In 1862, a young slave named Robert Smalls managed to steal a Confederate gunboat and sail it past Ft. Sumter and turn it over to the Union fleet. Small’s actions meant much more than a
grand nose-thumbing gesture at the Confederates. Here was proof positive
that the Negroes were clever, quick learners, full of initiative, capable of
great heroism, and willing to fight for their own freedom. Those opposed to slavery had been making that claim for years. Robert Smalls embodied their wildest
Abolitionists wasted no time in exploiting the advantage his
cause had gained. They hustled Robert Smalls onto the first ship that could
be found headed north. He was taken to Washington, D. C.
and into the office of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, where Smalls spent a
hour regaling Chase with the story. The Treasury Secretary was so
impressed that he set in motion a resolution giving General Saxton permission to
recruit Negroes into the United States Army, and, after the Emancipation
Proclamation on September 22nd, 1862, to create the First South Carolina
Volunteers. This regiment would be the first to be manned almost entirely by
former slaves, most of whom could neither read nor write, but who now stood ready
to fight for their own country.
Robert Smalls, himself, followed up his triumph in a singularly middle-class
sort of fashion. He had been awarded a prize of $1500 for capturing the Planter and turning it over into Union hands. He used the money to purchase the
McKee House on Prince Street in Beaufort, where he had grown up as a
slave. He also opened a store on Bay Street and set himself up in
business as a grocer. In time he became a United States Congressman.
His actions would have pleased a man like Jonathan Grenville. If Jonathan was ever to become involved in politics, it would be in support of such a man.