An audacious paragon of the Civil War, now largely forgotten, is brought back to life, and his rags-to-riches adventure is certainly worth the revisit.
In the cotton-rich cradle of the Confederacy, not far from Charleston, South Carolina, Robert Smalls (1839-1915) was born a slave. Once an illiterate house servant in the Beaufort home of his owner, the affable Smalls quickly became a hero in the North and an enemy in the South. It all started when the clever Smalls conceived of and executed a plan to release himself, his family, and several others from bondage and, in the doing, render a service to the Union. It was a dramatic, even cinematic, scheme. Smalls was a proficient steersman, hired out to work aboard the Planter, a Confederate steamer, in Charleston’s harbor. One day in May 1862, with his black crew and frightened passengers aboard, he commandeered the ship and navigated it out to the Union blockade of Charleston. In the dim light, disguised with the boat captain’s distinctive headgear, Smalls sailed the Planter past Southern fortifications port and starboard. It was an impressive feat. Reliable, congenial, and whip-smart, he became the toast of the North. He assumed the captaincy of the Planter, lectured in Northern cities, met President Abraham Lincoln, and assisted freed slaves (who were, to keep them free, considered “contraband”). Smalls also learned to read and write, became a man of means, and bought and occupied the Beaufort home of his former master. He even became a member of Congress. This is unquestionably a remarkable story, and journalist Lineberry (The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines, 2013, etc.) ably tells it as a microcosm of the war. It’s a tale of politics and battles told with clarity, and the matter-of-fact discussions of people owning other people remains as jarring as it should.
A worthwhile Civil War biography cogently presented and ready for the big screen.