Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“Disgusting treachery and negligence”

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Technology by Andy Hall on May 13, 2012

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:

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.



10 Responses

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  1. Isaac said, on May 13, 2012 at 7:54 am

    That’s interesting. Last month I visited the Hagley Museum in Delaware and part of their “Du Pont’s in the Civil War” exhibition they had a display for Smalls and his heroics as he was a pilot for the ironclad Keokuk under Admiral Du Pont’s command.

  2. Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on May 13, 2012 at 9:07 am

    Very interesting. I figured Smalls’ escape didn’t go over well with the power that be back then, but it’s always interesting to get an actual glimpse of what was said (of, in this case, written).

    Smalls, of course, was a fascinating fellow. He ended up returning to Charleston Harbor not too long later to help pilot, I believe, Union ironclads as they attacked Charleston. HIs ship, the Keokuk, was sunk and the Confederates followed up by executing a daring operation in which they salvaged the ship’s guns over the course of several nights, without the knowledge of Federals.

    Smalls later served in the S.C. General Assembly and the U.S. House.

  3. corkingiron said, on May 13, 2012 at 10:53 am

    A nice piece Andy. Do you know if Smalls himself left an account of this action? It clearly required careful planning and a high level of subterfuge to pull it off. He must have known the Officers were likely to be absent from the Planter that night.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 13, 2012 at 11:04 am

      One of the first widely-published accounts of the incident, in the Harper’s Weekly of June 14, 1862, is based in part on an interview with Smalls, and gives some details about the planning involved:

      We publish herewith an engraving of the steamer Planter, lately run out of Charleston by her negro [sic.] crew, and a portrait of her captain, ROBERT SMALLS-both from photographs sent us by our correspondent at Hilton Head. The following, from the Herald correspondence, will explain the transaction:

      One of the most daring and heroic adventures since the war commenced was undertaken and successfully accomplished by a party of negroes in Charleston on Monday night last. Nine colored men, comprising the pilot, engineers, and crew of the rebel gun-boat Planter, took the vessel under their exclusive control, passed the batteries and forts in Charleston harbor, hoisted a white flag, ran out to the blockading squadron, and thence to Port Royal, via St. Helena Sound and Broad River, reaching the flag-ship Wabash shortly after ten o’clock last evening.

      The following are the names of the black men who performed this gallant and perilous service: Robert Smalls, pilot; John Smalls and Alfred Gradine, engineers; Abraham Jackson, Gabriel Turno, William Morrison, Samuel Chisholm, Abraham Allston, and David Jones. They brought with them the wife and three children of the pilot, and the wife, child, and sister of the first engineer, John Smalls. The balance of the party were without families.

      The Planter is a high-pressure, side-wheel steamer, one hundred and forty feet in length, and about fifty feet beam, and draws about five feet of water. She was built in Charleston, was formerly used as a cotton-boat, and is capable of carrying about 1400 bales. On the organization of the Confederate navy she was transformed into a gun-boat, and was the most valuable war vessel the Confederates had at Charleston. Her armament consisted of one 32-pound rifle gun forward, and a 24-pound howitzer aft. Besides, she had on board when she came into the harbor one seven-inch rifled gun, one eight-inch Columbiad, one eight-inch howitzer, one long 32-pounder, and about two hundred rounds of ammunition, which had been consigned to Fort Ripley, and which would have been delivered at that fortification on Tuesday had not the designs of the rebel authorities been frustrated. She was commanded by Captain Relay, of the Confederate navy—all the other employes of the vessel, excepting the first and second mates, being persons of color.

      Robert Smalls, with whom I had a brief interview at General Benham’s head-quarters this morning, is an intelligent negro, born in Charleston, and employed for many years as a pilot in and about that harbor. He entered upon his duties on board the Planter some six weeks since, and, as he told me, adopted the idea of running the vessel to sea from a joke which one of his companions perpetrated. He immediately cautioned the crew against alluding to the matter in any way on board the boat, but asked them, if they wanted to talk it up in sober earnestness, to meet at his house, where they would devise and determine upon a plan to place themselves under the protection of the Stars and Stripes instead of the Stars and Bars. Various plans were proposed, but finally the whole arrangement of the escape was left to the discretion and sagacity of Robert, his companions promising to obey him and be ready at a moment’s notice to accompany him. For three days he kept the provisions of the party secreted in the hold, awaiting an opportunity to slip away. At length, on Monday evening, the white officers of the vessel went on shore to spend the night, intending to start on the following morning for Fort Ripley, and to be absent from the city for some days. The families of the contrabands were notified and came stealthily on board. At about three o’clock the fires were lit under the boilers, and the vessel steamed quietly away down the harbor. The tide was against her, and Fort Sumter was not reached till broad daylight. However, the boat passed directly under its walls, giving the usual signal—two long pulls and a jerk at the whistle-cord—as she passed the sentinel.

