Escape of the Planter
The Story of Robert Smalls
ALAN NAFZGER’s Escape of the Planter
Escape of the Planter – Pecan Street Press
Lubbock ● Austin ● Fort Worth – Escape of the Planter
Escape of the Planter is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 Alan Nafzger
All rights reserved.
Escape of the Planter
the story of Robert Smalls
written by Alan Nafzger
EXT. WaSHINGTON D.C. – DAY – August 1862
Escape of the Planter
Escape of the Planter
In the distance, we can see the recognizable but unfinished dome of the Capitol Building. We PAN over to a METHODIST minister (52) and a young sharply dressed African American (23) leaving the crowded and smelly Willard Hotel. The minister removes the handkerchief from his face as they enter the fresh air.
Escape of the Planter
The construction on the Washington Monument is suspended because of the war. It appears on the horizon, also half completed.
The two men walk the short distance to the War Department. They pass numerous (thousands) of white raw volunteers as well as many professional white soldiers. We see cavalry and hear the hooves on the brick streets. We see cannons attached to wheels. We encounter several amputees and other wounded soldiers.
Slavery has been abolished in the capital, and in the city we see many freed slaves. Many former slaves seem employed in constructing the ring of fortresses that surround the city. They have work clothes on.
The two men pass the White House. At this time there is no gate or fence. There seems to be a lot of activity. Both men strain to look at the second floor windows. They walk past Lincoln’s home.
INT. White House – DAY
LINCOLN is in his office on the second floor. He has two Senators and a congressman in his office.
Gentlemen, I’m thrilled that you have asked for my thoughts on the blacks.
You know I am the first U.S. President to ever meet with black men in the White House who were not servants. It was only last week I had a meeting with a group of free blacks from Washington and Philadelphia. I asked these black men to lead an effort to resettle freed slaves in a new Central American colony. And so, I will make the case to you men – as I did the black men sitting in those very chairs – that after this bloody dispute, blacks and whites can never hope to live together in a free society here in the United States. Too much blood will be spilled, I fear.
The Congressmen are taken aback a bit. They look at each other and are puzzled.
So, you are opposed to enlisting freed men in the ranks of the Army?
Well there are more meetings; I’ve promised Secretary of War Stanton that I will not to divulge anything, but I’m disposed to tell you now that I’m leaning against it.
Well, that’s unfortunate.
I must hold off and not announce anything, but you men know I have an open mind, and if there are some persuasive arguments, I will slowly and deliberately come around to changing my mind.
You have some persuasive arguments?
They are needed to win the war and establish a legitimacy.
Win the war?
I’m told the middle states, those slave states siding with the union but wishing to maintain slavery (Maryland and Kentucky), we will lose their support for the war if we use the freed blacks as soldiers.
We certainly hope not.
If we lose the war it will be for legitimacy’s sake?
The Congressmen are speechless.
Lincoln walks to the window and peers outside. Down on the sidewalk he sees our minister and African American man walking toward the War Department. Lincoln seems to know their purpose.
I once knew a good sound churchman, whom we will call Brown, who was on a committee to erect a bridge over a very dangerous and rapid river. Architect after architect failed, and, at last, Brown said he had a friend named Jones who had built several bridges and could build this. ‘Let us have him in,’ said the committee. In came Jones. “Can you build this bridge, sir?” “Yes,” replied Jones. “I could build a bridge to the infernal regions if necessary.” The sober committee were horrified. But when Jones retired, Brown thought it but fair to defend his friend. “I know Jones so well,” said he, “and he is so honest a man, and so good an architect, that if he states, soberly and positively, that he can build a bridge to Hades, why, I believe it. But, I have my doubts about the abutment on the infernal side.” Gentlemen, when politicians say they can harmonize the northern and southern wings of the democracy, why, I believed them. But I have my doubt about the abutment on the southern side.
The congressmen chuckle, but they are not happy with Lincoln’s answer.
While the guests are laughing Lincoln eases them out the door.
The congressmen look very worried out in the hall. The image of Lincoln inspires a great deal of confidence today; at the time his leadership was doubted.
Later in the film, Robert Smalls will meet with Lincoln and change his mind and the course of history. That is the central focus of this film.
EXT. War DEPARTMENT BUILDING – DAY
The War Department building is already too small for all the functions of the wartime War Department. It is being expanded from two stories to four. There is a significant amount of construction. Everything seems rushed.
(to construction workers)
Get it done. There is a war on you know!
We see a great deal of military foot traffic entering and exiting the building. The minister and a young African American enter the building.
INT. War DEPARTMENT BUILDING – DAY
SUPERIMPOSE: War Department, August 1862
ROBERT SMALLS enters the building with Reverend Mansfield French. Smalls is short and thick. Smalls looks overwhelmed. Only a few weeks ago, Smalls was a slave in Charleston, South Carolina.
The two men walk though the part of the building being remodelled. We see carpenters and painters milling about. The floors are bare hardwood and the painters are not careful enough to stop dripping paint. The carpenters are remaking the mouldings. Robert Smalls dodges a worker carrying moulding, but some strike the minister in the head.
The War Department is also a beehive of military activity. There are messengers coming and going.
The construction is complete near Secretary Stanton’s office; plush carpeting on the floor and battle-scene painting on the walls.
The Reverend French mentions they are here to see Stanton to an AIDE; Smalls and French sit and wait.
