High Treason Against South Carolina
A very confused Charleston writer a few years ago claimed Robert Smalls was a hero, despite his embracing the enemy of his country and helping to wage war against it. Given great freedom and latitude as a slave and being taught trades with which to earn money for himself and future wife to buy their freedom, Smalls turned his back on those who trusted and nurtured him to adulthood. His notoriety comes from committing treason against his State and country, and adhering to their enemy.
He gained further infamy by leading enemy forces through local waters, and encouraging black South Carolinians to desert their State and wage war against it as the British had done 88 years earlier. After the war and part of the corrupt Reconstruction government in South Carolina, State Congressman Smalls was convicted in 1877 of taking a $5000 bribe for the awarding of a State printing contract to a Republican crony. Smalls appealed to his Republican masters in Washington and a deal was made to drop charges against him in return for so-called election violations against South Carolina being dismissed. Like Marion Barry of recent times, he was reelected by his black constituency in a district where they outnumbered whites 7 to 1. As Article III, Section 3 of the United States Constitution dictates that “treason against the United States, shall consist only of levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort” Smalls should have been hung for treason after returning to South Carolina.
Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Wilmington, North Carolina
High Treason Against South Carolina:
“On May 12, 1862, the small but fast shallow-draft steamer Planter was sent to Cole’s Island to take on board four guns that were there, with orders to transport them to Middle Ground Battery (Fort Ripley). Having loaded the guns, the Planter proceeded to the city; since it was late, she tied up at her usual berth at Southern Wharf. In spite of a general order stating that officers were to remain on board during the night, the captain, mate and engineer left the Planter in charge of the Negro crew under the command of Robert Smalls and returned to their homes. Smalls, a man of exceptional ability, planned to abscond with the Planter and turn her and the guns over to the blockading fleet outside the harbor.
By the time anyone on [Fort] Sumter realized that anything was wrong, the Planter was out of range of the guns. Heading for the nearest blockade vessel, the USS Onward, Smalls lowered his two flags and ran up a white sheet. The captain of the Onward immediately brought his ship into position so that his port guns could be brought to bear on the oncoming Planter….as soon as the Planter came alongside she was boarded and the [United States] ensign raised. A crew was put aboard, and she went straight to Port Royal. Smalls was praised by Du Pont for his part in the abduction of the Planter, and it was through the insistence of Du Pont that he and his crew received a share of the prize money. Smalls’s share amounted to $1500; the other crew members received less.
The [Planter’s] captain, mate and engineer were arrested and tried. The first two were found guilty , and the engineer was released because of insufficient evidence. The captain was sentenced to three months in prison and a fine or $500; the mate was to be imprisoned for one month and pay a fine of $100. Smalls was made a pilot by Du Pont. After the war he was elected to the State House of Representatives and then to the State Senate; later he became a United States congressman. A high school in Beaufort, South Carolina bears his name.”
(The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865, E. Milby Burton, USC Press, 1970, pp. 94-97)