Escape of the Planter

Robert Smalls and the Escape of the Planter

Screenplay by Alan Nafzger


Setting: CSS Planter, South Carolina to Washington D.C.

Genre: Historical drama, American Civil War

Logline: Revenge done right. Robert Smalls was a slave during the Civil War. He stole a Confederate ship, steered it to freedom, and gave it to the Union. After the war, he bought his former master’s house and became a congressman.

Robert Smalls unproduced screenplay
Robert Smalls

What makes this film unique?

  1. Robert Smalls was the ONLY African American General from the Civil War.
  2. Robert Smalls had a tremendous and long political career in one of the MOST racists areas of the nation.
  3. After the Civil War, Congressman Smalls lived in the home of his former owner.
  4. Robert Smalls grew up in the city under the influence of the Lowcountry Gullah culture of his mother, Lydia Polite, a slave of McKee. No film has yet to portray or capture this culture. The Gullah people spoke an English-based creole language containing many African loanwords and influenced by African languages in grammar and sentence structure. Properly referred to as “Sea Island Creole”, the Gullah language is related to Bahamian Dialect, Barbadian Dialect, Belizean Creole, Jamaican Patois, Trinidadian Creole, and the Krio language of Sierra Leone, in West Africa. Gullah crafts, farming and fishing traditions, folk beliefs, music, rice-based cuisine, and story-telling traditions all exhibit strong influences from Central and West African cultures.

Why Make a film called “Escape of the Planter”?

Rober Smalls’ feat caught Northerners and Southerners off guard. In the North, Smalls was hailed as a hero, and his courageous scheme spoke to one of the most pressing policy debates of the war, persuading some reluctant Northerners that blacks would indeed don a blue uniform and fight for their liberty. A Pennsylvania Congressman argued that the incident proved that blacks had “enterprise, energy, and capacity, and may be trusted to go it alone.” It was no surprise, then, that Union General David Hunter, who advocated arming former slaves, sent Smalls as part of a delegation to convince President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton of the wisdom of this course later that summer.

But in the Confederacy, the story was a bitter pill to swallow. “Our community was intensely agitated Tuesday morning,” reported the Charleston Daily Courier on May 14. Smalls had deprived the upstart nation of precious commodities — 17 former bondspeople and a gunboat that Smalls claimed was worth $30,000 — while providing the Union Navy with essential intelligence about the waterways surrounding Charleston. More generally, the Planter incident offered an unsettling answer to a question that Southern slaveholders had been wrestling with for much of the 19th century: Were slaves faithful servants or enemies in their midst?

Sources: Robert Smalls, USS Planter, Robert Smalls House.

Robert Smalls lived from 1839 to 1915

Robert Smalls is born in 1839 into slavery in a cabin behind the house of his master, Henry McKee, on 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, South Carolina.

He grows up in the city under the influence of the Lowcountry Gullah culture of his mother, Lydia Polite, a slave of McKee.

Smalls’ master sends him to Charleston at the age of 12 to be hired out, with the money to be paid to his master. He starts in a hotel, then becomes a lamplighter on Charleston’s streets. In his teen years, his love of the sea leads him to work on the docks and wharves of Charleston.

Smalls becomes a dockworker, a rigger, a sail maker, and eventually worked his way up to being a wheelman. He is more or less a pilot, though slaves would not be called by that title. He became very knowledgeable about Charleston harbor.

Family Life

Smalls meets a hotel maid, Hannah Jones, whom he marries in 1856. She is five years older and already has a daughter. Their first child together, Elizabeth Lydia Smalls, is born in 1858. In 1861 they have a son, Robert Jr., who dies.

Smalls has saved $700—almost enough to buy his young family’s freedom. When the birth of a second child puts a higher price on the prize, he starts thinking of escape.

Heroic Escape From Slavery

In the fall of 1861, Smalls is assigned to steer the CSS Planter, a lightly armed Confederate military transport. In 1862, the Planter’s three white officers decide to spend the night ashore. Early in the morning, Smalls and seven enslaved crewmen decide to make a run for the Union blockading ships, as they had previously discussed.

Robert Smalls CSS Planter screenplay
CSS Planter

Smalls dresses in the captain’s uniform and has a straw hat similar to that worn by the captain. He sails the Planter out of what was then known as Southern Wharf, then stopped at a nearby wharf to pick up his own family and the families of other slaves, who are waiting there.

Smalls’s daring escape succeedes. Besides her two small cannons, the Planter had four valuable artillery pieces aboard as cargo as well as their ammunition, intended for a Confederate fort. Even more valuable, however, were the code book containing the Confederate’s secret signals, and a map of the mines and torpedoes laid around Charleston harbor.

Smalls piloted the ship past the five Confederate forts that guarded the harbor. They suspected nothing, since Smalls knew the correct Confederate signals. The Planter passed Fort Sumter and Smalls heads straight for the Federal fleet, flying a white bed sheet as a sign of surrender. He is spotted by the USS Onward, which is about to fire until a sailor noticed the white flag.

