The ship steamed past Fort Sumter two hours before daybreak, blowing her whistle to the guards on night watch.

It was the Planter, a vessel that the fort's officers knew well. The 147-foot, shallow-draft steamer -- a cotton boat, the locals called her -- served as the dispatch boat for Gen. Roswell S. Ripley, the Confederate Army's district commander for Charleston.

The boat ran letters to the troops on Morris Island and carried responses back to the general. Its chief value was its slight draft, which allowed it to navigate shallow Lowcountry tidal water.

Even at that early hour, the guards gave her appearance little thought. The Planter often made the run to Morris Island at odd hours; there was always something going on.

That morning, May 12, 1862, the sentinel on the parapet did as he was supposed to -- he alerted his commanding officer that the boat was going by. Someone on the Planter's deck even waved at him, and later the guard would report that he had assumed it was the boat's captain, C.J. Relyea.

After all, he recognized the captain's straw hat.

The bored sentinels watched the Planter chug into the channel. All boats to Morris Island followed the same course -- they sailed out, far beyond the fort, then suddenly turned south.

For a while the Planter followed that well-worn route perfectly. But when it reached the point where it was supposed to turn, the Planter revved its engines and sped out to sea -- on a course to intercept the blockade.

It would be hours before the men at Fort Sumter realized that they had been duped by a half-dozen runaway slaves.

Stirring patriotism

The loss of one of the Confederacy's precious ships could not have come at a worse time for morale in Charleston.

Locals still were struggling to recover from the fire that had decimated much of the old city in December, and news on the war front was not good. The battle at Shiloh, in Tennessee, which The Mercury initially reported as a Southern victory, had turned to disaster.

Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard had led a surprise attack against Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, meaning to drive the Yankees away from the Tennessee River and into the swamps. For the first day of fighting, the Confederates appeared to have the upper hand. But on April 7, Union reinforcements arrived and turned the tide.

Ultimately, more than 3,000 men were killed in the battle, another 16,000 wounded. To that point, it was one of the bloodiest battles in American history. And although the casualties were divided nearly evenly between the two forces, it was the Southerners who had been forced to retreat.

On the heels of that battle, the Yankees took New Orleans after a week of fighting. The largest city in the Confederacy had fallen. The editors of The Mercury were so distraught by this turn of events that they could scarcely provide any patriotic comfort to Charlestonians. In a front-page editorial, the newspaper asked, "Is Charleston to be Saved?"

The paper urged citizens and officials to get involved with the war efforts, and then to re-double their efforts.

"Our people and the State authorities must make up their minds either to throw the ordnance of our Forts into the sea, and blow them up, evacuating Charleston to the enemy, or they must see that our harbor is obstructed and Fort Sumter secured from Parrott guns on Morris Island," the paper opined.

"The time has fully come to face this alternative and the sooner we get a conclusion the better. Groakers are a useless class. We repeat that, in our opinion, Charleston can probably be saved by prompt and untiring energy."

The rant was a not very subtle attempt to stir patriotism, which seemed to have flagged after the initial excitement of the war. The number of volunteers joining the Confederate Army had dwindled so much that the state was forced to enact a conscription law.

The law called for all men between the ages of 18 and 45 to enroll, but allowed anyone who could afford it to hire someone in their stead, assuming that person was not already a member of the militia.

The Mercury endorsed the move, and astutely noted that the campaign should have come sooner. In the heady days after Fort Sumter and Bull Run, it would have been far easier to attract new recruits.

While most signed up without complaint, there was some grousing among the working class when the newspaper published a list of people exempted from the conscription law: members of Congress, the state legislature, ferry men, mailmen, boat pilots, professors and newspaper journalists, among them.

If that weren't bad enough, in February, state officials began talk of suppressing the sale and distillation of whiskey.

"Drunkenness is the great and growing sin of these troublesome times, and the instant abatement of the nuisance is absolutely necessary to save our army from demoralization and our people from becoming a nation of sots," The Mercury opined.

By the end of February, the mayor had issued orders to close all bars in Charleston.

To liven spirits, so to speak, the ladies of the city hosted a Grand Fair to raise money for their planned gunboat. The fair stretched out over several nights in early May. Hundreds of folks showed up at Hibernian Hall for raffles and ring-cakes and parties that stretched into the night.

Gov. Francis Pickens even made an appearance before it was over, sampling exotic drink concoctions and fraternizing with the locals.

As festive as the fair was, however, Charleston still had more than its share of problems. The next week, city officials put Charleston under martial law.

The Mercury praised the action as a way to let the city take care of itself while soldiers dealt with the Yankee invaders. But there was more to it than that, as the paper reported that some of the Southern troops stationed in the city had been harassing the women of Charleston.

