The Perfect Day

Young Robert Smalls

This is third blog entry I have made about Robert Smalls. His story is so truly remarkable, so inspiring, I can’t write enough about him. I recently joined another writing group, meeting at the Sturgis Library in Barnstable Village. The prompt for the meeting this week was “The Perfect Day”. I chose to write about the exhilarating day Robert Smalls, his family, and 13 other brave individuals had. The story itself is 100% true, no names have been changed to protect the innocent. With the exception of one sentence, the dialogue in my story is fabricated. I did this to keep the story moving along and to present factual information in a more interesting manner.

The battered facade of Fort Sumter, shortly after the opening shots of the Civil War on April 12, 1861

The Perfect Day

Charleston, South Carolina. April, 1861

Robert and Hannah Smalls gazed out into Charleston Harbor at the battered ramparts of Fort Sumter.  In the place where the Stars and Stripes of the United States flag once billowed over the fort, was now the new flag of the Confederate States of America.

“Hannah, what is your idea of the perfect day?”

“That’s easy Robert, Christmas Eve 1856, our wedding day.  Nothing tops that.”

Robert laughed softly, “I agree, I agree.  That has been my most perfect day.  Although the arrival of Lizzie and Robert, Jr. were pretty close too.” Then he grew silent, his gaze returning to Fort Sumter and its new flag.

“What’s troubling you, my love?”

Robert turned to face Hannah, “Today I asked Mr. Kingsman if I could purchase yours and the children’s freedom.  He said yes, but it would cost $800.”

All Hannah could say was, “Oh my, oh my.”

Robert said, “Right. Oh my.” Taking Hannah’s hand, they walked slowly home.  As the nation careened towards Civil War, Robert Smalls had grown increasingly anxious that Hannah’s master, Samuel Kingsman, would tear his family apart by selling his wife and children to other plantation owners in the South.  The price of freedom was high.  He and Hannah had managed to save $100.  Raising another $700 was near impossible.  Robert made $16 a month as a wheelman, or pilot, of a steamship delivering goods to ports along the South Carolina and Georgia coastlines.  He had to send $15 a month to his master, Henry McKeein Beaufort, SC.  Hannah made only $5 a month as a hotel maid and had to give three of those dollars to Kingsman each month.  Within a few days, Robert would begin working as a wheelman on a new ship named the Planter.  He planned on asking for extra duties in the hopes of earning more money to purchase his family’s freedom.

As Robert approached his new vessel, moored in Charleston Harbor, he was greeted by a man wearing a wide brimmed hat and a linen coat that hung to his ankles.

The C.S.S. Planter.

“Good morning Mr. Smalls!  Welcome aboard the Planter. I’m Captain Relyea.  I must say, your reputation as an outstanding wheelman and your knowledge of these inter coastal waterways will be highly valued.”

Over the next 12 months, Smalls and Relyea would learn a great deal about each other.  Shortly after the start of the Civil War, President Lincoln had ordered a blockade of all seaports in the newly created Confederate states.  Floating just outside of Charleston’s harbor were huge warships and fast gunboats of the United States Navy, waiting to pounce on any ships attempting to move cargo and supplies into the port.  Captain Relyea watched Robert Smalls closely and admired how he seemed to know every inch of coastline, every shoal, and to know which tidal creek to use to avoid detection by the blockading ships.  For his part, Robert watched everything Captain Relyea did.  From the donning of his big hat and long coat each day, to the signals he used to permit the Planter to safely pass the Confederate occupied forts in Charleston Harbor and along the coast. Robert also noted that Relyea, and the other two ship’s officers, trusted he and the 6 enslaved crew members enough to occasionally spend the night ashore.  This was a direct violation of Confederate Navy regulations specifying at least one white officer remain aboard a vessel with a black crew.  On the evening of May 12, 1862, Captain Relyea and the two officers decide they are going to spend the night ashore with their families.  Robert Smalls offers to remain aboard with the other crew members to prepare the Planter for the next day’s activities.

St. Phillip’s Church in Charleston, South Carolina. From a photo I took while visiting in early 2020.

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 crew of the steamer 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 steamer is slowly maneuvering its way past the 5 forts that protect the harbor from Yankee invaders.  As each fort is approached, the steamer sounds it’s whistle 3 times.  The occupants of each fort wait to verify the Planter’s markings & note the shipping schedule to confirm it’s destination then signals the ship to continue on.  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 it draws closer to the fort, the guards observe the familiar form of Captain Relyea, leaning against the pilot house, arms folded, his signature wide brimmed straw hat on his head and his long linen coat almost dragging on the deck.  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 steamer chugs faster in the direction of Morris Island.

The site in Charleston Harbor where Robert Smalls picked up his passengers before steaming past the forts. My photo from visit in early 2020.

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 himself, now a runaway slave.  His six crew members are also now runaway slaves.  The 11 passengers include Hannah, their two children, the wives and children 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, also spent the past year 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 from its mast.  In their 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 mystery ship steams through the mists, Union officers on the U.S.S. Onward order the gun ports opened and cannons run out stop the rapidly approaching steamer..  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 from the pilot house.  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.

The passengers scurry up the ladder from below the Planter’s deck, tears cascading down their cheeks.

Robert reaches for Hannah, she collapses against him, her pent up tension releasing like the steam from the ship’s whistle.  Looking into her husband’s eyes, Hannah whispers, “We are free.  All of us, and we are together.  What a perfect day.”

Ernie Stricsek

Sturgis Library Writing Group

January 17, 2023

Congressman Robert Smalls, United States House of Representatives.

