HAPPY FRIDAY PRAGOBOTS!
We continue our series on African-American Civil War Spies…
(April 5, 1839 – February 23, 1915)
Self-emancipated slave Robert Smalls was the “wheelman” or pilot for the C.S.S. Planter, a giant side-wheel steamship that was the fastest ship in the harbor and the “pride of the local Confederate fleet.” With the regular crew staying overnight in Charleston, and under the cover of darkness in the early morning of May 13, 1862, pilot Smalls with the help of eight slave crewmen picked up their families and two single women, and calmly made their way across the heavily defended harbor. In case of detection, the slaves planning the escape had earlier pledged to blow themselves up with the ship, because they knew that the alternative would be death. It was only a distance of seven miles, but the Planter had to run a deadly gauntlet of forts and batteries in their ultimately successful bid to cross the bar and reach the Union territorial waters where the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron was stationed.
Once out of distance from the batteries, the crew of the Planter raised struck the Confederate and Palmetto State colors and raised a white flag. The now former slaves (contraband***) rejoiced on deck as the extremely valuable ship and its equally important human cargo approached the ten Union warships and came under the protection of the Union flag.
The images of Robert Smalls along with the Planter made front page news around the world. The New York Tribune wrote of the event: “…a slave has brought away under the very guns of the enemy, where no fleet has dared to venture, a prize whose possessions a commodore thinks worthy to be announced in a special dispatch.”
The June 14, 1862 edition of “Harpers Weekly” printed an interview with Smalls and emphasized how the “capture” of the former cotton hauler turned military gunboat had hurt the Confederate Navy because she “was the most valuable war vessel the Confederates had at Charleston.
Of course the article did not mention that Smalls had also turned over to Union Navy Admiral du Pont a Confederate military code book. It was left on board the Planter and contained all of the Confederate Navy’s secret signals and codes, so that the blockade squadron could decode the signal flags raised across Charleston Harbor.
Nor did the article mention that in the course of piloting the Planter around the harbor, Smalls did some intelligence gathering on the side. He had memorized details about the size and strength of the Rebel fortifications as well as the locations of mines and torpedoes planted in the waters to destroy or disable the Union fighting fleet. Smalls was cognizant of Confederate troop movements around Charleston Harbor and communicated to the Commodore vital information that contributed to the Union victory at Stono Inlet. Smalls was a short-term spy, but a most effective one.
***ABOUT CONTRABAND AND CONTRABAND CAMPS
So the general struck upon a politically expedient solution: Because Virginia had seceded from the Union, he argued, he no longer had a constitutional obligation to return the runaways. Rather, in keeping with military law governing war between nations, he would seize the three runaways as contraband—property to be used by the enemy against the Union.
Lincoln let the decision stand; Butler, after all, hadn’t challenged the status of enslaved people as property. Yet Mallory, Baker, and Townsend’s escape and the general’s clever gambit proved momentous, the repercussions heralding the beginning of slavery’s end. For when other enslaved Africans Americans heard that three men had been granted refuge, they began flocking to Freedom’s Fortress, as they called Fort Monroe. They came despite rebel rumors that the Yankees would eat them, sell them into slavery in Cuba, process them into fertilizer, or make them pull carts like oxen.
By war’s end, approximately half a million formerly enslaved people and other African American freedmen had sought protection behind Union lines. These “contraband,” as they became known, usually lived in camps hastily erected almost anywhere the army was stationed. The large number of runaways who flocked to Union lines belies the outdated and racist notion that enslaved African Americans simply waited for emancipation by singing hymns and strumming banjos; rather, they seized almost every chance to pursue their freedom, often risking death, and in so doing, helped make slavery a central issue of the Civil War.
“The most marginal people in American life, with no standing in civil or political society, end up being these consequential political activists who understand the war’s events in much different ways than the educated policymakers,” says Steven Hahn, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Nation Under Our Feet.
The contraband camps became recruitment centers for African American troops and workers willing to dig trenches, build fortifications, and aid the Union cause on numerous fronts. And so enslaved African Americans not only endeavored to win their freedom during the war, they also made vital contributions to the Union victory that ensured they got it.
…Indeed, as runaways began inspiring hope among the enslaved, the issue quickly made national headlines, sparking a debate about what to do. Some Union generals, including George McClellan, maintained that they would not interfere with slavery and offered no refuge to runaways. The question of what to do with the refugees gained increasing importance as the Union army pushed into the Deep South and discovered massive plantations abandoned by their Confederate owners. A chaplain with the Army of the Tennessee described how African Americans “flocked in vast numbers—an army in themselves—to the camps of the Yankees,” likening the influx to “the oncoming of cities.”
African Americans, meanwhile, discovered that conditions in a contraband camp, depending on who was in charge and where it was located, were often worse than life on the plantation. Refugees in these makeshift villages of tents or shacks sometimes suffered abuse at the hands of Union soldiers, faced reprisals when Confederates infiltrated Union lines, were occasionally handed over when their owners came looking for them, and fell victim to smallpox and diseases that proliferated in the absence of proper sanitation. Increasingly, women and children arrived in the camps—barefoot and hungry after long journeys by boat, wagon, foot. “The suffering from hunger and cold is so great,” wrote a Union commander in Tennessee, “that those wretched people are dying by scores … sometimes 30 per day die and are carried out by wagon loads, without coffins, and thrown promiscuously, like brutes, into a trench.”
Yet the camps also enabled runaways to experience a novel degree of freedom. Schools sprang up. In Hampton, where two camps were built outside the fort, Mary Peake, a free African American who had surreptitiously taught enslaved people to read and write before the war, began openly teaching classes, reputedly under an oak tree on what’s now the campus of Hampton University. After her death, classes were held in the scorched shell of the town’s courthouse, burned by Confederate troops. The camps thrived as vibrant political and social havens, where freedmen reunited with family members and interacted with Northerners and each other with previously unimaginable openness. “They have obtained in the camps, and wherever they have been,” wrote a Union provost marshal in Louisiana, “a spirit of independence—a feeling that they are no longer slaves.”
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