Confederate Steamer Hijacked by Slaves Found Off S.C.

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Robert Smalls between 1870 and 1880.
Library of Congress

It's one of the most daring escapes of the Civil War: a band of black slaves commandeer a Confederate steamship at night, navigate through Southern defenses, then run for freedom to the Union blockade of Charleston Harbor.

That remarkable tale is now coming back to life with the discovery of the wreck of the steamship Planter off the South Carolina coastline.

Marine archaeologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the ship's location Tuesday, 152 years after Robert Smalls sailed the Planter, eight crew members and their families out of slavery. It's the culmination of a six-year search for the sidewheel steamship using historic records, side-scan sonar and ground-penetrating magnetometers.

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NOAA officials say the underwater search has engaged students about the history of the Civil War and the contribution of African-American slaves as seamen during the early years of the United States.

"Robert Smalls stands out as a figure of history," said Michael Cottman, president of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers. "The symbolism is important and will resonate with people."

The Planter was a Canadian cargo ship and crew transport that was leased to the Confederate Navy when the war broke out in early 1862. Smalls had worked as a steersman on the ship, learning the underwater topography of the harbor and its backwaters, according to Bruce Terrell, an archaeologist and historian for NOAA's Office of Marine Sanctuaries.

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"The captain would tell him where to go, and Smalls' knowledge became vital to the Confederates," Terrell said.

On the night of May 12, 1862, the white officers of the Planter debarked to attend a ball in Charleston, leaving eight black crew members on board. Planter hatched his plan, sailing to a nearby wharf to pick up several families and then sailing out to sea. Smalls wore the straw hat of a captain and wasn’t noticed by guards at the harbor entrance, Terrell said.

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