Planter was built in 1860 at Charleston, S.C., and served as an armed dispatch boat and transport attached to the engineer department at Charleston, under Brig. Gen. Ripley, CSA. On 12 May 1862 at 0400, while her captain, C. J. Relyea, was absent on shore, Robert Smalls, a Negro slave who was Planter's pilot, quietly took Planter from the wharf, and with a Confederate flag flying, steamed past the successive Confederate forts, saluting as usual by blowing her steam whistle. As soon as she was out of range of the last Confederate gun, Smalls hauled down the Confederate flag and hoisted a white one. Then he turned Planter over to the U.S. ship Onward of the Union blockading force. On the next day Planter was sent to Flag Officer S. F. Du Pont, USN, at Port Royal Harbor, S.C., who kept Robert Smalls as Planter's pilot. At the time she was taken over by the Federals, Planter had on board, as a valuable cargo, four guns, one of them a 7-inch rifle, besides her usual armament.
The Senate and House of Representatives of the United States passed a Private Law on 30 May 1862, granting Robert Smalls and Planter's Negro crew one half of the value of Planter and her cargo.