Robert and Hannah Smalls Discuss Escaping to Freedom
At the height of the Civil War, in the early morning hours of May 13th, 1862, a slave named Robert Smalls led his wife Hannah, their young children, and some fellow slaves on a daring escape from Charleston, South Carolina. Robert Smalls used the skills he learned as a crew member on the Confederate Army ship The Planter to steal the vessel and deliver it to the Union Army at Fort Sumter, thereby gaining their freedom.
Escaping was a bold move, considering the unique way that Robert and Hannah Smalls lived. Unlike many other slaves, they were permitted to live on their own and Robert was given permission to make money by hiring himself out for various jobs throughout Charleston. His owner also agreed that Robert could use some of the money he earned to purchase his family's freedom. The following fictional scene attempts to convey the conflicting feelings Robert and Hannah Smalls might have experienced when making their decision to attempt this risky escape.
In Smalls' kitchen after his fellow escapees have left for the night. He and Hannah sit at their table. She rises holding a few dishes to wash. Turning away from the table, she takes a few steps and drops one of the dishes, which crashes loudly to the floor.
Robert: Hannah hush! Do you want to let the entire neighborhood know that we are up at this hour?
Hannah: You know the answer as well as I do. The bowl just slipped ... My nerves I guess.
Robert: Well tell your nerves to calm down. Being nervous is not going to help us be free. This plan is a solid one.
Hannah: I guess my nerves just are not convinced of that just yet.
Robert: Look Hannah, I love you too much to endanger you needlessly. What are you so worried about?
Hannah: I am worried because what we are doing is more than dangerous, it's unheard of. So many things could go wrong. I worry about getting caught, about making it past the forts. I worry about what will happen to our children if we do get caught.
Robert: I worry about those things too. How could I not? But this will work. We have so much on our side. I know the signals for the forts. I know the tides. I know where the Union ships are. Plus, we have surprise on our side. Who would expect a group of slaves to dream such a daring escape?
Hannah: Of course, these things all are comforting. I know you know the signals. I have faith in your skill as a sailor, yet I can't help thinking about what we are giving up.
Robert: What we are giving up?!? We are giving up a life that is never fully ours. A life that always rests on the goodwill of McKee and his creditors.
Hannah: You know that's not what I mean.
Robert: I know what we are giving up if we don't go through with this: we are giving up the chance for our children to be free, the chance see our parents, the chance to go where ever we want whenever we want, the chance to strike against the State that has held us against our will every day of our lives.
Hannah: Do you care so little for what we already possess? Do we not live on our own, apart from any master? Do we not earn more in a month than most slaves will in a year or even a lifetime? We must balance all that against our certain death if even one part of the plan fails.
Robert: Hannah, you and the Lord both know that I have never once taken what I have for granted. I know that simply being brought to Charleston was the chance of a lifetime. I know that our situation is very unique, freer than most. I know that every dollar I earn each month, after I give McKee his 15, is mine to keep. But why do you think we have this life? We have it because we scrape and push and save for every penny. We have it because we take every chance to better ourselves. We have it because we will not settle for less. Is not living as a slave settling for less? ... We have been given a lot and to those who are given much, much is expected. After all we are not just doing this for ourselves. Others are escaping with us. Should we just tell them that we have changed our minds, that freedom will have to wait?
Hannah: Robert, you know I want more than anything to start a new life. You know I want real freedom as much as you do. But we both know that if something goes wrong we will surely burn or be filled with bullets. What good will we do our children or the cause of freedom hanging from the gallows?
Robert: None I suppose.
Hannah: It is not too late to reconsider. The others will find a way out Robert. We will just tell them that the tides are against us ... We are so close to buying our freedom. Just think, if we wait another few months we will have won our freedom anyhow. If we run we'll never know freedom in our own homeland.
Robert: There will never be real freedom in our homeland unless each person fights for it. Hannah, I hatched this plan for us, but it is not for us alone. Think of how much freer we will breathe knowing our children will never be sold from under us. We still have many months before we can buy our freedom Hannah. And each day of month we know our children are vulnerable to the master's rising or falling fortunes. If new taxes are raised, we must consider that our master will use our children to pay his due. We have a great opportunity, one of many chances that I have always been better off for taking.
Hannah: Success has never been a stranger to you, that's for sure.
Robert: But I am starting to see success in a new way. It is not to be found in the end result-reaching Union ships. Of course that will one part if it, but there is a more basic part. We will have success the minute we put this plan into action. Simply leaving the house with freedom in our hearts will be success.
Hannah: Robert, I think the night air is making your foolish. If that were true then why is slavery not ended all ready? Does not every slave wage some small battle everyday to end their bondage? Success must be measured by achievement, not spirit.
Robert: Perhaps. But without spirit, who can glimpse success?
Hannah: Do not let my words discourage you Robert. I question you only because if I did not voice my doubts, they would continue to grow. I know that you are right, we must do this. The time is right. We must do this to show all Americans the power of genius and the ingenuity and determination of Negroes. We must take freedom into our own hands. For if we do not, slaveholders will have no one to disprove their false claim that we are happier under the wing of our masters.
Robert: Yes! We will show what true courage is. We will trust in our cunning. And I will put my life in God's hands. He knows our cause is just. He will see us through, just as he has for the righteous throughout time.
Character Spotlight of Robert Smalls
Historical Overview of Freedom and Emancipation
"Election Methods in the South" in THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW written by, now U.S. congressman, Robert Smalls in 1890 condemning the corruption of the election process in South Carolina.
All readings created in the Historical Fiction section were reviewed and approved by the educational advisor, Thomas Thurston, Director of Education at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, Yale Center for International and Area Studies.