Last Voyage of the Steamer Planter

An 1867 advertisement for the Planter's weekly route between Charleston and Georgetown, S.C.

An 1867 advertisement for the Planter’s regular weekly route.

Last month representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced they believe they have located the remnants of the Civil-War-era steamship Planter near Cape Romain, South Carolina. Inspired by the story of Robert Smalls’ daring escape from slavery in Charleston by stealing the Planter in May 1862, NOAA researchers spent six years investigating the history of the steamer and its final voyage. In the spring of 1876 the vessel was wrecked, stripped, and abandoned in the shallow waters of Cape Romain, but more than a century of shifting sandbars have obscured the precise location of the wreck. Using an arsenal of high-tech, electronic equipment, the NOAA team trolled the area and now believe they have located the magnetic signature of the lost vessel.

This conclusion, however, is based largely on the erroneous assumption that the steamer’s boilers sank with the wooden hull. The boilers, and the rest of the vessel’s metal fittings, were in fact salvaged in the spring of 1876 and sold at auction in Charleston on 18 July of that year. So has NOAA really found the remnants of Planter? I’m a bit skeptical, and we may never know for sure because there are currently no plans for further investigation or excavation of the target. NOAA has published their report in PDF form, and I encourage all to read for themselves: The Search for Planter: The Ship that Escaped Charleston and Carried Robert Smalls to Destiny. Besides a handful of South Carolina geographical errors, it’s a very thorough and informative summary of both the career of Planter and the recent search for its final resting place.

The career of Robert Smalls, from enslaved maritime professional to U.S. Congressman, is familiar to many here  the Lowcountry, but the career of Planter, from its launch in 1860 to its destruction in 1876, is far less familiar. That’s a shame, in my opinion, because understanding the background of this famed vessel, as well as its post-war travails, helps to place Smalls’ career in a broader context and provides illuminating details about civilian maritime trade in the South Carolina lowcountry. In that spirit, I hope you’ll join me for an illustrated review of the rise and fall of this celebrated steamship, in a program titled:

“A Brief History of the

Steamer Planter, 1860–1876″

Time: Wednesday, June 18th 2014 at 6 p.m.

Place: Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.