If you go

NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is holding a reception and presentation, "The Search for USS Planter: The Ship That Escaped Charleston and Carried Robert Smalls to Destiny," at 6 p.m. May 12 at the Francis Marion Hotel in downtown Charleston.

Special guests are expected to include descendants of Robert Smalls and the team that led the search for the Planter as part of NOAA's African-American Voyage to Discovery Initiative.

Those interested should contact Pam Plakas at 301-713-7287 or Pam.Plakas@noaa.gov by April 28.

The wreckage of one of the most famous Civil War vessels to sail South Carolina waters may have been found off northern Charleston County.

Those behind the possible find aren't saying much, but they plan to announce more details during an event here next month.

Early on May 13, 1862, enslaved pilot Robert Smalls seized the Planter, a 149-foot Confederate transport ship, from a Charleston wharf, maneuvered it past Fort Sumter and surrendered it to federal vessels outside the city's harbor.

Newspapers called the move "bold" and "daring" and Smalls won freedom for his crew and several other slaves, including his wife and three children.

The Planter, a wooden vessel built in Charleston, continued to play a role in the war and later was sold to private owners, who returned it to its pre-war role of transporting people and goods up and down the coast.

By the account in the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, she sank in a storm off Cape Romain while assisting a stranded ship on July 1, 1876, said Stephen Wise, a military historian and director of the Parris Island Museum in Beaufort.

Wise said Gordon Watts, an underwater archaeologist with Tidewater Atlantic Research of North Carolina has been searching for the remains and believes he has found something.

"The only thing left are going to be the boilers," Wise said. "They hit some things they thought were boilers. Of course, Cape Romain is an area where a lot of ships went down."

Wise said he was unaware of any further details, including how any surviving wreckage has been or could be positively identified as Smalls' former ship. Watts did not return phone and email messages left Tuesday.

However, the NOAA's African-American Voyage to Discovery Initiative recently sent out a press release announcing a May 12 event in Charleston "concerning the search and probable discovery of the Civil War steamer Planter."

If corroborated, the find would be a big deal.

"In terms of its actual service, it's not that unique. She was one of hundreds of vessels that served the U.S. Army along the southeastern coast between 1861 and 1865," Wise said. "But the Planter has a very unique history in its association with Robert Smalls and African-American history. ... Everybody is fascinated by her."

Smalls' story received fresh attention two years ago, when a historic marker was installed at 40 East Bay St., near the wharf where Smalls set sail. Its dedication came during a two-day observation of the 150th anniversary of his feat.

Smalls continued to serve aboard the ship - renamed the USS Planter - for much of the rest of the war, and his knowledge of South Carolina's waterways and the Confederates' plans helped the Union cause.

Congress awarded him and the other black crewmen half the value of the Planter and its cargo, and Smalls used some of that money to buy his childhood home at 511 Prince St. in Beaufort in 1863.

After the war, Smalls later served in the state Legislature and five terms in Congress. After that, he served as a customs collector in Beaufort and died in 1915.

The Planter had a much shorter lifespan. She served the Freedman's Bureau after the war and then was auctioned off. Wise said at one point, her former owners bought her back, "but I don't know who owned her when she eventually wrecked."

Cape Romain includes a series of shallows off McClellanville that long have posed a hazard to mariners. The area includes Lighthouse Island, home to two historic lighthouses built to warn ships to steer clear of the area.

NOAA's Voyage to Discovery is a program to highlight stories of largely unknown African-American mariners, particularly to students.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.