Search for ship commandeered by Robert Smalls might be over

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comMay 13, 2014 

  • Team to present report on Hilton Head Island

    Researchers who have been looking for the remains of the Planter, a steamer commandeered by Beaufort native Robert Smalls during the Civil War, will present their findings at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at The Westin Hilton Head Resort & Spa on Hilton Head Island.

The story of Robert Smalls cannot be told without the Planter, the Civil War steam boat he first commandeered and then commanded.

And though Smalls now rests at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort, the ship on which steamed to fame and success has been lost to the sea for more than a century -- until now, researchers say.

"The two stories are so intertwined, you cannot talk about one without the other," Beaufort historian Dennis Cannady said. "To celebrate one is to celebrate the other."

A team of archaeologists with the National Marine Sanctuary Program say they have located objects that might be the remains of the wrecked Planter near Cape Romain, northeast of Charleston.

If it is indeed the Planter, locating the steamboat's remains and preserving the site would help complete an important piece of Beaufort, Civil War and Reconstruction Era history, archaeologists and historians say.

"This is a uniquely American story," said Daniel Basta, director of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. "All of us have a voyage or two in our history. Perhaps this story can inspire us to become a Robert Smalls of our own."

The team presented its findings at the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge on Tuesday -- the 152nd anniversary of the day Smalls and a team of slaves captured the vessel from Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.

Smalls turned the ship over to the federal navy and was heralded as a hero by Union leaders, who tapped him to recruit former slaves to the Northern army. The Beaufort native commanded the Planter until the end of the war and went on to serve in both chambers of the S.C. General Assembly and five terms in the U.S. Congress.

The ship sank in 1876 during a storm near Cape Romain. Several Lowcountry newspapers reported on the sinking, and much of the Planter's heavy equipment was salvaged at the time.

However, the exact location of the remaining wreckage -- and any possible artifacts -- was thought lost forever until researchers began searching the waters off the cape in 2010, according to Bruce Terrell, a senior archeologist and historian for the sanctuaries program.

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

About a half-mile off the southern tip of Cape Island, the team discovered metal and wood remains, said archaeologist and professor Tim Runyan, who co-authored the report with Terrell.

"Can we say for sure that we have found the Planter?" Runyan said. "No, we cannot. But we are confident based on the circumstantial evidence that we have."

However, the remains are buried more than 10 feet under the cape's sandy bottom, Runyan said. That makes excavation -- the only way to confirm the remains belong to the Planter -- too expensive and cumbersome an endeavor for now, he said.

In the meantime, researchers should consider nominating the location to the National Historic Landmarks Program and presenting their story during the anniversaries of Smalls' death and the end of the Civil War next year, according Michael Allen, who works with the National Park Service to preserve the history of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

"It may not be feasible to bring it up to where we're sitting today, but we may be able to raise it up in our culture," Allen said.

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at

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