On May 12, 1862, Robert Smalls, an enslaved crewmember of the Confederate ship Planter, courageously seized both the ship and freedom. When the ship’s white crew went ashore to attend a party, Smalls collected his own family and those of the other enslaved crewmembers, who were hidden on nearby boats by prearranged plan. Smalls sailed the Planter out of Charleston harbor to safety with the U.S.S. Onward, a Union ship. This newspaper account of Small’s triumphant appearance before an all-black audience in New York City reveals as much about the political engagement of New York’s African-American community as it does about Robert Smalls. Openly impressed by the respectability of the crowd, the reporter describes the speeches, sermons, and songs that urged immediate emancipation, challenged colonization plans, and extolled the importance of African Americans’ military contributions to the Union war effort. After the war, Smalls had a distinguished political career in South Carolina state politics, eventually serving nine years in the U.S. Congress. Despite his distinguished military service, Smalls was never able to collect a pension from the U.S. Navy.
THE HERO OF THE PLANTER
Public Reception of Robert Smalls at Shiloh Church—Addresses by Rev. J. N. Gloucester, Prof. W. J. Wilson, Robert Smalls, Rev. H. J. H. Garnet and Others—Presentation and Resolutions—The Sentiment Against Colonization
The colored people of this City assembled in large numbers, at 8 P. M., yesterday, in the Shiloh Church, on the corner of Mario and Prince streets, to do public honor to Capt. Robert Smalls, their gallant brother, who, “with his comrades, seized a rebel gunboat, rescued his family and those of his companions from Slavery, passing six forts, reaching the Union squadron, and presenting the Government with the trophies of his achievement.” Punctually the house was crowded with the most intelligent and respectable portion of the African-Americans of the great Metropolis. The female portion of the audience was very numerous, and remarkable for every visible characteristic that adorns the sex. Neither personal attractions, taste nor dignity were wanting.
Mr. J. H. Townsend presided, and after he had opened the exercises with a few introductory remarks, Rev. John T. Raymond delivered a prolonged and fervent prayer, invoking the most radical and complete change in the condition of the colored race in America.
The first speaker was Rev. J. N. Gloucester who, in a very extended and emphatic address reviewed the present posture of affairs in this country, regretted the ninety days’ delay involved in the President’s Emancipation edict* which, however, he was inclined to look upon as merely a day of grace to the rebels. The speaker was followed in warm and spirited addresses by Prof. W. J. Wilson, of Brooklyn; Rev. H. H. Garnet and others, all of whom commended that unwritten page of the history of the present war which is inscribed with the deeds of the black man, and were equally emphatic and decided in their views against forced colonization. These sentiments continually elicited the most enthusiastic plaudits. The choir alternated the addresses with the very beautiful chansing of “John Brown’s Hymn,” There’s a Better Time a-Coming,” and other favorite Emancipation ditties, and, throughout, the entire audience was wrought up to a high pitch of pleasurable excitement.
While Prof. Wilson was speaking, Robert Smalls entered the house and was received with deafening cheers. A few minutes later, he was presented on behalf of the colored community with a massive and very handsome gold medal, executed by Ball & Black of this City. The medal bore on its face a representation of Charleston harbor, with the steamer Planter and Fort Sumpter in the foreground, and the Union squadron in the distance, and, on the reverse side, the following inscription:
“Presented to Robert Smalls by the colored citizens of New-York, Oct. 2, 1862, as a token of their regard for his heroism, his love of liberty, and his patriotism.
Robert Smalls, whose famous escape and personal appearance we have already made familiar, replied, in a very modest and touching address, recounting his desperate venture and expressing the hope, that as he was about to return to his duty as a pilot on the Union fleet at Port Royal, he might yet guide it safely into Charleston harbor. Mrs. Smalls and her little boy Robert were presented , and the whole family were greeted with wild and prolonged cheering.
The following resolutions were then read by Prof. Reagon, and applauded to the echo:
Resolved, That the colored people of the City of New-York cordially welcome Mr. Robert Smalls, of Charleston, S.C., as a representative of the loyal people, comprising four millions of black Unionists now living in the rebel or semi-rebel States.
First--By achieving his own liberty and freedom from the despotism which now broods over the South.
Secondly--By securing the liberty of his wife and children and those of the crew of his vessel, thereby carrying out most gloriously and promptly the doctrine of immediate emancipation.
Thirdly--In that the act of seizing the gunboat and passing successfully the six forts which environ Charleston Harbor, he developed a capacity for military and naval conduct excelled by nothing which has occurred in the present war, and equaled by only a few events in any other war.
Fourthly--By presenting to the Federal Government the valuable prize won by his prowess, he has show in his own behalf and of those whom he represents, a faithful devotedness to the cause of the American Union, which ever has and ever will illustrate the conduct of the black citizens of the United States.
Fifthly--Our brother Smalls has by this one act proven beyond any man’s gainsaying the safety, the justice and the easy possibility of the General Government [indecipherable print]
The concourse then, amid general good feeling and cheers for Admiral DuPont,** adjourned.
* President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1864.
** Admiral Samuel F. DuPont commanded the Union naval blockade against the Confederacy.
Source: New York Times, October 3, 1862, p. 8