Escapes from slavery on a Confederate ship

The North had a big advantage on the seas during the Civil War. It controlled most of the ships that made up the U.S. Navy fleet, and it had many factories to make more ships. The Union used this superior naval strength to capture Port Royal Sound—a good harbor near Beaufort, only fifty miles south of Charleston—early in the war. Using Port Royal Sound as a base of operations, the Union Navy then set up a blockade of several major port cities along the Atlantic coast in the South, including Charleston. The blockade consisted of a row of warships that prevented Confederate ships from reaching the Southern cities with shipments of food, guns, ammunition, and other supplies.

In the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, the Planter left Charleston harbor on what appeared to be a routine supply mission. On deck, a man wearing a captain's hat even saluted to the Confederate forts as he passed by them at the entrance to the harbor. But the Planter steamed directly

City Point Virginia Field Hospital
Captain Robert Small's medical supply boat, the Planter, is docked on the Appomattox River in Virginia. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

toward the Union ships forming the blockade. The surprised Union ships nearly fired upon the approaching Confederate vessel, but held off at the last minute as the Planter raised a white flag of surrender.

When Union sailors boarded the enemy ship, they found sixteen slaves—including eight male crew members, five women, and three children—along with four cannons and some ammunition. The man in the captain's hat introduced himself as Robert Smalls. He explained that the people on board the Planter were slaves who had risked their lives to escape and also to deliver the ship and its guns to the Union. When the Planter's white crew members had gone ashore for the night, the black crew members had picked up their families and made a desperate dash for freedom.

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