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The Planter History

The Planter.
Planter at Georgetown c. 1870
She was a sturdy boat with red cedar planks over oak frames and keel. The steamboat Planter was 147 feet long by 30 feet wide and was designed to navigate the shallow waters of Charleston's rivers and creeks.

The Planter was built between 1859 and 1860 in Charleston, South Carolina by Francis M. Jones at his shipyard on South Battery Street, then known as East Bay Street. Following construction of the hull and cabins, Planter was towed to the western side of town to the Cameron and Company iron foundry, where two wood-burning engines were installed and boilers placed on the main deck.

The Planter was the vehicle for Robert Smalls’ fortunes in the 1860s. Smalls first served as a crewman and rose to fame as her pilot.

Planter was reputed to be one of the fastest boats in Charleston harbor. The vessel was owned by John Ferguson, a native of Nova Scotia, and was used to transport cotton and passengers between Georgetown, South Carolina and Charleston. She could carry up to 1,500 bales of cotton on her decks.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Ferguson rented the Planter to the Confederate government which used it as a transport and dispatch steamer carrying messages, supplies, cannons, and troops between the various fortifications in the harbor. At this time, Planter was armed with a 32-pounder bow cannon and a 24-pounder howitzer on the stern. The majority of the crew was made up of slaves.

The Planter
Steamer Planter and Robert Smalls, Harpers Weekly June 1862
Following Smalls’ commandeering of the Planter on May 12, 1862, the ship continued to be used by the U.S. Navy as a dispatch and supply vessel with Smalls as the pilot. However, in September of that year, the Navy transferred the craft to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps. In June 1864, the Planter was sent to the Philadelphia Navy Yard for refit and repair.

Upon her return to Charleston, the Planter resumed her mission supporting Army operations around, Charleston, Port Royal and Beaufort. After the end of the war, Planter was loaned to the Freedman's Bureau. Smalls and the Planter spent the next year ferrying freed slaves in and out of a redistribution camp set up at Port Royal as well as continuing to support Army missions.

In 1866, the Army attempted to sell the Planter but could not get their desired price. The former owner, John Ferguson claimed that the Planter was actually his own property stolen by the U.S. Navy, but the vessel was not returned and the government would not sell him the boat. In September 1866, Planter was sent to Baltimore to be re-inspected and sold. It was sold to Mordecai & Co. of Charleston which resold it to Ferguson several months later.

Planter resumed running between Charleston and Georgetown as well as points inland on the Peedee River. The Planter was also often reported as being leased for private excursions.

On March 25, 1876 the Planter's captain, John Flinn, attempted to assist a three-masted schooner, Carrie Melvin, which had grounded on shoals off the southern tip of Cape Island at Cape Romain between Charleston and Georgetown. While trying to tow the schooner, Planter sprang a plank in the bow and began to take on water in the hold. The captain elected to beach the steamer and repair the plank, hoping to get off the beach with the next high tide.

Unfortunately, stormy seas battered the Planter as the tide rose and the ship was too badly damaged and had to be abandoned, her hull sitting partially on the beach and in the water.

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Additional Resources

  The Search For Planter
The Ship that Escaped Charleston and Carried Robert Smalls to Destiny

When ordinary men and women step forward and do extraordinary things, the story of the human race takes a quantum leap forward. In 1862 Robert Smalls was a slave assigned to steer the CSS Planter, an armed Confederate military transport. Read more...

Read the Press Release

Click on the images below to download high resolution versions:
Cape Romain magnetic contour map with probable wreck site (Coordinates Redacted). (Tidewater Atlantic Research)
Robert Smalls between 1870 and 1880s (Library of Congress)
The steamer Planter (Harpers Weekly June 1862) Probe locations at the high-priority anomaly cluster (Coordinates Redacted). (Tidewater Atlantic Research)
Sinking of the USS Keokuk, Robert Smalls navigating. (Naval History and Heritage Command) View of south end of Cape Island in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. The remains of the Civil War-era steamer Planter are located within sight of an 1857 lighthouse. (Steve Hildebrand) An archaeologist launches a side-scan sonar unit. (Tidewater Atlantic Research) Aerial view of Cape Island in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, location of probable remains of Civil War-era steamer Planter. (USFWS)


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