Best guess: It's under 10 feet of sand and water off Cape Romain

The gun boat 'Planter,' was run out of Charleston, by Robert Smalls, May 1862.

Sonar and magnetometer readings have found the outline of what some experts believe is the remains of the 19th century sidewheel steamer that enslaved pilot Robert Smalls famously sailed out of Charleston harbor at the dawn of the Civil War.

The mostly wooden remains are buried in 12 feet of sand somewhere off Cape Romain's shallow shoals, but it's still unclear if they are really that of the Planter.

A team of experts and federal archaeologists thinks it just might be, but they acknowledge that more digging and research will be necessary to verify the find. They have sent their findings on to the state, which will decide what to do next.

NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries began searching for Planter's remains eight years ago, and it unveiled its findings Monday, on the 152nd anniversary of Smalls' voyage. It was part of NOAA's Voyage to Discovery project designed to reach out to African Americans.

Early on May 13, 1862, Smalls, an enslaved pilot, seized the Planter, a 149-foot Confederate transport steamer, from a Charleston wharf, skillfully sailed it past Fort Sumter and surrendered it to federal vessels outside the city's harbor. Smalls won freedom for his crew and several other slaves, including his wife and three children.

Michael Moore, the great-great grandson of Robert Smalls, was unable to attend Monday's program but sent a statement offering the "deepest appreciation" on behalf of Smalls' approximately 75 living descendents.

He called the Planter not only an important part of the nation's history but also of his family's legacy. "It is the physical and literal vehicle of our liberation," his statement said.

After Smalls' voyage, the Planter continued to play a role in the war and later was sold to private owners. They returned it to its pre-war role of transporting people, cotton and other goods between Charleston and Georgetown.

Michael Allen of the National Park Service noted that Planter also ferried dignitaries to Fort Sumter to mark the end of the Civil War in 1865. It ran aground off Cape Romain while assisting a three-masted schooner that had run aground on the shallow shoals in March 1876. Allen noted its demise coincided with the demise of Reconstruction.

Bruce Terrell, a senior NOAA historian and archaeologist and co-author of "The Search for Planter," said the project began by pouring over 1876 accounts from this newspaper. Experts then used maps to reconcile 19th century nautical charts with today's geography.

Tim Runyan, an East Carolina University maritime studies professor and former director of NOAA's maritime history program, said the first expedition began on a stormy day in 2010. "Before the storm drove us away, this appeared on our (magnetometer) screen," he said. "It told us something pretty big is down there to give us a hammer reading like that. That was encouraging."

Runyan said the shallows posed a threat even to the researchers' 25-foot boat, but the search resumed in November 2010. "We've got about 10 feet of water there, no visibility and strong currents," he said. "You cannot see your hand in front of your face at Cape Romain."

Runyan said the Planter was salvaged - its boilers and other planking sold at auction in Charleston for $1,000 -- but its remains were left off the cape.

"Can we tell you the Planter is there? No, we can't. But we do know from all the other research that's been done there is no other steamship that sank in that area," Runyan said. "It's a best guess, based on best information."

The Planter was not a particularly unique vessel, but its history with Smalls has made it well known among Civil War buffs. Two years ago, during the 150th anniversary of Smalls' bold act, a historic marker was dedicated at 40 East Bay St., near the wharf where Smalls set sail.

Monday's program did not include anyone from the state of South Carolina to talk about what might come next, though the 25-page report, "The Search for Planter," says with proper supervision, "industrial means" could be used to reach material that could identify the wreck without unacceptable damage to its remains. A complicating factor is the site is closed for sea turtle nesting grounds.

The program also did not pinpoint the exact area where the remains exist, but that data has been forwarded to South Carolina's State Underwater Archaeologist.

"Does that mean excavation and recovery, or does it mean marking this spot on the map and noting here is where the Planter came to an end?" the report concluded. "No matter what decision is made, history has told a powerful tale, and the story of Robert Smalls and the voyage to freedom on Planter will live on in the hearts of all who cherish liberty."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.