Robert Smalls: The Slave Who Stole a Confederate Warship and Became a Congressman

Robert Smalls circa 1870-1880
Robert Smalls circa 1870-1880
Mathew Brady, Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The CSS Planter
The CSS Planter

It was the spring of 1862, and Robert Smalls—a 23-year-old enslaved man living in Charleston, South Carolina—was desperate to buy the freedom of his wife and children. The asking price was $800.

He had money saved up. Since the age of 12, Smalls had worked odd jobs in Charleston: lamplighter, rigger, waiter, stevedore foreman. At around age 15, he had found work on the city’s docks and joined the crew of the ship CSS Planter. For every $15 he earned, Smalls was allowed to keep $1. The rest of the money went to his owner.

Smalls tried earning extra cash on the side, buying candy and tobacco and reselling it at a higher price. But it was hardly enough. When he asked to buy the freedom of his wife and children, he barely had $100 to his name. He knew, at that rate, the task could take him decades. Smalls had to think of something new—something drastic.

An unwitting bystander might have mistaken Robert Smalls and his wife Hannah Jones for freed slaves. The couple had met when Robert was 16, working at a hotel where Hannah was employed as a maid. They married, had two children, and lived in a private apartment above a horse stable in Charleston. Each day, Robert walked alone to the docks and wharves of Charleston, eventually finding himself work on the CSS Planter.

But appearances of freedom were an illusion. Smalls and Jones had to give nearly all of their income to his owner. Worse yet, the couple was constantly burdened with worry. Smalls knew that his wife and children could be stripped from his life on his owner’s whim. He knew the only way to keep his family together was to buy them.

Born in 1839 behind John McKee’s house, Smalls had grown up as the family’s household favorite (potentially because McKee, or McKee’s son, was his secret father). Whatever the reason, Smalls did relatively limited housework, was allowed inside his owner’s house, and was permitted to play with the local white children.

Smalls’s mother watched her son being coddled and was afraid he’d grow up without knowing about the horrors of slavery, so when Smalls was 10, she dragged her son into the fields. He picked cotton, rice, and tobacco. He slept on dirt floors. He watched slaves in town be tied to a whipping post and lashed. The experience changed him.

Smalls began to rebel. He protested slavery and started appearing more frequently in jail. Eventually, his mother grew concerned for his safety and asked McKee if Smalls could be sent to Charleston to work. Their owner agreed. It was in Charleston that Smalls would discover the woman who became his wife, as well as a talent for sailing.

By the spring of 1862, Smalls was working aboard the CSS Planter, an old cotton steamer-turned-warship. It was the midst of the Civil War, and Smalls helped steer the boat, plant sea mines, and deliver ammunition and supplies to Confederate outposts along the coast. Whenever Smalls looked out toward sea, he saw a blockade of Union ships bobbing on the horizon.

The captain of the CSS Planter, C.J. Relyea—known for wearing a trademark wide-brimmed straw hat—had a crew comprised of multiple slaves. One day, another enslaved crew member grabbed the captain's hat while he was away and planted it on Smalls’s head. “Boy, you look just like the captain,” he said.

Smalls looked out at the ocean, past Fort Sumter and toward the fleet of Union ships in the distance.

He had an idea.

Smalls knew he could steal the Planter. He knew the shipping routes. He knew the checkpoints. He knew the codes and signals to get past the forts. And, of course, he knew how to pilot the boat. As the Planter’s wheelman, Smalls was basically the boat’s unofficial captain.

Late on May 13, 1862, the Planter returned to Charleston from a two-week trip. The white crewmembers were supposed to stay aboard after docking, but the Planter was scheduled to begin another long mission the next morning, and the white crew supposedly missed carousing and sleeping on land. They left the boat for a night out on the town, trusting the enslaved crew would take care of the ship.

It was exactly what Smalls had hoped for.

Around midnight, Robert slipped the skipper’s jacket over his shoulders and ordered the other enslaved crewmembers to light the boilers. At 2 a.m., the CSS Planter eased into Charleston Harbor.

Smalls quietly directed the boat to a rendezvous point where he picked up Hannah, his children, and eight other enslaved people (Smalls had warned his family in advance of the possibility that May 13 could be the fateful night). Hannah later told a reporter that, in his words, “The whole party had solemnly agreed in advance that if pursued, and without hope of escape, the ship would be scuttled and sunk; and … they should all take hands, husband and wife, brother and sister, and jump overboard and perish together.” Her husband was more terse. When she asked what would happen if they were caught, Smalls said, “I shall be shot.”

The crew intended to fight to the death. The boat was loaded with 200 rounds of ammunition and five large guns, including a howitzer and a giant pivot gun. If cornered, they’d dynamite the boiler.

Moonlight glinted off the water. Smalls raised the Confederate and Palmetto flags and pointed the boat at the open ocean. As the Planter approached the first checkpoint, Fort Johnson, Smalls began to pray, “Oh Lord, we entrust ourselves into thy hands.” He sounded a signal on the steam whistle and was waved through. The boat slipped deeper into the harbor.

As the boat approached Fort Sumter, Smalls adjusted the captain’s straw hat and leaned out the pilot-house window. He had watched Captain Relyea pass the fort dozens of times before. He had studied his body language. So Smalls stood on the deck, arms crossed, his face obscured by the hat’s brim and the night’s darkness.

At 4:15 a.m., the Planter sounded the steam whistle again. According to a report filed by the Committee on Naval Affairs, “The signal ... was blown as coolly as if General Ripley [the commander of Charleston’s defense] was on board.”