General Hunter insists that you will meet with the President, but I don’t know. They say what’s in Lincoln’s mind at this point is that the sole purpose of the war is the preservation of the Union, and several states don’t want you to fight.
I understand that.
Secretary of War Stanton will not issue an order allowing the enlistment of freed men into the Army without Lincoln’s approval. But we have to see Stanton first.
I’m sure you have been thinking about this, but how can we convince them to allow freed men to enlist in the Army?
They say I was famous within 48 hours.
Maybe you should practice.
Smalls has a strange look on his face. He isn’t sure he needs to tell his story over and over again.
Tell you what I’m gonna tell Stanton and the President?
Yes, but start at the beginning.
I don’t appear mulatto, but my father was my owner, and the owner of my mother. He was Jewish. My mother was his nanny and she was considerably older.
I have read and heard that.
He was a property holder. He had a nice house on Prince Street in Beaufort. I watched him growing up.
Was he as dandy a dresser as you?
Yes, he was. More so.
Escape of the Planter
Just before dawn on May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls and a crew composed of fellow slaves, in the absence of the white captain and his two mates, slipped a cotton steamer off the dock, picked up family members at a rendezvous point, then slowly navigated their way through the harbor. Smalls, doubling as the captain, even donning the captain’s wide-brimmed straw hat to help to hide his face, responded with the proper coded signals at two Confederate checkpoints, including at Fort Sumter itself, and other defense positions. Cleared, Smalls sailed into the open seas. Once outside of Confederate waters, he had his crew raise a white flag and surrendered his ship to the blockading Union fleet.
In fewer than four hours, Robert Smalls had done something unimaginable: In the midst of the Civil War, this black male slave had commandeered a heavily armed Confederate ship and delivered its 17 black passengers (nine men, five women and three children) from slavery to freedom.
That opportunity is at hand on the night of May 12. Once the white officers are on shore, Smalls confides his plan to the other slaves on board. According to the Naval Committee report, two choose to stay behind. “The design was hazardous in the extreme,” it states, and Smalls and his men have no intention of being taken alive; either they will escape or use whatever guns and ammunition they have to fight and, if necessary, sink their ship. “Failure and detection would have been certain death,” the Navy report makes plain. “Fearful was the venture, but it was made.”
At 2:00 a.m. on May 13, Smalls dons Capt. Rylea’s straw hat and orders the Planter’s skeleton crew to put up the boiler and hoist the South Carolina and Confederate flags as decoys. Easing out of the dock, in view of Gen. Ripley’s headquarters, they pause at the West Atlantic Wharf to pick up Smalls’ wife and children, along with four other women, three men and another child.
At 3:25 a.m., the Planter accelerates “her perilous adventure,” the Navy report continues (it reads more like a Robert Louis Stevenson novel). From the pilot house, Smalls blows the ship’s whistle while passing Confederate Forts Johnson and, at 4:15 a.m., Fort Sumter, “as cooly as if General Ripley was on board.” Smalls not only knows all the right Navy signals to flash; he even folds his arms like Capt. Rylea, so that in the shadows of dawn, he passes convincingly for white.
“She was supposed to be the guard boat and allowed to pass without interruption,” Confederate Aide-de-Campe F.G. Ravenel explains defensively in a letter to his commander hours later. It is only when the Planterpasses out of Rebel gun range that the alarm is sounded — the Planter is heading for the Union blockade. Approaching it, Smalls orders his crew to replace the Palmetto and Rebel flags with a white bed sheet his wife brought on board. Not seeing it, Acting Volunteer Lt. J. Frederick Nickels of the U.S.S. Onward orders his sailors to “open her ports.” It is “sunrise,” Nickels writes in a letter the same day, an illuminating fact that may have changed the course of history, at least on board the Planter — for now Nickels could see.
In The Negro’s Civil War, the dean of Civil War studies James McPherson quotes the following eyewitness account: “Just as No. 3 port gun was being elevated, someone cried out, ‘I see something that looks like a white flag’; and true enough there was something flying on the steamer that would have been white by application of soap and water. As she neared us, we looked in vain for the face of a white man. When they discovered that we would not fire on them, there was a rush of contrabands out on her deck, some dancing, some singing, whistling, jumping; and others stood looking towards Fort Sumter, and muttering all sorts of maledictions against it, and ‘de heart of de Souf,’ generally. As the steamer came near, and under the stern of the Onward, one of the Colored men stepped forward, and taking off his hat, shouted, ‘Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!’ ” That man is Robert Smalls, and he and his family and the entire slave crew of the Planter are now free.
After “board[ing] her, haul[ing] down the flag of truce, and hoist[ing] the American ensign” (his words), Lt. Nickels transfers the Planter to his commander, Capt. E.G. Parrott of the U.S.S. Augusta. Parrott then forwards it on to Flag Officer Samuel Francis Du Pont (of the “du Pont” Du Ponts), at Port Royal, Hilton Heads Island, with a letter describing Smalls as “very intelligent contraband.” Du Pont is similarly impressed, and the next day writes a letter to the Navy secretary in Washington, stating, “Robert, the intelligent slave and pilot of the boat, who performed this bold feet so skillfully, informed me of [the capture of the Sumter gun], presuming it would be a matter of interest.” He “is superior to any who have come into our lines — intelligent as many of them have been.” While Du Pont sends the families to Beaufort, he takes care of the Planter’screw personally while having its captured flags mailed to Washington via the Adams Express, the same private carrier that had delivered Box Brown to freedom in 1849.
Originally posted 2022-01-19 11:06:43.