Inside the Planter


The coastal steamboat named Planter and a slave named Robert Smalls made history together early on the morning of May 13, 1862, when Smalls commandeered the vessel that was then in the service of the Confederate government, and escaped to freedom with its eight other black crewmen and several family members.

The daring dash to freedom began at 3 a.m. at the southern wharf in Charleston Harbor after the white crew members had left the ship for the night to attend a ball.

Smalls, who was born into slavery in Beaufort, had been leased out since he was a youth for various tasks on the Charleston waterfront and was working as wheelman of the Planter when he made his bid for freedom. Before the Confederate takeover, the Planter would carry cotton and passengers from Charleston to Georgetown.

According to an account of the event put together by the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program, Smalls, 23 years old at the time, had a well-thought-out plan for the escape.

He met off the ship with the black crewmen to discuss how they would go about it, then three days before the escape he secreted food and water in the hold of the boat, awaiting an opportunity to slip away.

On the day before their flight at night, the Planter had picked up four cannons – including a banded 42-pounder rifled cannon, a 32-pounder, an 8-inch Columbiad and an 8-inch seacoast howitzer - from the battery at Cole’s Island for delivery the next day to Fort Ripley at Charleston’s Middle Ground. 

While the Planter was docked that evening at the Southern Wharf, the white crew members left to go to the ball and when they were gone, the historical account relates, Smalls directed the black crewmen to steam to Charleston’s North Atlantic Wharf, where they took on his wife and children and another crew members’ relatives.

Dennis Cannady, of Beaufort, a retired mechanical engineer, local historian and lecturer on Robert Smalls and the Planter, said the relatives were on a boat there waiting for them. He said Smalls’ wife, the former Hannah Jones, who worked as an enslaved chambermaid at the Mills House Hotel, brought a white hotel sheet with her which they would use as a truce flag when approaching the union blockade.

In all, the Planter would carry 16 enslaved African-Americans to freedom – the nine black crewmen, Smalls’ wife and three children, and the wife, child and sister of the first engineer.      

Smalls raised the Confederate flag, as usual, as the Planter began its journey towards freedom in the dark. It steamed quietly down the harbor, working against the tide, and by the time the boat reached Fort Sumter it was broad daylight.

“However, the boat  passed directly  under its walls, giving the usual signal - two long pulls and a jerk at the whistle cord – as she passed the sentinel,” the NOAA account says. “Once out of the range of the rebel guns, the white flag was raised and the Planter steamed directly for the blockading steamer Augusta.”

ROBERT-SMALLS2The Planter steamed ahead to the USS Onward where Smalls delivered the Planter and its cargo, including the four cannons to the Union. The commander of the Onward had immediately boarded the Planter and hauled down the flag of truce, then raised the American flag to replace it.

Smalls proceeded on the Planter to Beaufort, which was in federal control, where the passengers were let off, and to Hilton Head, also in federal control. He and the  Planter were then assigned to Port Royal Union headquarters, from which he would become involved in a number of engagements with the Confederate enemy.

Not only did the Union get a valuable cargo of heavy guns with the Planter, but gained detailed knowledge from Smalls of Confederate plans and where they had set mines in the water. He also brought his knowledge of all the channels and backwaters.

The NOAA account  reported: “Admiral Samuel F .Du Pont, commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron of the U.S. Navy, was impressed with Smalls’ bravery and considered the newly self-liberated slave a hero, knowing he could easily been executed had he been captured in the endeavor.”

As Smalls’ great-granddaughter, Helen Moore, of Lakewood Ranch, Fla., has written, “To many observers, Robert Smalls was the first African-American hero of the Civil War.”        

After the war, Smalls found his way into politics and served on the Beaufort County School Board, then in the South Carolina Legislature, first as a state representative from 1868 to 1872, then as a state senator until 1874. He then was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served for a dozen years from 1875 to 1887.

When Smalls left Congress he returned to Beaufort, where he served his appointment as Collector of Customs from 1889 to 1911. He died in 1915.

Moore is curator of the traveling exhibit, “The life and times of Congressman Robert Smalls,” which currently is on display at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga., and moves on Aug. 1 to a Fort Mill museum.

The Planter survived a number of battles on both sides of the Civil War but was no match for a wicked nor’easter several years later in March 1876 when it became stranded on a shoal at Cape Romain and wind-driven waves smashed it beyond repair.

The Planter was built in Charleston between 1859 and 1860 at the Francis M. Jones  shipyard for John Ferguson, who would be owner and captain, in keeping with his specifications. The hull measured 147 feet long by 30 feet wide. The hold had a depth of 7 feet, 10 inches, and it drew only 3 feet, 9 inches, of water, NOAA reported.


The boat had two engines, with wood-burning fireboxes that drove two side-paddle wheels.

It could hold 1,800 bales of cotton.

On March 22, 1876, the Planter, under the command of Capt. John Flinn. arrived in Georgetown on one of its regular trips and Flinn learned that another boat, the Carrie Melvin, had run aground at Cape Romain on the sandy shoals just off Cape Island. The next day he went out to see if he could pull it back out to sea but the line broke. Being too late in the day to try again, he went behind Cape Island and anchored for the night.

The next morning, on March 24, the Planter went back in heavy seas as the storm moved in to try and free the Melvin, but struck the shoals itself and sprung a leak.

NOAA said the Planter’s pumps could not keep up with the incoming water so Flinn elected to ground the boat on the beach with the intent of repairing the leak and leaving on the next flood tide. But the gale blew up and the waves did their damage.

After the storm passed, the boat was stripped of everything movable and became a shipwreck. The salvaged contents were sold at auction and drew a total of $1,000. 

Fast forward 135 years and NOAA enters the picture. As part of its educational outreach, the agency initiates a search with the help of the National Association of Black SCUBA Divers for the remains of the Planter. Its Maritime Heritage Program reviews historic maritime charts relative to 1876 and scours old newspaper articles for references to geographic features.

Based on the historical and cartographic research, a one-half square mile area of highest probability for finding the remains was identified off Cape Romain. Once a survey boat arrived on site, that area was extended somewhat to the north and east.

Bruce G. Terrell, NOAA historian and nautical archaeologist in the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, said what they believe to be the remains of the Planter were found on Nov. 22-23, 2010, using a magnetometer and side-scan sonar transducer. He said they were found in 12 feet of water under 15 feet of sand.

The remote sensing survey at Cape Romain eventually led to the discovery that took place on Aug. 13, 2010, according to Terrell. He said it found 17 anomalies in the original search area and nine in the extended area.

None of the magnetic anomalies in the original area exhibited signature characteristics typically associated with shipwreck remains, steam machinery or any equipment that could be associated with the Planter, he went on.

But, he said, a concentration of three anomalies in the extended area contained signature characteristics suggestive of shipwreck remains.

That group of three was subsequently investigated with probing by a diver over Nov. 22-23 and that identified metal at two locations at depths approximately 10 feet below the bottom surface. They are believed to represent the wreck site.

Terrell noted somewhat ruefully, but good naturedly, that the remains site lies in the extended area rather than in his original box.

NOAA only announced the find in May. Asked why the agency waited three and a half years to do so, Terrell said those involved in the search had to vet their findings, which is always done with archaeology, and then write – and rewrite – their report

He pinpointed the location of the shipwreck as one-quarter to one-half mile southeast of Cape Romain Island, which is a barrier island between Charleston and Georgetown.

It is the home of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.

Terrell said NOAA has no plans to dig up the remains of the Planter or to do any further research on the boat and Robert Smalls beyond their exhaustive work so far.

He said the remains of the boat are the property of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, which had issued a permit for the investigation.

While the Planter is no longer around, it won’t be forgotten thanks in part to four scale models of the boat made by Cannady, the local historian in Beaufort.

Cannady said if the mass discovered in NOAA’s exploration is what remains of the Planter, the two pings the researchers got off it undoubtedly are the boat’s two engine boilers because all of the other metal parts were stripped along with everything else.


Cannady donated his first model to the Historic Beaufort Foundation, which has it on display in the Verdier House Museum in Beaufort. He gave his second model to the great granddaughter of John Ferguson, the first owner of the Planter, who lives locally in Beaufort County and wanted to have it as a family heirloom. The third model is on tour with the traveling exhibit “The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls."

Cannady kept the fourth and latest model for himself to use when he holds lectures on the Planter and Robert Smalls. When he’s not using it for a lecture, it is on display to the public in the sales office of the Habersham planned community in Beaufort, where he lives. He said the town’s Friday evening gatherings are a fine opportunity to see it.

John Ferguson, the Planter’s first owner, died in August 1869, years before it was shipwrecked. When Smalls, who was then in Congress, heard about the demise of the Planter in 1876, it was reported he felt as though one of his own children had died.