Has one of the most famous American Civil War vessels that served both the North and the South been found? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suddenly announced on May 12 2014 that they have discovered a vessel that they believe to be the CSS/USS Planter off the South Carolina Coast. The vessel was lost at sea 14 years after the Civil War in rough seas as it attempted to tow a grounded schooner. The NOAA state the ship is buried beneath 12 feet of sand and was located by sonar. As such, it has not been positively identified but officials strongly believe it is the vessel. There are no plans to excavate the ship but the wreck site will be closely monitored.

The CSS Planter was a 149 foot sidewheel steamer built at Charleston, South Carolina in 1860 and was used by the Confederacy as an armed dispatch boat and transport attached to the Engineer Department at Charleston, under Brigadier General Ripley, CSA. It was one of the fastest boats in Charleston harbour and could carry 1,500 bales of cotton.

However, late on May 13 1862, while her Confederate Captain, CJ Relyea, was absent on shore which was contrary to official Confederate Naval regulations, Robert Smalls, a slave who was the CSS Planters`s wheelman, quietly took the ship from the wharf and with a Confederate flag blowing, steamed past five successive protecting Confederate forts. After donning the Captain`s white Confederate Uniform and wearing his customary straw hat, he saluted the defenders with the customary blowing of the steam whistle. As soon as the steamer was out of range of the last Confederate guns, he hauled down the Confederate flag and handed the vessel over to the USS Onward which was part of the Union blockading force. On board the vessel were 15 other slaves, 7 crewmen, 5 women and 3 children. On May 30 1862, the United States Senate granted Robert Smalls and his crew one half of the value of the ship and her cargo as prize money estimated at $9,000. However, the vessel and her cargo were worth far much more and the real value was nearer $67,000. The ship was renamed the USS Planter and subsequently transferred to the Union Navy and served in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron through the summer of 1862. She was then transferred to the Union Army for service near Fort Pulaski, Georgia.

Robert Smalls himself served as a pilot for Union ships and was subsequently re-united with the USS Planter in December 1863 and during a cross fire off the South Carolina coastline between Confederate and Union forces and after refusing to surrender, he piloted the ship out of range of the Confederate guns. As a result, he was appointed Captain of the USS Planter and served throughout the rest of the Civil War. He was the first black man to command a United States ship. After the war, he served in the State Legislature and 5 years in Congress. The USS Planter was sold after the Civil War in 1866.

On May 25 1876, off Cape Romain (Northern Charleston County)on the South Carolina coast, the Planter attempted to save a grounded schooner by towing it. During the attempt, the Planter sprung a plank in the bow and started to take on water in the hold. The Captain decided to beach the steamer and repair the plank before escaping on the next high tide. However, stormy seas battered the Planter as the tide rose and she became to badly damaged to save. She was subsequently abandoned and presumed lost for ever.

Article by Stewart "Goober" Douglas


  • America`s Civil War (Sept 2014)
  • Wikipedia
  • Various Internet Sources
  • The Post and Courier, Robert Behre April 1 2014.

The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Summer 2014