I have written about Robert Smalls before. This entry was written in response to a prompt for The Chatham Writers Group. The prompt was what program or series would we like to see on TV.
Ferry To Freedom
May 13, 1862
The bell in St. Phillip’s Church chimes twice. It is 2:00 AM and most of the inhabitants of Charleston, South Carolina are sound asleep. Most, but not all. At Northern Wharf, the 7 crew members of the steamer C.S.S. Planter are making final preparations to cast off. The ship’s cargo of 4 cannons and 200 missiles for those cannons are to be delivered to the Confederate garrison on Morris Island. Casting off, the Planter makes one stop at the West Atlantic Wharf to pick up 11 passengers. By 3:25 AM, the Planter is slowly maneuvering its way past the 5 forts that protect the harbor from Yankee invaders. As it approaches each fort, the Planter sounds it’s whistle 3 times. The occupants of the fort wait to verify the Planter’s markings & note the shipping schedule to confirm destination then signal passage to the ship. At 4:15 AM, the Planter looms from the early morning mist and approaches the last of the 5 forts, Fort Sumter. The guards on Sumter’s parapet wave a signal lantern, the Planter responds with the 3 snorts from its whistle. As the Planter draws closer to the fort, the guards observe the familiar form of the Ship’s Captain, C.J. Relyea, leaning against the pilot house, arms folded, his signature wide brimmed straw hat on his head and his linen cloak over his shoulders. With the ship’s identity and destination verified, Sumter’s guards wave to Relyea. Relyea waves back and disappears into the pilot house. The last of the forts being passed, the Planter chugs faster in the direction of Morris Island.
However, something is amiss! As the earliest blush of dawn appears on the horizon, the guards notice that the Planter has changed course! Rather than Morris Island, it is heading towards the open sea! Steaming directly for the Union ships that blockade the harbor! The Planter is now out of range of Sumter’s cannon and cannot be stopped. Things are definitely not as they seem. Upon entering the pilot house, Captain Relyea discards the broad hat and linen cloak to reveal that he is instead, 22 year old Robert Smalls, now a runaway slave. His six crew members are also now runaway slaves. The 11 passengers consist of Roberts wife Hannah, and their two children , the wives and child of four crew members and 3 additional men – all runaway slaves. It has been a harrowing trip past the forts. Smalls, of similar height and stature to Relyea, spent months studying his movements and gestures while planning this escape. He hoped and prayed that the dim light and early morning mists would help shield his true identity. As the Planter steams towards the Union naval vessels stalking the harbor entrance, Smalls has the Confederate flag & South Carolina state flag pulled down. In its place he runs up the largest white bed sheet his wife has, to indicate his desire to surrender the Planter to the blockading Yankees. However in the misty morning, the white flag is almost invisible. As the a Planter approaches, Union officers on the U.S.S. Onward order the gun ports opened and cannons run out stop the Rebel ship. At virtually the last moment, a breeze flips the white sheet sideways, a gunner on the Onward sees it and shouts to his mates that the approaching ship is flying a white flag. The Onward stands down. The Captain and the officers of the Onward crowd the deck to observe the approaching ship. As the Planter pulls alongside and cuts its engines, Robert Smalls steps forward holding his hat. He calls up to the Captain of the Onward, “Good morning sir! I have brought you some of the United State’s guns sir!”. More importantly, Robert Smalls has ferried himself and 17 others from slavery to freedom.
This prelude introduces us to the sweeping 10 part miniseries that will chronicle the incredible life of Robert Smalls. You will follow his rise from slavery, to his life as a river pilot, learn of his thrilling escape and join him in the halls of Congress. You will also meet Robert’s mother, Lydia Polite, who asked the slave owning patriarch to put Robert to work in the cotton fields, so he could experience what the horrible world of slavery was really like. Henry McKee, the aforementioned patriarch was, in all likelihood, Robert’s father, would treat Robert with kindness, even after Robert purchases the McKee house after the end of the Civil War. Henry’s wife, Jane, will suffer from dementia and move back into her old home to be cared for by the Smalls’ family. You will meet Robert’s wife, Hannah Jones, a slave and hotel maid in Charleston, South Carolina. Unable to purchase her freedom, Robert plans his fantastic escape to carry her from slavery’s clutches. You will witness the dereliction of duty by the C.S.S. Planter’s Captain, C.J. Relyea, as he leaves his ship under the control of 7 slaves, without any white officers to watch over them.
This is but one vignette of a truly remarkable story that I would love to see as a mini-series. I am struck by the fact that no attempt has been made to produce a series illustrating the adventurous and successful life of Robert Smalls.
4 thoughts on “Ferry to Freedom”
Very engaging story, makes me want to learn more
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Keep them coming!
Thank you very much Mr. Tom!
Thank you very much Mr. Tom!