Helen Moore grew up listening to her grandmother’s stories of the old days, but what she heard wasn’t simple family lore — it was American history.
Moore’s grandmother was Elizabeth Smalls Bampfield, the oldest daughter of Robert Smalls. And she was aboard the CSS Planter when Smalls, then a slave in Confederate Charleston, sailed it out of the harbor toward freedom and a long career of public service.
This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of Smalls’ voyage, and the city and the National Park Service will commemorate it with two historical markers and a number of public events.
Smalls, who eventually became the U.S. Navy’s first black captain and a South Carolina congressman, in 1862 was pilot of the Planter, a Confederate ship that ran orders from downtown to the harbor forts.
One day, someone told Smalls he looked like the ship’s captain when he wore his straw hat. That remark set into motion an elaborate plan to commandeer the ship. Smalls donned the captain’s hat, pulled away from the downtown docks in the early hours of May 13, 1862, and sailed past Fort Sumter, waving at the sentries as he passed. They thought he was the Planter’s captain.
By the time the Confederates discovered the ruse, Smalls was a free man.
Smalls delivered the Planter to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron outside the harbor, along with vital information about the Confederates’ defenses. He also carried eight other slaves, five women and three children — one of them his daughter, Elizabeth.
“She was only 21/2 or 31/2, but she remembered being afraid,” Moore said. “She remembered being down in the hold so no one would see her.”
Moore, Smalls’ great-great-granddaughter, said that although “grandpa” is best known for his Civil War heroics and later his work as a congressman, his legacy in the family has been one of education.
“When he was growing up, he was taught everything a man needs to know — except how to read and write,” Moore said.
But after Smalls delivered the Planter to the U.S. Navy, he accompanied it on a refit trip to Philadelphia, and there he hired a tutor to teach him to read and write. Since then, all his descendants have made education a priority in their life. And that’s part of what this weekend is about.
“We really want adults to learn about Robert Smalls and what he did, but we are particularly interested in young people and children learning about him,” Moore said.
Michael Allen, community partnership specialist with the National Park Service, said educating people about Smalls’ legacy is part of the ongoing efforts to commemorate the Civil War sesquicentennial locally.
“With Robert Smalls, we are looking at a different facet of that history, through the eyes of the enslaved,” Allen said. “This provides more context about the American Civil War.”
Smalls was born into slavery in Beaufort and sent to Charleston to work when he was 12. By the time he was 21, he was married with a daughter and working on the Planter.
After he commandeered the Planter, the U.S. Navy made him a captain of the vessel. He also piloted the ironclad Keokuk in an 1863 attack on Charleston Harbor.
Smalls settled in Beaufort, and after the war he served on the local school board before being elected to the General Assembly. There he sponsored legislation to make school mandatory for every child in South Carolina — another important part of his legacy, Moore said.
In 1874, Smalls was elected to Congress and served five terms. He ended his public service career as collector of customs for the Port of Beaufort.
Michael Moore, a great-great-great-grandson of Smalls, said that he hopes this weekend will make his story known to more people.
“For a long time, his legacy has been a little bit in the shadows,” Moore said. “Over the last few years, more people have come to know about him. He has a great story, one that people can relate to. He took his life into his own hands, dreamed big and achieved it.”
Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or follow him on Twitter at @BriHicks_PandC.