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On this date in 1862, Black slaves commandeered the Confederate ship “the Planter.”
It had just gotten dark on that evening in 1862, and General Roswell Ripley and the other white confederate officers of the steamer, had gone ashore to attend a party in Charleston, leaving the Black crew alone. Slave Robert Smalls and the Black crew's families came aboard the Planter. Smalls was the quartermaster, or wheelman, of the ship and knew all the routing channels in Charleston harbor and the gun and troop positions of the confederate armies guarding the harbor.
He and the other slaves got the ship under way, headed for the mouth of the harbor and the blockading Union fleet and were soon passing under the guns of Fort Sumter. To boost their odds of success, Smalls dressed himself in the clothing of Planter's confederate captain. The strategy worked because they weren’t fired upon until after they were out of range. The Planter eventually came up to the Union ship, U.S.S. Onward, to surrender.
The Planter was equipped with a 24-pound howitzer, a 32-pound pivot gun, a 7-inch rifle, and 4 smoothbore cannons. It had served as headquarters for General Ripley and was valuable because it could carry up to one thousand troops. Smalls, who was from the Sea Islands area, knew the waters well.
The ship was an important trophy for the Union. Generally, any enemy ship taken in this way is treated as an honor for the men who performed the brave accomplishment. Commander Du Pont submitted the claims for Smalls and the others to Washington, though he had reservations that they would be honored. Since the Blacks had been slaves, and considering the lingering impact of the Dred Scott decision, the nation's government in the capital, said they were merely contraband. It took a special act of Congress to award the ship as a reward and it was valued at only $9,168 dollars or one-third its true value.