Archaeologists believe they have found ship Robert Smalls commandeered

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comMay 12, 2014 

Archaeologists believe they have found the remains of the Planter, a ship famously commandeered by Beaufort resident Robert Smalls during the Civil War.

A team of researchers with the National Marine Sanctuary Program say they have located objects that might be from the wreckage near Cape Romain, northeast of Charleston.

The team will present its findings Tuesday at the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in Awendaw.

Tuesday also marks the anniversary of the day Smalls and a team of slaves captured the vessel from Confederate soldiers in 1862 during the Civil War.

Smalls turned the ship over to the Union navy and was heralded as a hero by Union leaders, who tapped him to recruit former slaves to the Northern army. He commanded the Planter until the end of the war.

The Planter later wrecked near Cape Romain during a storm in 1876. Several Lowcountry newspapers reported on the wreck, and much of its heavy equipment was salvaged at the time. Its exact location, however, was lost to tides and time -- until now, researchers contend.

If the remains found off the cape are from the Planter, it could help finish the story about an important piece of state history, according to Bruce Terrell, a senior archeologist and historian for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

Since 2010, Terrell has led a team of maritime archaeologists and researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration searching for the lost ship.

"My research was to try to figure out where it went down, where would it be now and what would be there," Terrell said.

By reconstructing the scene of the wreck from newspaper accounts and maps of the time, and comparing them to the geographic landmarks on the cape now, such as its two lighthouses, the team was able to narrow the search area, Terrell said.

Based on evidence the team has gathered, Terrell believes the remains of the ship are buried about 15 feet under the cape's sandy bottom.

Smalls, who served in the S.C. General Assembly and U.S. Congress, ended his career as a customs collector at the Port of Beaufort. He died in 1915 and was buried at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort.

Smalls' story and his heroism on the Planter are a vital piece of Beaufort's history during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, Beaufort historian Larry Rowland said.

The Planter "is extremely important; it's just iconographic," Rowland said. "It will be an exciting story if they do find it -- and can prove it."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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