An update on a story I first posted earlier this month, from the Greenville [S.C.] News:
Greenville — The remains of a ship that was commandeered in Charleston harbor by an enslaved black man during the Civil War and used as an escape vehicle may have been discovered off the South Carolina coast, according to a historian with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Officials are not releasing details, but NOAA plans to issue a report and unveil historical markers on May 12, the 152nd anniversary of the little-known episode.
They said they don’t want to announce the location because it’s in an environmentally sensitive area.
But “we can say we’re pretty sure we know where it is,” said Bruce Terrell, senior historian and archeologist for the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Maritime Heritage Program and lead author of the report.
The ship, called the Planter, sunk off Cape Romain in northern Charleston County on March 25, 1876, nearly 14 years after a slave named Robert Smalls absconded with it, Terrell said.
Gordon Watts of North Carolina-based Tidewater Atlantic Research Inc., working with NOAA on the project, said he found the likely remains of Planter using a scanning sonar and a magnetometer.
Unfortunately, it’s buried under 10-12 feet of sand and an equal amount of water, he said.
“We have probed down. We know there’s wood there and we know there’s metal there, but we don’t know absolutely whether it is or is not the Planter,” he said.
It would take finding some specific parts of the ship or other artifacts to make a positive identification, he said.
The South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology is responsible for shipwrecks and other underwater archaeological sites in state waters, according to Jim Spirek, state underwater archaeologist.
Because of the expensive “industrial-style” work that would be required to excavate it, the institute doesn’t have any immediate plans to dig, unless the site is threatened by environmental degregation, he said. But it plans to monitor it because of the potential historical significance, he said.
“The Planter is emblematic of the efforts by enslaved African Americans to not only escape slavery, but also to pay for this freedom by joining the fight against the Confederacy, much like the Planter was turned against its former owners and transformed into a Union gunboat,” Spirek said.
NOAA hopes the find will spark an interest in history and archeology among young African Americans as part of a project called Voyage to Discovery.
The story of Smalls’ daring deed is inspirational in itself, Terrell said. In the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, Smalls, then 23, took control of the transport steamer with a few other black crewmembers. He put his wife and children aboard and headed out to sea, according to the Voyage to Discovery account.
Smalls, already skilled as a pilot, guided the craft safely through Confederate defenses and made it to the Union blockade. There, he surrendered the vessel and gave valuable intelligence about the rebel military plans, codes and fortifications.
He was hailed as a hero in the Northern press. He became a militia general and captain of the ship he had escaped in — and went on to serve five terms in Congress. After all of that, he returned to his hometown of Beaufort, S.C., and bought the house that had been owned by his former master, where he lived out his years. And his story — like the ship he commandeered — quietly slipped into obscurity. (Original article here)
I remain optimistic but guarded. There are a lot of shipwrecks off the South Carolina coast. As Mr. Terrell points out, absolute proof requires identification by way of artifacts or such. But given the authorities who are backing this claim, pretty good chance that is the Planter. And what a find that would be.