A person gazing out across Charleston Harbor in the predawn quiet of May 13, 1862, would probably have found it hard to believe that the Civil War had begun at this very spot only a year before, with the thunderous shelling of the federal garrison at Fort Sumter. Certainly the signs of war remained, most noticeably the rebel cannon that guarded the harbor and pointed seaward from numerous shore ramparts, their sights fixed on the ships of the Union blockade positioned three miles offshore. But all was now perfectly still, and the only discernible movement took place aboard the Planter, a small Confederate transport that appeared to be preparing to depart.
Hours before, the Planter’s white captain, C. J. Relyea, and his officers had gone ashore for the night, leaving the vessel in the hands of its mulatto pilot, Robert Smalls, and creating the very opportunity that Smalls and his fellow slave crewmen had been waiting for. Having discussed in detail their plan to use the boat to make a break for the Union blockade, they stealthily began their chores between 1 and 3 a.m., maneuvering the Planter to a nearby pier to pick up Smalls’s wife and two children as well as four other black women, a child, and three other men. Because the punishment for what they were about to do would surely be death, Smalls had told the others that if caught, they would not surrender but would destroy the boat, along with themselves and all the Confederate guns and ammunition it carried. Two of the crewmen had heard Smalls’s warning and elected to stay behind, disembarking as the new passengers came aboard. At about 3 a.m. final farewells were whispered and the Planter eased back from the pier.
Despite the hour and the darkness, the city defenses were on alert against Union raiding or reconnaissance parties. Charleston, known for its cultured antebellum society and its leadership in the Southern secessionist movement, formed the emotional and political heart of the Confederacy; it was also a strategic Atlantic port, and its defenders knew that the federals, having been driven from Fort Sumter in the war’s first action, dreamed of recapturing it. To escape the harbor, the Planter would have to pass directly under the guns of several formidable batteries, including those of Fort Sumter itself, which was now in Confederate hands. The fort, set strategically in the middle of the harbor’s entrance, was a manmade island, a pentagon-shaped fortress with walls sixty feet high and six feet thick and guns protruding from all sides, emanating "an aura of doom and menace."
As the Planter moved toward the gauntlet, some on board suggested racing past the rebel installations, but Smalls reminded them that such a panicky move would likely be fatal: their best and only hope was to pretend nothing was out of the ordinary. He was banking on the likelihood that sleepy rebel watchmen would not be suspicious of a work ship nosing its way out of the harbor before dawn, nor would they be inclined to imagine that slaves were stealing it.
With this audacious act, Robert Smalls was exploiting a lifetime of trust and privilege placed in him by his white masters — first as a favored house servant, then as a semi-independent laborer and skilled sailor. Born on the South Carolina Sea Islands in April 1839, he was the son of Lydia, a slave woman, and either the Charleston merchant Moses Goldsmith or John McKee, who was Lydia’s master. As a girl, Lydia lived and worked on a McKee plantation on Ladies Island, adjacent to the Sea Island town of Beaufort. Because of the dread fear of malaria, the wealthy planters of Beaufort visited their landholdings on the nearby islands only occasionally. One Christmas, when Mr. and Mrs.McKee toured the plantation, distributing oranges and other small gifts to the slaves, Lydia was precocious enough to compliment her mistress on the dress she was wearing. Mrs. McKee, charmed by the youngster’s remark, asked her age. "I was born the year George Washington got president," Lydia replied. When John McKee next returned to the plantation, he asked after "the little girl who knew about George Washington," and took Lydia with him back to Beaufort to serve as a housemaid.
Beaufort was the capital of Port Royal Island, which, with the nearby islands of Ladies and St. Helena’s, held a prominent position in the lush coastal region Carolinians call the low country. With its endless bays, rivers, tidal estuaries, and broad wetlands, its vast open distances, swarms of shore birds and marsh cranes, and the ancient live oak trees whose "fingers" almost scraped the ground, it seemed a faraway, otherworldly place. In the seventeenth century it had become a rice-growing mecca after the planters selectively imported West African slaves who had knowledge of rice cultivation; these slaves introduced the complex methods of irrigation, seeding, and flood control that made the Carolina rice plantations profitable. By 1860, the South was exporting 182 million pounds of rice per year, two thirds of it from South Carolina, and the crop’s success had helped make both Beaufort and Charleston prosperous towns, with grand white-columned mansions, high-steepled churches, and the Southeast’s most cosmopolitan society.
Robert Smalls grew up in the McKee household, childhood playmate to his master, Henry McKee, who was likely his half brother, while his mother, Lydia, served the McKee family. So comfortable was the arrangement that after several years Lydia began to worry that her bright, energetic son might come to difficulty in the town someday by failing to understand his true status. To forestall such a problem, she took the unusual step of forcing Robert to watch the slave auctions and whippings at the arsenal building on Beaufort’s Craven Street, reminding him that only good fortune kept him from sharing the fate of the wretched people he saw there. Her strategy was not, however, entirely successful, for at age twelve Robert was caught defying the local slave curfew and soon after told his mother that he had listened with interest as another slave read a passage from a book by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass — the kind of proscribed acts she feared could get him cast out of the McKees’ Beaufort house to toil on the family’s island plantations, or worse. South Carolina rice plantations by no means presented the worst work conditions. Because the owners relied greatly on African ingenuity, the slaves had managed to negotiate somewhat more favorable work conditions than prevailed elsewhere in the South. Rather than labor from sunup to sundown, they were expected each day to execute assigned tasks; once they had completed them, they were free to hunt, fish, or cultivate their own crops. Still, work in the fields was strenuous; slaves labored long hours in knee-deep water, and there was an ever-present danger of snakes, insects, and malaria — the very risks that kept the white planters on Beaufort’s higher ground. Lydia wished to spare Robert from such a fate and finally appealed to theMcKees to send her rambunctious son to Charleston, where the family maintained another home and where she believed Robert’s insubordinate streak would be less apparent.
In contrast to Beaufort, Charleston was a metropolis, a place of hub- bub, splendor, and riches. Carriages with liveried servants traversed the palm-tree-lined boulevards and waited under the lamplights of impeccable mansions and hotels. Gentlemen strolled the Battery, talking politics and business, as ladies in crinoline window-...