Helen Boulware Moore remembers her grandmother sharing her memory of when she was a small girl aboard the Planter.

Elizabeth Smalls was among several slaves aboard the 300-ton side-wheel commercial steamship on May 13, 1862, when her father -- Moore's great-grandfather -- Robert Smalls, successfully maneuvered it past Charleston Harbor's fortifications and into Union hands.

The trip would deal a big blow to the Confederacy and secure freedom for Smalls and his passengers.

"Basically, what she told me about being on the Planter was that she was frightened, as we would anticipate a little 4-year-old might be," said Moore, a psychologist who lives in Lakewood Ranch, Fla.

As one of Smalls' 75 direct descendants, Moore has helped coordinate a series of lectures, tours and other public events set for May -- the 150th anniversary of her great-grandfather's historic journey.

It's the next big Civil War Sesquicentennial observance set to unfold in Charleston, following last April's commemoration of the first shots on Fort Sumter.

'He could have been killed'

The idea apparently began when a slave aboard the Planter jokingly put Capt. C.J. Relyea's straw hat on Smalls' head. Later, someone told Smalls that he looked just like the captain.

Smalls, a Beaufort native, was working as the Planter's pilot and had won relatively more freedoms than other slaves. He had married and begun having children, and he earned his own money and was saving some of it in hopes of buying freedom for himself and his family.

But the comment would cause Smalls to choose a less-expensive and more risky path.

During the pre-dawn hours of May 13, 1862, he quietly took the ship from a wharf near 40 East Bay St. Relyea and the ship's other white officers were ashore at the time.

With a Confederate flag flying, he steamed to a rendezvous point with a ship just upriver to pick up his family and the families of his fellow crew members.

Then the most daring part of the journey began. The Planter maneuvered past successive Confederate forts, and Smalls blew its whistle as it passed Fort Sumter. He positioned himself so the fort's sentries could see his profile --and Relyea's straw hat --but not the color of his skin.

"It was a treacherous, dangerous move that he made, and he could have been killed," said Michael Allen, a National Park Service ranger and a member of South Carolina's Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission. The fort had plenty of firepower to sink the ship if it wanted to.

But since the ship regularly shuttled between Charleston and Morris Island, the guards had no clue anything was amiss until a few hours after Smalls revved up the Planter's engine and steered it out to the Union blockade.

As the ship drew near, Smalls ordered the Confederate banner lowered and replaced with a white flag.

The Union Navy gleefully received not only a ship but also four new guns and Smalls' intelligence on the local waters and what he had overheard while working on the dispatch boat.

The commemoration of Smalls' achievement will aim to strike the same solemn, educational tone that Charleston sought for the 150th commemoration of the first shots on Fort Sumter, Allen said.

"I would say the episode in May deals with determination and drive and a quest for freedom," Allen said. "It could be characterized, whether to adults or kids, what lengths people went to be free."

More than a one-act drama

While Smalls is best remembered for his daring theft of the Planter, his life was only beginning.

He continued to serve aboard the ship -- renamed the USS Planter -- for much of the rest of the war, and his knowledge of South Carolina's waterways and the Confederates' plans provided useful information to the Union.

His daring move had brought him wealth. Congress awarded him and the other black crewmen half the value of the Planter and its cargo. Smalls later would use some of his share to buy his childhood home at 511 Prince St. in Beaufort at a tax sale in 1863.

Following the war, he served in the General Assembly.

Moore said her late grandmother had better memories of Smalls' later life, which included public service in Columbia and Washington.

"One of the things that was valued most by Robert Smalls was the whole issue of education," she said. "Being enslaved in his early years, he did not have an opportunity to attend public schools. There were no public schools."

As a state lawmaker, Smalls' bill created the state's first public school system for all students, black and white.

Allen said he once told former S.C. Superintendent of Education Jim Rex, "You sit in this office because of something Robert Smalls said in 1868."

Smalls later served five terms in Congress and then as customs collector in Beaufort -- a job he held until a few years before his death in 1915.

Four years ago, the Robert Smalls Legacy Foundation and Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., helped get an Army ship, the Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls logistics support vessel, named in Smalls' honor at a ceremony in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, there is little around Charleston to note his role in history. That will change in May, with at least two new markers and a traveling exhibit -- which includes many of Smalls' possessions owned by Moore's family -- at the Charleston Museum.

Allen noted the Park Service, the Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust and others involved in the Civil War Sesquicentennial have sought to keep the upcoming events inclusive and diverse.

The Robert Smalls' Planter commemoration is the first of three events of particular interest to the black community and soon will be followed by commemorations of the 150th anniversaries of the Emancipation Proclamation (in January 2013) and of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment's assault on Battery Wagener on Morris Island (in July 2013).

"Those are three seminal moments in the commemoration journey that offer African- Americans a chance to reflect," Allen said, "but this is beyond just African-Americans. This is part of the American fabric, part of our American story."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.