a comic strip called City Boy. My first published work, was a short essay entitled, Dream with Me, published in “The Art of Service” booklet put out by the Thayne Center for Service and Learning. I also published a three part series for families called “Family Parables – Wise Man Foolish Man.” This set is designed to be used by families to create discussion and learning as a family. I soon will publish my first novel, Love Like Alzheimer’s, a story of a family that is learning to love deeper as their beloved grandmother struggles with Alzheimer’s disease.

2 thoughts on “Steaming to Freedom
  1. Brad Curtis says:

    Thank you Ryan. I really enjoyed this story of bravery and vision. It would have taken extraordinary courage having their families with them taking this huge risk. That is the heart of what makes the United States of America the country that is and has become. It is very important for us to read stories like this to be reminded of the sacrifice that has been made by those who have come before us and prepared the way that we could have what we enjoy today.

  2. Jim Wilson says:

    Thank you for this empowering post!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *