USS Planter was a sidewheel steamer built in South Carolina waters just prior to the fighting of the American Civil War (1861-1865). The vessel began service under the Confederate flag as an armed dispatch / transport boat but, through the exploits of Southern slave Robert Smalls, ended its service fighting for the Union Navy. In its original form, the ship was launched in 1860 prior to the war and was transferred to Union control in the middle of 1862.
The vessel carried a single 32-pounder long-ranged main gun with a 24-pounder short-ranged howitzer supplementing. Dimensions included a length of 147 feet, a beam of 30 feet, and a draught of 3.8 feet. Displacement reached 313 tons. Propulsion was through 2 x Wood-fired, non-condensing, six-foot stroke steam engines (with single smoke stack) driving the side-mounted paddle wheel configuration. The shallow draught and paddle-style system of the ship meant it was ideal for river and close-to-shore operations.
The most notable action related to Planter was undertaken by Southern slave Robert Smalls who, at age 23, was assigned as pilot of the vessel. On May 13th, 1862, while Planter's captain was ashore, Smalls took control of the vessel and steered it past a series of Confederate installations until out of range of their guns. Once safe, the Confederate flag which adorned the ship was replaced with the white flag of surrender. The vessel then encountered the Union blockade force outside Charleston and surrendered to Union ship USS Onward.
Smalls succeeded in not only freeing himself but also all slaves aboard (seven were crew while the remainder were women and children). In addition to this, he passed on information about recent Confederate movements, namely their abandonment of positions along the Stono River southwest of Charleston, SC, leading to James Island. This information directly resulted in an (ultimately unsuccessful) assault to hopefully seize Charleston from the unguarded rear. Two Union divisions, backed by naval support, failed in their attempt - mainly due to mismanagement.
For Planter's delivery into Union hands, Smalls was rewarded $1,500. Thereafter, he continued to serve as pilot in the United States Navy and became a champion of advancement of blacks in America. He was named Captain of Planter in 1863, officially becoming the first black to command a United States Navy ship, and retained the title until 1866 (at which point the military sold Planter off). Due to Planter's wood-reliant engines, the vessel was removed from blockade service and relegated to local defense of Fort Pulaski in Georgia waters after reassignment to the United States Army.
For his part in post-war American history, Smalls entered politics and served South Carolina through state seat as a Republican (managing a career in the SC House of Representatives and the SC Senate). He also went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives (SC 5th District) during Reconstruction and helped to found the Republican Party of South Carolina.
USS Planter, meanwhile, met its end well after the events of the war on March 26th, 1876 after it sprung a leak during a towing action and ultimately sank.
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