“Disgusting treachery and negligence”
Today is the sesquicentennial of one of the most audacious acts of the Civil War, when Robert Smalls, an enslaved African American trained as a harbor pilot, took his vessel out the Union blockading fleet off Charleston. It’s already been mentioned several places, with due credit to Smalls and his comrades. As Union Admiral David Dixon Porter put it in his naval history of the war, “this required the greatest heroism, for had he been caught while leaving the wharf, or stopped by the forts, he would have paid the penalty with his life.” More on Smalls and Charleston here.
So given the coverage Smalls’ actions will get — and rightly so — I thought it would be interesting to see the coverage from the other side, from the perspective of Confederate Charleston. Here, from the Charleston Mercury, May 14, 1862:
DISGUSTING TREACHERY AND NEGLIGENCE Yesterday, at daylight, the steamer Planter, in the absence of her officers, was taken by four or five of her colored crew from her berth at Southern Wharf, to the enemy’s fleet. She is a high pressure cotton boat, of light draught, formerly plying on the Pee Dee River, but latterly chartered by the Government, with her officers and crew, from Mr. Ferguson, her owner, and used as a transport and guard boat about the harbor of Charleston. Her armament was a 32-pounder and a 24-pound howitzer. The evening previous she had taken aboard four guns for one of the newly erected works, either that on Morris Island or Fort Timber, viz., a 42-pounder rifled and banded, an 8-inch columbiad, both of which had been struck at the reduction of Ft. Sumter, and 8-inch seacoast howitzer, and a 32-pounder. These guns were to have gone to their destinations early in the morning, and been mounted yesterday. Three sentinels were stationed in sight of her, and a detail of twenty men were within hail for the relief of the post. Between half-past three and four o’clock the Planter steamed up and cast loose, the sentinels having no suspicion of foul play, and thinking she was going about her business. At quarter past four o’clock she passed Fort Sumter, blowing her whistle, and plainly seen. She was reported by the Corporal of the Guard as the guard boat, to the Officer of the Day, Captain Flemming, one of the best and most reliable officers of the garrison. The fort is only called on to recognize authorized boats passing, taking for granted that they have their officers aboard. This was done as usual. The run to Morris Island goes a long way out past the fort, and then turns. The Planter on this trip did not turn. The officers of the Planter were [Charles J.] Relyea, Captain; Smith, Mate; and Pitcher, Engineer. They have been arrested, and will, we learn, be tried by court-martial for disobedience of a standing general order, that the officers and crews of all light draught steamers in the employment of the Government will remain on board day and night. The result of this negligence may be only the loss of the guns and of the boat, desirable for transportation. But things of this kind are sometimes of incalculable injury. The lives and property of this whole community are at stake, and might be jeopardized by event apparently as trifling as this. It ism therefore, due to the Service and to the Cause, that this breach of discipline, however innocent in intention on the part of the officers, should be dealt with as it deserves. Without strict discipline, no military operations can succeed.
Note that the black men who stole the boat get only a passing mention; virtually the entire piece focuses on the incompetence and negligence on the part of Confederate authorities in letting them get away with it. There’s no surprise expressed that Smalls and his companions would attempt to take the boat, so much as shock that they were able to pull it off. The newspaper story makes no hint of a betrayed assumption of loyalty on the part Planter‘s enslaved crew members to either their owners, or to the Confederate cause.
The newspaper got the name of the ship’s mate wrong; he was not “Smith,” but John Smith Hancock. He, Engineer S. Z. Pitcher, and Captain Relyea, went to trial; Relyea and Hancock were both found guilty. Relyea was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment and a $500 fine, which if he did not pay would be commuted into a sentence of two additional months. Hancock was sentenced to one month in prison and a $100 fine. Engineer Pitcher argued “in bar of trial” that the charges were vague and insufficient, and after careful deliberation the charges against him were voided.
In his review of the court martial, however, Major General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of South Carolina and Georgia, overturned the convictions of Relyea and Hancock, noting that Planter‘s owner, Ferguson, “seems to have been entirely deficient as to the deportment of his subordinates.” Pemberton found that while Relyea and Hancock were in violation of general orders, “it is not clearly shown that General Order No. 5, referred to in the specification of the charges, had ever been properly communicated to Captain Relyea, or Hancock, the mate, nor do any measures appear to have been taken by their superiors to force an habitual compliance with the requirements of those orders” (Charleston Mercury, August 1, 1862). Relyea and Hancock were released.
I’ve read online that Captain Relyea was lost at sea between Charleston and Nassau in 1864, suggesting that he got involved in blockade running. Not sure if that’s true, but he left behind a spectacular, gold-headed cane of his that was sold twice last year at auction.