"It has repeatedly happened, within the last few days, that ladies have been mildly accosted and insulted by soldiers, in the public thoroughfares," the paper reported. "In some instances, outrages of the most flagrant character have been committed, with perfect impunity, by men wearing the honorable uniform of Southern volunteers.

"We do not know who the offenders are; but we do know that, in the City of Charleston, such acts cannot and will not be allowed to continue."

While the city was consumed with the realities of living in a war zone, and defending the honor of its women, a plot was hatched by one industrious slave.

A simple straw hat

Robert Smalls had more liberties than most slaves.

The Beaufort native was allowed to marry, and his owner, Henry McKee, permitted him to earn his own money. Smalls was an ambitious man who slowly saved his cash in hopes of one day buying freedom for himself and his bride.

In 1862, Smalls worked as a pilot for Relyea on the Planter. Even if he had to give most of his money to McKee, it was not a bad job. There certainly were worse occupations for men of his station in life.

As a pilot aboard the Confederate's dispatch ship, Smalls heard the business of the Confederacy and learned the routines of Charleston's waterfront. He would soon find a use for all that knowledge.

One day, another slave aboard the Planter found the captain's straw hat and put it on Smalls' head -- just joking around. A few minutes later, someone mentioned to Smalls that, from a distance, they thought he was the captain.

It gave Smalls an idea. All he had to do was wait for his opportunity.

That chance came on the night of May 11. Relyea and his crew left the Planter unattended. There were rules about this sort of thing, basically that someone from the crew always was supposed to be aboard the boat. But on this evening everyone had snuck away, perhaps stealing an evening at home.

The Planter was docked on the Southern Wharf, which stood at the east end of The Battery. Sometime after midnight, when it was quiet on the waterfront, Smalls and seven other men casually made their way toward the boat, greeting sentries as they passed.

They waited patiently, passing a few hours onboard as they waited for the deadest part of the night. Just after 3 a.m., Smalls told one of the men to fire up the Planter's engine. They waited a while to see if the noise would attract attention, but no one came.

Half an hour later, the men cast off and the Planter set sail.

The sentries on the docks never thought anything about it. It didn't even seem odd when the Planter steamed upriver and rendezvoused with another ship, the Etowah. By then, they assumed, the captain and crew were aboard the boat.

Aboard the Etowah, Smalls had arranged for his wife -- and the families of all his men -- to hide on the ship and wait for the Planter's signal. It took only a few minutes to transfer their families, then Smalls turned the ship toward the harbor's mouth.

The ship came in range of Fort Sumter about 4:15 that morning. It was the crucial moment of the escape. Smalls knew the fort had more than enough firepower to easily sink the boat if soldiers there suspected anything was amiss.

He decided to put on a show for the men at Sumter.

Smalls donned the captain's straw hat and, as he later related, "stood so that the sentinel could not see my color." He waved to the men and made sure the boat gave no hint that anything was amiss. For several tense minutes, the Planter crawled along beside the fort and out of the channel.

When it came time to make the expected turn to Morris, Smalls sped up and headed for the blockade. He had to hope that no one at Sumter would catch on to the deception quick enough to open fire.

As Smalls approached the blockade, he quickly ordered his men to lower the Confederate banner and raise the white flag.

The Union sailors happily received Smalls and his crew. They sent the hijacked Planter to Port Royal and gave Smalls a job. By the end of the month, Congress would award Smalls and his crew half the estimated value of the Planter and its cargo in cash.

Eventually, Smalls would be named the Planter's captain, making him the first black commander of a U.S. ship. Smalls would return to South Carolina during Reconstruction and become a congressman for the state.

The loss of the Planter was not an inconsiderable blow. The Confederacy did not have a surplus of boats, especially those with the unique features of the Planter. But, as it turned out, the cost for the South was even higher. The Planter had been loaded the night before with guns that were due to be shipped to Morris Island for defense of the city.

In Charleston, the fallout continued for weeks. The Confederate brass was so upset that Relyea, his first mate and engineer were court-martialed for leaving the ship untended. The Mercury also chastised the men, allowing that "The result of this negligence may be only the loss of the guns and of the boat … but things of this kind are sometimes of incalculable injury."

The Mercury editors may have been referring to Charleston's perpetually declining morale, but the warning was more prescient than anyone realized at the time.

Smalls not only gave the Yankees the Planter and four new guns, he supplied them with valuable information, intelligence he had overheard while working on the dispatch boat.

He reported to U.S. Navy officials that the shorthanded Confederates were abandoning Cole's Island and Battery Island, two spits of land that guarded the mouth of the Stono River. That bit of intelligence would allow Union troops to sail undetected into the river and land on the far side of James Island.

Union commanders quickly decided the west side of James Island would make a fine place from which to attack the troublesome city of Charleston.

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