Play breathes life into story of little-known Civil War hero

rburris@thestate.comSeptember 23, 2012 

Unsuspecting visitors to the State Museum found out Saturday that 150 years after hoodwinking Confederate forces in Charleston Harbor, Civil War Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls is still a surprise.

While browsing the fourth-floor cultural history displays at the museum, some of the visitors were invited to participate in a scripted live play about the little-known hero who later became a Union general and a five-term U.S. congressman from South Carolina.

The traveling exhibit, “The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls” is on display at the museum through Jan. 6.

Before daybreak on May 13, 1862, the then-23-year-old Smalls, a slave, took the Confederate State Ship “Planter” from under the watchful eyes of rebel forces and navigated the steam ship up the Cooper River, past occupied Fort Sumter and into the harbor and freedom, liberating himself, his family and more than a dozen others.

“We came to visit the museum – the whole museum, and just stumbled into this,” said Dale Grunsky of Lexington, who, with his wife, Patti, brought their grandchildren, Casey and Kendal Huggins of Aynor for a tour.

The Grunskys said they were unaware of Smalls and his exploits.

Granddaughter Casey, who was unexpectedly drafted to play the role of Smalls in the play, said she knew only a little bit about the Beaufort native.

“I knew that he worked up to be the captain of The Planter and then he saved his family from slavery – he escaped from slavery,” she said.

Saturday was Robert Smalls for Kids Day at the museum, but adults were drafted to play roles in the play, too.

“I couldn’t talk in a man’s voice, but it was fun,” Casey said. “Really brave (what Smalls did),” she said.

Museum history curator Joanne Zeise and her 10-year-old daughter, Abby, of Irmo, were at the play, and Abby played the role of Hannah Jones Smalls, Robert Smalls’ first wife.

“It was pretty neat,” Abby said.

Elizabeth Schmitt, 10, and her sister Isabel, 9, of Goose Creek, respectively played Captain John Ferguson, skipper of “The Planter,” and an enslaved sailor in the impromtu performance.

“I think I had heard of (Smalls) but not really known what role he played in American history,” Elizabeth said. She added that she had learned some at school about slavery, the rights that those who were enslaved should have had, the Black Codes, a restrictive set of laws passed in reaction to escape attempts by slaves, and other information.

Brian Schmitt, the girls’ father, played the role of the Union captain in the play. Though he said he “sadly” knew nothing about Smalls, he added, “We’ll probably do some follow-up when we get back home.”

Schmitt said his daughters are studying the Civil War in school now.

“This is one of the stories that many South Carolinians aren’t familiar with,” said Zeise, the museum curator. “He (Smalls) was nationally significant. He made headlines up North and he was a very important man. A five-time U.S. congressman, and many in South Carolina don’t know about him.”

Prior to Saturday’s play, the museum had hosted two Saturday lectures about Smalls. A final installment in the Robert Smalls Saturdays in September series is planned for next Saturday, Sept. 29.

Kathy Hart, museum educator, put together the play and portions of the Smalls traveling exhibit, which has moved up and down the East Coast from Boston to South Carolina, and directed the public play.

“One of the things I strongly believe is, if you can take children, or anybody back and let them feel like they are there, then they are going to remember the story more,” Hart said.

And how did it go?

“Pretty good, considering we had an all-girl cast, we didn’t have any African-Americans in the group,” Hart said. “But, I think that’s OK. ... the only way to get more people to understand the story is to continue to spread it, no matter who is hearing the story.”

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