When the Onward’s captain boarded the Planter, Smalls requests to raise the United States flag. He then surrendered the Planter and her cargo to the United States Navy.

Service to the Union Navy and Army

Smalls proves to be very valuable to the Union Navy, since he is able to give detailed information about Charleston’s defenses to Admiral Samuel Dupont, commander of the blockading fleet.

Smalls overnight becomes well known in the North. Newspapers describe his actions, and Congress passes a bill, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, that awarded Smalls and his crewmen the prize money for the Planter. Smalls’ share was $1,500 – about $37,000 in 2016 dollars. This is a huge amount for the time. He meets President Lincoln two weeks later and gives a first hand account of his adventure.

Smalls’ bravery became a major argument for allowing African Americans to serve in the Union Army. He worked with the Navy until March 1863, when he was transferred to the Army. Smalls was present at 17 engagements in the Civil War; five battles are depicted in this screenplay.

Robert Smalls screenplay
Robert Smalls

With the encouragement of Major-General David Hunter, the Union commander at Port Royal, Smalls went to Washington, DC., in August 1862 with Mansfield French, to try to persuade Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to permit black men to fight for the Union. He was successful and Stanton signed an order permitting up to 5,000 African Americans to enlist in the Union forces at Port Royal. Those who did were organized as the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Regiment (Colored).

Smalls served as a pilot for the Union Navy. In the fall of 1862, Planter had been transferred to the Union Army for service near Fort Pulaski. The Army used Smalls as a ship pilot. Smalls was later reassigned to the USS Planter, now a Union troop transport. In 1863, he pilots the ironclad USS Keokuk in a major Union attack on Fort Sumter. The attack fails, and Keokuk is badly damaged. Smalls saves several of the crew before the ship sinks.

Later in 1863, Smalls becomes the first black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States. The Planter is caught in a crossfire between Union and Confederate forces. The ship’s commander, Captain Nickerson, decides to surrender. Smalls refuses, fearing that the black crewmen will not be treated as prisoners of war and might be summarily executed. Taking command, Smalls pilots the ship out of range of the Confederate guns. For his bravery, Smalls replaces Nickerson as the Planter’s captain.

Smalls returns with the Planter to Charleston harbor in April 1865 for the ceremonial raising of the American flag upon Ft. Sumter.

After the Civil War

Immediately following the war, Smalls returns to his native Beaufort, where he purchases his former master’s house at 511 Prince Street. His mother Lydia lives with him for the remainder of her life. He allows his former master’s wife (Jane Bond McKee, who is very elderly) to move back in the home prior to her death.

In 1866 Smalls goes into business in Beaufort with Richard Howell Gleaves, opening a store for freedmen. That same year, the “radical” Republicans who controlled Congress overrode President Andrew Johnson’s vetoes and passed a Civil Rights Act. In 1868, they passed the 14th Amendment.

Smalls Enters Politics

Smalls identifies with the Republican Party, saying it was

The party of Lincoln which unshackled the necks of four million human beings.” In his campaign speeches he said, “Every colored man who has a vote to cast, would cast that vote for the regular Republican Party and thus bury the Democratic Party so deep that there will not be seen even a bubble coming from the spot where the burial took place.

Later in the film Smalls says, “I can never loose [sic] sight of the fact that had it not been for the Republican Party, I would have never been an office-holder of any kind—from 1862—to present.”

He is a delegate at several Republican National Conventions and participates in the South Carolina Republican State conventions.

During the Reconstruction era, Smalls is elected a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1865 and 1870, and the South Carolina Senate between 1871 and 1874. He also serves briefly as the commander of the South Carolina Militia with the rank of major general.

In 1874, Smalls is elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he serves from 1875 to 1879. Also from 1882 to 1887, he served in the House.

Putting Smalls’ place in History into Context

He is the last Republican to have been elected from the 5th district until 2010. He was the longest serving African-American member of Congress until Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in the late 20th Century.

Legal Trouble with the Southern Democrats…

After the Compromise of 1877, the federal government withdrew its remaining forces from South Carolina and other Southern states. White Democrats had used violence and election fraud to regain control in the state legislature. As part of wide-ranging Southern white efforts to reduce African-American political power, Smalls was charged and convicted of taking a bribe five years earlier in connection with the awarding of a printing contract. He was pardoned as part of an agreement in which charges were also dropped against Democrats who had been accused of election fraud.

Politics into the Twentieth Century

Robert Smalls House screenplay
Robert Smalls House

Smalls is active politically into the twentieth century. He is a delegate to the 1895 South Carolina constitutional convention, and, together with five other black politicians, strongly opposed white Democrat efforts to disfranchise black citizens. They wrote an article for the New York World to publicize the issues, but the constitution was ratified.

Smalls was appointed U.S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort, serving from 1889 to 1911 with only a short break in service. He lived as owner of the house in which he had been a slave.

Robert Smalls and the Escape of the Planter

Robert Smalls and the Escape of the Planter

Robert Smalls and the Escape of the Planter

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