Monday, May 12, 2014 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Recently various news agencies, including the Charleston Post and Courier and USA Today, reported that underwater archaeologists might have found the wreck of the nineteenth-century steamer Planter. Although I am neither a naval historian nor an underwater archaeologist, this news caught my attention for one simple reason: the Planter didn’t sink. There seems to be a bit of misunderstanding in our community about this point, so let’s review the facts.

Robert Smalls, an enslaved man who later became a congressman, achieved fame in May 1862 when he stole the Confederate transport vessel Planter from a Charleston wharf and steamed out to the Union Navy blockading our harbor. Small’s act garnered immediate national attention and launched his career in the navy and later as a politician, but the fate of the Planter has received less scrutiny. After several years of service as a transport for the U.S. Navy and Army, the 150-foot long vessel returned to civilian service in coastal South Carolina in 1866. According to a U.S. Navy website, and a host of other websites profiling the career of Robert Smalls, the Planter sank in a storm off Cape Romain in July 1876.

In reality, however, the Planter was wrecked in a storm off Cape Romain in March 1876. After the ship struck a shoal and damaged its hull, the Planter‘s captain beached the vessel and called it a “loss,” much like a modern insurance adjuster would evaluate a badly wrecked automobile and call it a “total loss.” In the months following the wreck, laborers stripped the Planter of all its valuable materials, including its boilers, engines, and even its wooden paneling. The remnants of the sixteen-year-old ship, everything except the wooden hull, were transported to Charleston and sold at auction. For its owners, the Planter was a “lost” investment and had to be replaced. Construction of the Planter II began in Charleston in late May 1876 and that vessel was in service into the early twentieth century.

I’m not privy to the details of what modern divers have found at Cape Romain. Perhaps they have found the remnants of the Planter‘s hull, but seawater may have destroyed most of its timber frame. The treacherous shoals around the cape have claimed many ocean vessels over the centuries, so there are sure to be at least a few mid-nineteenth-century steam engines beneath the waves there. But not that of the Planter. In short, we all need to be cautious about how we interpret the word “lost”, lest we assume that the ship might be raised intact from a watery grave.

The story of the Planter is an important part of South Carolina’s history and deserves to be commemorated in full.