Robert Smalls house on Prince Street in Beaufort, SC. Photo I took in February, 2022.
Burial site of Robert Smalls & his family in Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery, Beaufort, SC. Photo taken by me in February 2022.
Burial site of the McKee Family in the Baptist Church of Beaufort, SC, cemetery. The McKee’s were slave owners and owned Roberts Smalls and his mother. Photo taken by me from visit in February 2022.
Bust of Robert Smalls in Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery, Beaufort, SC. Photo taken by me during visit in February, 2022.

Robert Smalls was, truly, a remarkable man. The sources for my story are from several of my books and periodicals.


The prompt for the Writers Group this week was “Shadows”. I was uncertain as to what I was going to write about. I had started to read a book about Civil War Spies and decided to write about Elizabeth Van Lew. The large portion of this story is true. Some of the dialogue between Captain Gibbs and Elizabeth’s sister-in-law is not. Members of Richmond society did make comments about Elizabeth’s appearance.


Elizabeth Van Lew could sense a shadow pass across her face.  Standing in the pantry, she could hear the tipsy cackle of her sister-in-law Mary rattling from the dining room.  “Elizabeth is not nearly as pretty as that portrait makes her to be”, Mary said.  “And if you have not noticed, she is a bit eccentric”.  There was a bit of an upward lift to Mary’s voice when she said the word “eccentric”.  Mary was talking to Captain Gibbs and his wife.  Gibbs was the new commander of the tobacco warehouse complex that housed the imprisoned Yankees captured in some of the earliest battles of the Civil War.  Gibbs and his wife had taken up temporary residence at the Van Lew’s Richmond, Virginia, mansion until permanent quarters could be secured.  Mary continued her rant, “I do declare that I believe the Van Lew family; Elizabeth, her mother and my husband are all a bit off.  All of these slaves that have been waiting on us hand and foot are considered staff!  The Van Lew’s have spent a lot of money purchasing their freedom.  Yet they still remain!  Now my daft sister-in-law is asking you if she could come and feed those vile Yankees in Libby Prison!  The thought gives me the vapors!”.  “I do not see any problem with Miss Van Lew providing some comfort to those men, even though they are devils”, replied Captain Gibbs.  The shadow quickly dissolved and a beaming Elizabeth emerged from the pantry into the dining room.  She would now be able to launch the plan she had spent several months developing.  

Forty-three years old, birdlike in appearance, the unmarried Elizabeth Van Lew was, in fact,  perceived as an eccentric by much of Richmond’s high society.  She was also an outspoken opponent of the institution of slavery and considered secession an act of treason.  The plan she was about to launch called “The Richmond Underground” would become one of the largest and most successful spy operations of the Civil war.  Now allowed to visit the Union prisoners, Elizabeth was able to obtain key details of how they were  captured and of what they observed on their way to imprisonment.  The details included the numbers and locations of Confederate units, which direction they appeared to be marching and who their leaders were.  Heading back to her home with this information, Elizabeth would transcribe the details onto paper – using invisible ink she developed and written in a coded cypher she created.  Applying milk to the paper would make the letters visible.  The notes were given to trusted acquaintances who would ensure that they would be delivered to the appropriate people on the Union side.  These trusted acquaintances, or operatives discovered that there were other people within the city of Richmond that had sympathies much aligned with Elizabeth’s.  The operatives had access to most of the departments within the Confederate government and, as such, could provide her with additional key information to be transcribed into the coded notes.

Gaining the confidence of the Union prisoners, they began to tell her about impending escape attempts and asked if she could provide maps with detailed escape routes from Richmond.  Elizabeth would hide escaped prisoners and Union loyalists trying to return North in a large, secret room on the 3rd floor of her family’s mansion, using the trusted members of her shadow organization to lead or transport them to safety.  Much of this activity in her home was conducted under the nose of her odious sister-in-law, and for a short time Captain Gibbs.  Elizabeth was aware that Confederate loyalists were suspicious of her, despite all of the secrecy and subterfuge practiced by the underground organization.  Leaving Libby Prison early one evening, Elizabeth became aware a hulking presence shadowing her movements.  When she picked up her pace, her follower did, likewise when she slowed.  She increased her pace to a jog, but her pursuer began to outpace her and caught up with her.  Grabbing Elizabeth’s arm and roughly spinning her around, he got close to her face and hissed “we know what you are up to.  You need to stop, or what happens to you and your mother will be very unpleasant”.  He released her and slipped away into the dark.  Despite being shaken, the assault only made her more determined to continue her operations.

Not long after her encounter, Elizabeth received a gift in the form of a want ad in the Richmond Examiner.  Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was seeking a seamstress.  She would visit Mrs. Davis and offer the services of the Van Lew family seamstress, Mary Bowser.  The President’s wife was exceedingly grateful in accepting Elizabeth’s offer and could not wait for Miss Bowser to start work.  This venture began to pay huge dividends to the Richmond Underground operation.  Mary Bowser possessed a photographic memory, for both the spoken and written word.  After starting her job in the executive mansion, Mary would return to the Van Lew home and recite the documents she had seen on President Davis’ desk, and conversations she overheard between President Davis and his cabinet, or with senior Generals.  What was overwhelming for Elizabeth were the notes of praise she received from Union authorities about the accuracy of her communications and how much they helped in planning for the fall of the Confederacy.  Gazing out her window at the sky, Elizabeth noticed the clouds had caused a shadow to fall across the front of the “White House of the Confederacy”.  Is this some type of prophecy? Is the end of this folly near she thought?

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Writers Group