The Story of Robert Smalls
Escape of the Planter
ALAN NAFZGER’s Robert Smalls
Robert Smalls – Pecan Street Press
Lubbock ● Austin ● Fort Worth – Robert Smalls
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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.
The Story of Robert Smalls
Escape of the Planter
written by Alan Nafzger
EXT. WaSHINGTON D.C. – DAY – August 1862
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.
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.
Robert Smalls – Escape from slavery
In April 1861, the American Civil War began with the Battle of Fort Sumter in nearby Charleston Harbor. In the fall of 1861, Smalls was assigned to steer the CSS Planter, a lightly armed Confederate military transport under the command of Charleston’s District Commander Brigadier General Roswell S. Ripley. Planter‘s duties were to survey waterways, to lay mines, and to deliver dispatches, troops, and supplies. Smalls piloted the Planter throughout Charleston harbor and beyond, on area rivers and along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts. From Charleston harbor, Smalls and the Planter‘s crew could see the line of federal blockade ships in the outer harbor, seven miles away. Smalls appeared content and had the confidence of the Planter‘s crew and owners, and at some time in April 1862, Smalls began to plan an escape. He discussed the matter with all the other enslaved people in the crew except one, whom he did not trust.
On May 12, 1862, the Planter traveled ten miles southwest of Charleston to stop at Coles Island, a Confederate post on the Stono River that was being dismantled. There the ship picked up four large guns to transport to a fort in Charleston harbor. Back in Charleston, the crew loaded 200 lb (91 kg) of ammunition and 20 cord (72 m3) of firewood onto the Planter.
On the evening of May 12, the Planter was docked as usual at the wharf below General Ripley’s headquarters. Its three white officers disembarked to spend the night ashore, leaving Smalls and the crew on board, “as was their custom.” (Afterward, the three Confederate officers were court-martialed and two convicted, but the verdicts were later overturned.) Before the officers departed, Smalls asked Captain Relyea if the crews’ families could visit, which was occasionally allowed, and he approved on condition that they depart before curfew. When the families arrived, the men revealed the plan to them.
This was the first the women and children had heard of it, although Smalls recently had told [his wife] Hannah. She had known that Smalls longed to escape but hadn’t realized that he was formulating a plan and intended to execute it. She was taken aback but quickly regained her composure and told him, “It is a risk, dear, but you and I, and our little ones must be free. I will go, for where you die, I will die. The other women were less steadfast. They cried and screamed when they learned what they had stumbled into, and the men struggled to quiet them. …Later, once the shock had worn off, those women admitted that they were glad for a chance at freedom.
At some point, three crew members pretended to escort family members back home but circled around and hid aboard another steamer docked at the North Atlantic wharf. At about 3 a.m. May 13, Smalls and seven of the eight slave crewmen made their previously planned escape to the Union blockade ships. Smalls put on the captain’s uniform and wore a straw hat similar to the captain’s. He sailed the Planter past what was then called Southern Wharf and stopped at another wharf to pick up his wife and children and the families of other crewmen.
Smalls guided the ship past the five Confederate harbor forts without incident, as he gave the correct signals at checkpoints. The Planter had been commanded by a Captain Charles C. J. Relyea and Smalls copied Relyea’s manners and straw hat on deck to fool Confederate onlookers from shore and the forts. The Planter sailed past Fort Sumter at about 4:30 a.m.
As the nearly-free slaves approached Fort Sumter, their apprehension began to grow. It was the most heavily armed of the forts and tended to be manned by the most suspicious soldiers. One of the men aboard later said, “When we drew near the fort every man but Robert Smalls felt his knees giving way and the women began crying and praying again.: 24 …As the Planter approached the fort, several men urged Smalls to give it a wide berth. Smalls refused, saying that such behavior would almost certainly arouse suspicion. He steered the ship along its normal path, slowly, as though he were merely enjoying the early morning air and in no particular hurry. When Fort Sumter flashed the challenge signal, Smalls again gave the correct hand signs. There was a long pause. The fort didn’t immediately respond, and Smalls now expected cannon fire to shred the Planter at any moment. Finally, the fort signaled that all was well, and Smalls sailed his ship out of the harbor.
The alarm was only raised after the ship was beyond gun range. Rather than turn east towards Morris Island, Smalls had headed straight for the Union Navy fleet, replacing the rebel flags with a white bed sheet which was brought by his wife. The Planter had been seen by the USS Onward, which was about to fire until a crewman spotted the white flag. In the dark, the sheet was difficult to see, but the sunrise arrived which allowed viewing.
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 was Robert Smalls.
The Onward‘s captain, John Frederick Nickels, boarded the Planter, and Smalls asked for a United States flag to display. He surrendered the Planter and its cargo to the United States Navy Smalls’ escape plan had succeeded.
The Planter and description of Smalls’ actions were forwarded by Lt. Nickels to his commander, Capt. E.G. Parrott. In addition to its own light guns, Planter carried the four loose artillery pieces from Coles Island and the 200 pounds of ammunition. Most valuable, however, were the captain’s code book containing the Confederate signals and a map of the mines and torpedoes that had been laid in Charleston’s harbor. Smalls’ own extensive knowledge of the Charleston region’s waterways and military configurations proved highly valuable. Parrott again forwarded the Planter to flag officer Du Pont at Port Royal, describing Smalls as very intelligent. Smalls gave detailed information about Charleston’s defenses to Du Pont, commander of the blockading fleet. Federal officers were surprised to learn from Smalls that contrary to their calculations, only a few thousand troops remained to protect the area, the rest having been sent to Tennessee and Virginia. They also learned that the Coles Island fortifications on Charleston’s southern flank were being abandoned and were without protection. This intelligence allowed Union forces to capture Coles Island and its string of batteries without a fight on May 20, a week after Smalls’ escape. The Union would hold the Stono inlet as a base for the remaining three years of the war. Du Pont was impressed, and wrote the following to the Navy secretary in Washington: “Robert, the intelligent slave and pilot of the boat, who performed this bold feat 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.
Originally posted 2022-01-20 06:07:11.