Confederate ship hijacked by a slave found off S.C. coast

May 19

A story about Robert Smalls in Harper’s Weekly, dated June 14, 1862. The previous month, Smalls had freed himself and his family from slavery by commandeering the Confederate ship “Planter” in Charleston harbor, and turning it over to the U.S. Navy. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The wreckage of the Planter, a Confederate transport ship stolen by an enslaved deck hand in 1862 and sailed to freedom outside Charleston Harbor, has been found. Used by the U.S. Navy for the rest of the war, it was then sold into private hands and sank in 1876 during a storm.

The wreckage of the Planter was recently discovered by marine archaeologists in about nine feet of water off the coast of Cape Romain, S.C. Whether it will be excavated or left where found  has not been decided. The wreck is near a sensitive loggerhead sea turtle nesting area.

The story of the Planter and its heroic hijacker, Robert Smalls, was big news in the Northern press when the ship was taken out of Charleston Harbor late on the night of  May 13. Its white crew had gone ashore to party that evening and Smalls was left in charge. In a prearranged plan, he collected his family and some friends and, disguised as a captain, sailed the ship past five Confederate forts that guarded the Charleston Harbor. As a wheelman — the equivalent of a captain — he had sailed in and out of the harbor so many times, he knew what signals to use to safely pass by the forts.

Smalls raised a white flag and sailed toward the Union blockade, where he relinquished the ship when Union sailors boarded her. Smalls, accepted into the U.S. Navy, got to captain the Planter and other ships until the war ended. Returning home to Beaufort, he was elected to five terms as a congressman from South Carolina.

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