      Once out of range of the rebel guns the white flag was raised, and the Planter steamed directly for the blockading steamer Augusta. Captain Parrott, of the latter vessel, as you may imagine, received them cordially, heard their report, placed Acting-Master Watson, of his ship, in charge of the Planter, and sent the Confederate gun-boat and crew forward to Commodore Dupont. The families of the crew have been sent to Beaufort, where General Stevens will make suitable provision for them. The crew will be taken care of by Commodore Dupont.

      The Planter is just such a vessel is needed to navigate the shallow waters between Hilton Head and the adjacent islands, and will prove almost invaluable to the Government. It is proposed, I hear, by the Commodore, to recommend an appropriation of $20,000 as a reward to the plucky Africans who have distinguished themselves by this gallant service—$5000 to be given to the pilot, and the remainder to be divided among his companions.

      In fact, I was going to put this account up on the blog, but then decided at the last minute to focus on the Confederate reaction to the incident. Thanks for giving me an excuse to include it.

  4. corkingiron said, on May 13, 2012 at 11:36 am

    Yer welcome! And thanks for taking the time. I didn’t know he’d only been Planter’s Pilot for six weeks. Sagacity indeed.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 13, 2012 at 11:51 am

      In Googling around, I learned that the Relyeas had a lot of mariners in the family, including Charleston-area harbor pilots in the next generation. So I imagine that, entirely apart from the embarrassing loss of the ship and the guns aboard, there was a big element of personal/family scandal for the Relyeas, as well. The newspapers note that Relyea and Hancock had their convictions overturned after a direct appeal to Pemberton by two prominent Charleston defense attorneys, a legal resource that might not have been available to just any schmuck. So there’s a whole ‘nother story going on there, too.

  5. theravenspoke said, on May 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Robert Smalls, a hero for the ages. Didn’t know that Smalls made off with four guns consigned to Southern defense. Given the Confederacy’s relative lack of steel & artillery manufacturing, that must have hurt worse than the loss of the Planter. Great post.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 13, 2012 at 2:59 pm

      The account says, “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.” It’s entirely possible that one or more of those guns would’ve ended up at Battery Wagner on Morris Island, scene of the famous assault by the 54th Massachusetts, depicted in the film Glory.

      I think “Fort Timber” was an early name for what came to be known as Fort Ripley, a battery built up on pilings that sat square in the middle of the harbor. It was still under construction in May 1862.

      Halfway between the Charleston Battery and Fort Sumter, slightly toward James Island, was a sand bar called Middle Ground. Confederate General Roswell S. Ripley was assigned the responsibility for harbor defenses for Charleston, and in 1862 ordered the construction of a wooden frame caisson on Middle Ground. Ripley had a reputation for being a “spit and polish” officer who used “colorful” language to make his point. In short, he was not popular with his men.

      As the fort neared completion, Ripley decided to personally inspect the site. In a small boat with his aide and clad in his dress uniform with pistol and saber, he chose to enter the fort. The general and his aide were discussing a name for the fort as the boat bumped up against the wooden frame of the fort. Legend has it that as General Ripley was stepping from the boat to the fort, a wave caused him to lose his balance toppling him into the deep water just off the reef. As the story goes, as he finally surfaced, he remarked, “Call it Fort S_ _ of a B _ _ _ _.” So the men named the menace Fort Ripley.

      Sand was ferried from Charlotte Street in Charleston and bagged before placement on the sand bar to elevate the fort above high tide. The fort was constructed by building a wooden rectangular frame of heavy timbers, 30 feet above the water. It was designed with guns on all four sides. There were five cannons pointing southward down the harbor, and two cannons each on the other three sides.

      Company H, 1st South Carolina Artillery, commanded by Captain H. S. Farley, manned Fort Ripley. Like the other interior fortification, Castle Pinckney, there is no record of Fort Ripley ever firing a shot. In 1865, as the Confederates were evacuating Charleston, Ripley’s guns were spiked and the fort abandoned.

      In the 1870s the ruins of Fort Ripley were removed and a screw-pile lighthouse put in its place.

  6. Richard said, on May 14, 2012 at 10:18 am

    Reblogged this on African American Soldiers and Sailors.

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