The compulsion to engage the Charleston area’s complex history as a slave-trading center was, for the writer, a visceral thing, akin to the urge to revisit a crime scene.
In the spring of 1862, cloaked in the predawn darkness of Charleston Harbor, 23-year-old Robert Smalls stood aboard the C.S.S. Planter, a Confederate transfer and gunboat, and plotted his escape.
In his day, Smalls was a rarity, a black enslaved harbor pilot. He was also clever: That morning, with his three commanding white officers carousing ashore, Smalls began executing his plan. With eight fellow slave crewmen in tow, Smalls, wearing a captain’s uniform, cranked up the vessel’s engines, and in the moonlit waters, headed toward the promise of freedom.