Robert Smalls: the Slave Who Stole a Rebel Warship and the Confederate Navy Codes


When three Confederate officers decided to go ashore for a night in Charleston, they left their gunboat—and their naval codes—in the hands of an enslaved pilot. It was a critical mistake.

We don’t know precisely why the three white officers on board a Confederate transport and gunboat called the CSS Planter decided to go ashore in Charleston, South Carolina, the night of May 12, 1862.

Maybe they went to see their families. Maybe they went drinking or whoring. Certainly they were acting against orders, but they seemed to think the slave they left in charge of the Planter, a skilled 23-year-old harbor pilot named Robert Smalls, would take good care of the ship for them.

On board were pieces of naval artillery, including a 32-pounder on a pivot, a 24-pounder howitzer, and a gun that had been at Fort Sumter. There were 200 rounds of ammunition, and according to several accounts there was a book of codes and signals that were currently in use by the Confederate Navy. Perhaps most importantly, there was Smalls himself, a true fount of information about Confederate defenses around Charleston harbor.

A couple of hours before dawn, the Planter started its engines and its paddle wheel began to turn. It pulled away from the wharf in plain site of the Confederate commanding general’s headquarters, but nobody moved to stop it.

Probably Smalls had encouraged the white officers to go ashore. He knew they wanted to get away—they may well have done so before; he knew the way they thought; he knew what they wanted. The ways of white Southerners had never been a mystery to him.

Smalls had been born in Beaufort, South Carolina, the son of the slave woman Lydia Polite. His father, it is generally agreed although it was never publicly acknowledged, was Henry McKee, the white son of Lydia’s white owner.

Many people observed that when Robert was a little boy, the McKee family favored him over other slave children on their properties. Henry took him on errands and social visits, and it’s said by Robert’s descendants that his enslaved mother eventually worried that the little boy was too coddled.

When Robert was about 10, according to family lore, his mother arranged for him to go to work in the fields to get a taste of slavery’s grim realities. She also had him watch at the whipping post where field hands were scourged for any number of infractions, or just to set an example.

According to Michael Boulware Moore, president of the International African American Museum, and Smalls’s great-great grandson, Robert’s mother would tell him “you may be enslaved, but you are not a slave.”

That was hard for the child to reconcile with what was going on around him. “Robert lived in a little bit of a bubble,” says Moore. He had trouble accepting a world in which he played with white children during the day, then was forced to quit when curfew came for slaves. “He was, as the story goes, disturbed and angered by having a different set of rules.”

By the time Robert was 11, according to the stories handed down to his descendants (his eldest daughter lived until 1959), his background of special privilege and newfound anger had made him rebellious, and even as a child he was thrown in Beaufort jail, where Henry McKee would post his bail. Finally, Robert was sent to Charleston by the McKees, who rented him out for odd jobs, and doubtless hoped he would stay out of trouble.

This was the decade before the American Civil War, and there at the epicenter of the Southern secession movement, amid all the talk of defending “states’ rights”— in fact the “right” to own Negroes as chattel, giving them no rights whatsoever as human beings—the day-to-day relations between blacks and whites were full of what seem today like strange paradoxes.

Armed white militias enforced curfews against blacks, and there was a special jail in ostensibly cosmopolitan Charleston where delicate whites could take their slaves to have them beaten for a fee.

But there was also a substantial population of people who were listed in the census as “f.p.c.,” free persons of color, often working as tradesmen, seamstresses, and the like. And of the slave population of Charleston, which was at least as great as the white population, many were people who worked earning money for their owners. If they were lucky, like Smalls, they made a bit for themselves.

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