If you’re passing along Waterfront Park in Charleston, you may spy something poking up from behind a row of bushes. Closer inspection reveals it to be a tribute to Robert Smalls, whose incredible story the city honored in May of 2012 with a two-day observance and the placement of an additional historical marker on the Battery.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it entails an extraordinary feat of wit and courage. Smalls was born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina. During the Civil War, he was assigned to steer the Confederate military transport, CSS Planter. Having learned the proper signals to the forts along the harbor, Smalls devised a plan to escape. On the evening of May 12, 1862, after the officers had disembarked, Smalls disguised himself in the captain’s clothes with a straw hat pulled down over his face. Along with a small crew of other enslaved workers who had been left aboard, Smalls launched the ship, brought family members on board, and sailed past the heavily armed Fort Sumter. Once out in Charleston Harbor, they immediately raised the white flag and surrendered the ship to the Union Navy, which had set up a blockade there.
Freeing himself and more than a dozen others and bringing Union forces a valuable prize in the process would have been more than enough to earn Smalls a place in history. But his story wasn’t done just yet. Smalls served in the Union Navy, then after the war purchased his former enslaver’s house in Beaufort. He went on to serve in the South Carolina state assembly and senate, as well as five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Sadly, he also lived to see history’s pendulum swing back once more, as South Carolina rolled back Reconstruction by adopting a revised constitution in 1895, which stripped Black residents of their voting rights and included what has become better known as the Jim Crow laws. It was also during this time that Smalls’s story uncoincidentally faded into obscurity. After his death in 1915, it would be another century before his legacy would be revived and recognized by the city where he left his shackles behind.
The story has become better known since the announcement in 2019 that Charles Burnett is producing a film about Smalls, titled Steal Away.
Know Before You Go
The memorial can take a while to find, even with GPS as it is visible only from one direction, behind bushes.