Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls' Escape from Slavery to Union Hero

Courier Book Reviewed By Greg Romaneck

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On the pleasant evening of May 13, 1862, Charleston Harbor was very quiet. Confederate military and supply ships rocked gently on the swaying surface of the harbor. Union vessels lay miles away, guarding the entry points to the harbor but they really did not represent an immediate threat to the city.

Onboard many of the vessels crews lay asleep, completely unaware of the amazing events that were to take place in the harbor.

Confederate soldiers and sailors in the ships and fortifications that ringed the entranceway to Charleston could hardly imagine the daring plan that was being carried out by an intrepid group of mariners and civilians. Led by a thirty-three-year-old slave who was illiterate, a diehard group of bondsmen and women were determined to sally forth and find their liberation.

In a bold move, this group of slaves boarded a steamer named the Planter and peacefully took control of the vessel. Through a combination of careful planning, poor supervision by the Confederates, and boldness, this brave-hearted group of men, women, and children slipped into the inky blackness of the harbor and set out to reach the Federal blockade line miles away.

Led by the intrepid Robert Smalls, this rebellious group of determined escapees wended their way past the heavy artillery pieces at places like Fort Sumter and escaped the reach of Confederate military power. Once outside the range of the Rebel guns, the men and women on the Planter struck down the Confederate colors and raised a white flag. In this way they successfully departed from a life of slavery and entered into the unknown reaches of freedom.

In leading this brave group to freedom onboard a Confederate vessel turned over to the Yankees, Robert Smalls accomplished one of the more miraculous small-scale actions of the Civil War. To a large extent Smalls’ success was a result of his precise planning and bold actions but it also had something to do with the simple assumption on the part of Confederate leaders that black slaves were always to be underestimated. It would have been seen by most people in the North or South as an impossibility, prior to Smalls’ escape, to imagine a voyage such as this historic one out of Charleston. Smalls’ success was such a shock that it made headlines and challenged the common notion that slaves, and black freedmen and women, were capable of such bold action.

White southerners were so offended by Smalls’ actions that a bounty of $2,000 was almost immediately offered for his recapture and return to his “rightful owners.” Of course, as Cate Lineberry recounts in this engaging and informative book, Robert Small was a man who was not successful only in escaping Confederates but also in fighting back against them and their post-war principles of suppression, oppression, and the dehumanization of African-Americans. In telling the story of Robert Smalls’ amazing escape to freedom, his contribution to the Union war effort, and post-war career in government, Lineberry does justice to both her subject and the cause of African-American liberation.

In many ways one of the most surprising elements of this book is the fact that Smalls’ escape voyage makes up only the first quarter of the book. While this escape journey is carefully laid out by the author of this fine book, it serves as only the starting point for Lineberry’s work. In fact, it can well be said that the lion’s share of content follows the author’s description of the escape from Charleston.

It is in the years from 1862 to Smalls’ death at the age of seventy-five that this bold man demonstrated his capacity to take on work typically not given to African-Americans and then excel at doing it. Smalls served in the Union Navy as a pilot and then captain. While piloting the ironclad Keokuk, Smalls was called upon to take command of the ship in combat due to the failings of its white captain. In this engagement Smalls distinguished himself, saved the Keokuk, and managed to earn enough attention to be promoted to a full captaincy.

This promotion is almost astounding given that virtually no African-Americans were provided the opportunity during the Civil War to officially fulfill positions of leadership in the Union forces. Smalls went on to serve with distinction throughout the war and even had the opportunity to pilot and then command the Planter, the very ship he and his cohorts escaped in.

In the post-war Reconstruction era, Smalls served five terms in Congress. Smalls even managed to be re-elected after the Reconstruction era ended after a disputed presidential election in 1876, a feat that is amazing in itself given the movement toward Black Codes and Jim Crow laws. Smalls also was able to purchase a substantial home once owned by a former Confederate supporter who defaulted on his taxes.

Although challenged to the level of the U.S.Supreme Court over his rightful ownership of this home in Beaufort, Smalls once again acted with dogged determination and prevailed. After the nearly full suppression of African-American voting rights by the 1880’s Smalls lost his Congressional seat. However, for the remainder of his life, with only a few years interruption, Smalls continued to serve in government as a U.S. Customs official. In addition, Smalls supported various efforts to expand the civil rights of African-Americans in ways that causes him to receive libelous publicity and several death threats.

In telling the story of Robert Smalls, Cate Lineberry accomplishes two stellar results.

First, the author does an excellent job of chronicling the life story of Robert Smalls, a man whose achievements seem more like a the stuff of adventure fiction than the reality which actually did happen.

Second, Lineberry does a fine job of coupling Smalls’ life path with the fate of former slaves during the Civil War and into the Reconstruction era. The story of Robert Smalls is an inspirational one but, alas, one that is known to only a relatively small group of Americans.

Cate Lineberry does a wonderful job of detailing the life and accomplishments of a man who deserves to be remembered. In the author’s own words, “Smalls deserves to be remembered and celebrated for his contributions throughout his life, but particularly for those he made during the Civil War, when he risked everything for freedom. He was more than a Union hero; he was, and continues to be, an American hero.” (3) This very fact, and the skill with which Cate Lineberry applies to telling the story of Robert Smalls, makes this book one that readers with an interest in Civil War history and “profiles in courage” should pick up and read.

Title: Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero

Author: Cate Lineberry

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Pages: 272

Price: $25.99

Hard Cover