From the Journal of Hannah Smalls
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 journal entry by Hannah Smalls attempts to convey the conflicting feelings Robert and Hannah Smalls might have experienced when making their decision to attempt this risky escape.
May 12, 1862
Tonight, on the eve of our escape, I write with a purpose different than every night before this. I write for Robert more than for myself. Because he cannot write, I must tell the story of our plan. Should our plan fail we will not survive, yet someone must know of our attempt.
Robert has been on the verge of collapse for months. His soul is about to break from having to fight with the Confederacy, against his own freedom, for nearly a year. Yet he is a strong man, one of the strongest I have known. While he has been so low in spirit he has found a way to survive by planning for hope. All those days he piloted his boat to maintain his own bondage he began to realize that there was an avenue for escape, so unexpected and so bold that it must be tried. Robert has a plan for our family and a dozen others to take The Planter out of Charleston harbor and to the Union Navy, just a few miles out to sea. He will impersonate the captain and, with his knowledge of the signals at the forts, sail us, who will be stowed below, through the waters of the Confederacy and out to the open expanse of freedom.
I must confess that when he first revealed to me this plan I was uneasy. I thought the plan so direct, so brazen that it would surely be discovered, and we would be put to certain death. I could only imagine the torture we would have to endure before being put on the gallows or shot at the stake.
Yet when Robert heard my worries he only smiled. He held me tight, and explained step by step why the plan would succeed. Who would ever expect it, he asked. Who would imagine that a group of Negroes would have the skill, the ability to deceive at such a grand degree? While I had to admit he was right, other worries clouded my mind and I remained unswayed in my opposition to his scheme. Of course I wanted freedom, just as badly as he did. But I also knew that our lives in Charleston were very good, as good as some of the poor white laborers. I knew that with another year of saving we could purchase our freedom outright. We could stay in Charleston and he could keep earning and saving. While I was more than willing to risk my own life, I could not do the same for our children. Leaving them was impossible, for if we succeeded, their fate would be unmerciful. If we took them and failed, untimely death would again be their fate. Their lives hung heavy over both us I know.
When I laid these points before him, his brow darkened. He knew the sense in what I said and paused for some minutes, gathering his thoughts. What he next spoke sprung not from his mind, but his soul. He spoke softly but with a force I had never before seen. There would never be real freedom in the South if the Confederacy won the war, he said. Blacks, even free ones, would never really be able to join in equality if they lived under Black Codes. Our duty was to fight and fight the best way we knew how. We had to use our greatest strengths to hasten the end of slavery, not just for ourselves but for our family and friends and all their loved ones.
Then he added a final point, a point I had forgotten but that chilled my blood to ice. What if, he said, your master or mine decides to sell our children while we are still saving for our own freedom? How would we get them back? What would our freedom mean with our children toiling and seared in the Arkansas heat? It was then that I knew he was right, that this plan was right, that we had to escape because the risk of staying was too great.
So we spent two weeks readying. During that time we spoke our plan to some of our closest, most trusted friends. All asked immediately to join us. All shared our conviction that freedom is impossible in a land of slavery.
Now it is nearly midnight, but sleep will not reach me tonight. My thoughts have flown. Tonight I can glimpse a future illuminated by liberty. Across the coming hours I will allow myself to imagine and be made strong by the brightness that lies beyond the mouth of Charleston harbor. In that future we are respected for our skill, not for our ability to enrich those who own us. We will think of our families first. We will use our great knowledge and work hard to create a home in which we are the masters and there are no slaves. I see a garden near our house where the plants are nourished by soil free of my people's blood. I am almost overcome. I don't want to wait for dawn. I pray for good fortune and know that whatever comes, we will have won some victory. I am ready now.
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.