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Wreckage of Confederate ship found: Linked with daring escape to freedom

First Columbus' Santa Maria and now a Confederate ship linked to a historic moment in the Civil War

The story of how Robert Smalls dared to steal a Confederate ship to sail eight fellow crew members and their families out of slavery is still retold today, 152 years later. On the May 13 anniversary of the heroic action marine researchers announced they believe they have found the final resting place of the wreckage of the Planter. The Confederate ship found off the South Carolina coastline is the historic steamer that was hijacked by a black man to free slaves in South Carolina. The ship in 12 feet of water and sand off the coastline matches the description of the steamer and last known location of the Planter.

On the night of May 12, 1862, the white officers of the Planter left the ship with only eight black crew members on board in order to attend a ball in Charleston. Robert Smalls had piloted river boats before the Civil War and was “recruited” by the Confederates. That evening he dared to commandeer the ship, sail it to a nearby wharf to pick up other slaves and then sailed it out to sea. He wore the straw hat of a captain so no one questioned his actions.

Once at sea he raised a white flag to surrender to Union ships guarding Charleston Harbor. Smalls was appointed the pilot of the Planter by the Union Navy which then used it as a transport. He helped recruit black slaves to form units to fight with the Union against the Confederacy and used the Planter to relocate many escaped slaves to new farming communities in Hilton Head and Port Royal where they raise their families in freedom.

"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."

Smalls went on to serve several terms as a member of Congress after the war. However the story of the brave black man who outsmarted the Confederates to free dozens of slaves is what will never be forgotten.

The Planter went on to become a cotton cargo hauler along the South Carolina coast. It ran aground off Cape Romain in the midst of a nor’easter in 1876 during a salvage operation. In time its exact location became forgotten until recent African-American students became interested in trying to find it. Because Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge is an important loggerhead turtle breeding area it will most likely remain untouched.

A plaque identifying "the last resting place of Robert Smalls' Planter" was dedicated at the refuge's education center this week during the 152nd anniversary celebration of the famous flight to freedom.