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article imageCivil War ship found: Planter's role in heroic ride to freedom

By Karen Graham     May 23, 2014 in Entertainment
Charleston - The wreck of a steamship commandeered by slaves during the Civil War is believed to have been found, lying beneath 10 to 15 feet of sand, silt and water off Cape Romain, between Charleston and Georgetown in South Carolina.
The rediscovery of the Planter on May 16, 2014 is more than just a story about another shipwreck. It is instead, a story of the heroism shown by a southern slave and ship's pilot who had the audacity to pilot a steamship to freedom under the watchful, yet unseeing eyes of the Confederates.
Planter was a side-wheel steamer, built in Charleston, South Carolina in 1860. A fair-sized steamer, she had a displacement of 303 long tons. With a hold over seven feet deep, and armed with two guns, a 1 × long 32-pounder gun and a 1 × short 24-pounder howitzer, the Confederate navy made use of her as an armed dispatch and transport boat.
Cape Romain during an extreme tide event that overwashed Cape Island in September 2007.
Cape Romain during an extreme tide event that overwashed Cape Island in September 2007.
Jennifer Koches, USFWS
The Planter was placed under the command of the engineer department at Charleston, under Brigadier General Ripley, CSA. Planter was used to run cannons, soldiers and other wartime goods up and down the coast. Most of the crew were slaves.
Robert Small comes aboard
One year later, a young slave by the name of Robert Smalls came aboard as a deck hand. Smalls was given more freedom to move around the city than other slaves aboard the Planter. It is believed this was because he was his owner's son. Based on stories told by his descendants, Smalls' mother was a slave in the home of a man called John K. McKee. The family suspects that McKee's son Henry, who inherited the slaves in 1848, was Smalls' father.
Smalls did well for himself, working his way up to the position of wheel-man, the person who steers the ship. Smalls later told Harper's Weekly magazine that the fanciful idea of commandeering the ship and piloting it to the safety of Union lines was talked about often with his fellow crew members in the privacy of his house. Talk soon led to action, and the crew members began to secretly store provisions in the Planter's hold, and then they waited for just the right time.
Commandeering a side-wheeler
That time came on May 12, 1862. At 4 a.m. the next morning, while the white crew and Captain C. J. Relyea were ashore partying the night away, Smalls and his small crew of seven slaves quietly pulled away from the wharf and into the harbor. They made one stop, to pick up relatives at North Atlantic wharf. With the Confederate flag flying, they steamed by a number of enemy forts, always giving the proper salute by blowing the steam whistle.
Fort Sumter  Charleston  South Carolina. The image shows the fort during the siege from December 26 ...
Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina. The image shows the fort during the siege from December 26, 1860 until April 12 1861.
Unknown Harper's Weekly artist
When out of reach of the Confederate guns, a white flag was hoisted and the "Planter steamed directly toward the blockading [Union] steamer Augusta," Harper's explained in June 1862. Besides his seven crewmen, Smalls also brought five women and three children to safety. Besides handing over a cargo of guns and ammunition, Smalls also had valuable intelligence, including information on abandoned defensive positions on the Stono River.
Robert Smalls was later assigned to be the Planter's pilot, seeing action against the Confederacy. He was later assigned to pilot other ships in a position in the U.S. Army. In 1863, Smalls was involved in another act of heroism aboard the Planter. The ship was moving supplies along Folly Island creek near Charleston when it came under heavy shelling from Confederate guns. The captain ordered the ship to be beached and abandoned, but Smalls instead, piloted the Planter to safety. The captain was dismissed and Smalls was promoted. Robert Smalls was the first African-American to become a ship's captain in the U.S. military.
The fate of the Planter and Robert Smalls
After the war was over, the Planter was sold to a private company who then sold it back to its original owner, a South Carolinian by the name of John Ferguson. On March 25, 1876, while trying to tow a grounded schooner, the Planter sprang a leak in the bow, causing water to rush into the hold. It was decided that they would beach the steamer, repair the hole and take off again the following morning. Fate was not kind, and a violent storm, along with stormy seas and a rising tide made quick work of further damaging the ship, and she was abandoned, not to be found again until last week.
Picture of Robert Smalls
Picture made on June 14  1862
Picture of Robert Smalls Picture made on June 14, 1862
Unknown artist for Harper's Weekly
As for Robert Smalls, well, he went on to represent the state of South Carolina, serving five nonconsecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1874-1886) before watching his state roll back Reconstruction in a revised 1895 constitution that stripped blacks of their voting rights. But Smalls stood firm in his belief in the equality of the races, saying, “My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”
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