The guards at Fort Sumter sounded their signal in return: “All right.”

The Planter successfully passed five Confederate gun batteries. Once outside of Fort Sumter’s cannon range, Smalls lowered the rebel flag and raised a white bed sheet. The Planter aimed for the Union blockade.

Seeing a Confederate ship hurtle in their direction, sailors aboard the union USS Onward panicked. It was dusky, and they couldn’t see the surrender flag.

“Open her ports!” Acting Volunteer Lt. J Frederick Nickels ordered. The crew pointed the No. 3 port gun in the direction of the Planter and was ready to fire when somebody aboard cried, “I see something that looks like a white flag!”

The command to fire was dropped. The group aboard the Planter began to dance and sing. As the Planter reached the blockade, Smalls stepped forward and removed his hat. “Good morning, sir!” he yelled. “I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!”

Within minutes, the stars and stripes were flapping high from the Planter’s mast.

The McKee-Smalls House in Beaufort, South Carolina
The McKee-Smalls House in Beaufort, South Carolina
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Smalls quickly became a folk hero. “If each one of the Generals in our army had displayed as much coolness and courage as [Smalls] did when he saluted the Rebel flag and steamed past the Rebel fort, by this time the Rebellion would have been among the things that were [past],” The New York Daily Tribune wrote. Navy Admiral S.F. Dupont would call Smalls “superior to any who have come into our lines.”

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, a $4000 bounty was placed on Smalls’s head and Captain Relyea was court-martialed, sentenced to three months in prison for negligence (although this was later overturned). The Confederate brass was dumbstruck. They couldn’t fathom that a crew of slaves was clever enough to outfox their navy. (Unable to give the credit, F.G. Ravenel, a Confederate Aide-de-Camp, believed that “two white men and a white woman” must have conspired to make it happen.)

Smalls didn’t care. He was too busy enjoying the freedom and money that he had long been denied. A few weeks after surrendering the ship, the U.S. Congress awarded Smalls and his crew half of the Planter’s value. Smalls received $1500 and an audience with President Lincoln.

At one meeting with Lincoln, Smalls was joined by Frederick Douglass. The famed abolitionist implored the president to allow African-Americans to join the military—and convinced him that Smalls should lead the cause.

Smalls did. He joined the U.S. Navy, revealing the location of enemy mines, and personally recruited about 5000 African-American soldiers. He joined the USS Planter on missions to the south, including an attack on Fort Sumter. During a battle at Folly Island Creek, South Carolina, the Planter’s white captain abandoned his post in despair. Smalls stepped into the pilot-house and led the ship to safety. For his bravery, he was awarded the rank of Navy Captain.

When he wasn’t fighting battles at sea, Smalls was fighting civil rights battles on land. In December 1864, Smalls was tossed out of an all-white streetcar in Philadelphia. Enraged, he used his budding fame to protest the segregation of public transit. Three years later, the streetcars of Philadelphia were integrated.

After the war, Smalls returned to South Carolina with the money he earned and bought his former owner's house.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Smalls helped establish a local school board in Beaufort County and one of the first schools for black children in the region. Then he opened a store. In 1868, he ran for—and won—a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives, then two years later in the state Senate. In 1872, he started a newspaper called The Southern Standard. And in 1874, he ran to become a representative in the U.S. Congress.

He won 80 percent of the vote.

During five nonconsecutive terms, Congressman Smalls pushed for legislation to desegregate the military and restaurants in Washington D.C. His work successfully led to the opening of the famous South Carolina marine base at Parris Island.

All that time, Smalls kept his mind and heart open. Legend has it that when his former owner’s wife was stricken with dementia, she’d often wander into his house, believing it was still hers. Rather than send her packing, Smalls invited her inside.

In 1915, Robert Smalls died in the same house. Today, it’s a National Historic Landmark.

This story first ran in 2017.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

karandaev/iStock via Getty Images
karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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Visit Any National Park for Free on September 28—or Volunteer to Help Maintain Them

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park
Nick Hanauer/iStock via Getty Images

By the end of September—which always seems especially busy, even if you’re not a student anymore—you might be ready for a small break from the hustle and bustle. On Saturday, September 28, you can bask in the tranquility of any national park for free, as part of National Public Lands Day.

According to the National Park Service, the holiday has been held on the fourth Saturday of every September since 1994, and it’s also the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort. It’s up to you whether you’d like to partake in the service side or simply go for a stroll, but there is an added incentive to volunteer: You’ll get a one-day park pass that you can use for free park entry on a different day. Opportunities for volunteering include trail restoration, invasive plant removal, park cleanups, and more; you can see the details and filter by park, state, and/or type of event here.

If you’re not sure how you should celebrate National Public Lands Day, the National Park Service has created a handy flowchart to help you choose the best course of action for you—which might be as simple as sharing your favorite outdoor activity on social media with the hashtag #NPLD.

National public lands day celebration flowchart
National Park Service

There are more than 400 areas run by the National Park Service across the U.S., and many of them aren’t parks in the traditional sense of the word; the Statue of Liberty, Alcatraz Island, and countless other monuments and historical sites are also run by the NPS. Wondering if there might be one closer than you thought? Explore parks in your area on this interactive map.

For those of you who can’t take advantage of the free admission on September 28, the National Park Service will also waive all entrance fees for Veteran’s Day on November 11.

And, if you’re wishing a free-admission day existed for museums, you’re in luck—more than 1500 museums will be free to visit on Museum Day, which happens to be this Saturday.

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