Be Free or Die|
The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls' Escape from Slavery to Union Hero
St. Martin's Press, 2017, 288 pp, HC $25.99 (also avail PB and Kindle
Cate Lineberry brings to life the harrowing tale of Robert Smalls, born a slave in South Carolina and his audacious and brave break for freedom. Lineberry writes "Although Smalls' heroism has continued to inspire those who know his story, the general public has long forgotten this exceptional man. Smalls deserves to be remembered and celebrated for his contributions throughout his life. He was more than a Union hero; he was , and continues to be, an American hero".
Smalls feared his family would be broken up. As a slave he had seen this many times. He knew the only way to prevent this would be to escape. A few things were in Smalls favor. Smalls worked on the Planter, a 147ft. Steamer. The Planter was moored at Charleston's Southern Wharf and used as a transport, moving personnel and supplies between locations in and around the harbor. Because Smalls had proven his intelligence and skills on the water he was promoted to wheelman. Smalls knew "every curve of the surrounding waterways." Another aspect in Smalls favor was that the new Captain of the Planter along with the two other white officers would leave the ship occasionally at night to visit their families. Lineberry notes that this is likely because the whites in charge simply couldn't fathom that enslaved men would be capable of "commandeering a Confederate vessel."
Robert Smalls was capable. Smalls stated "Although born a slave I always felt that I was a man and ought to be free, and I would be free or die." With this determination Smalls planned on stealing the Planter, imitating the ships captain (they had similar builds) by wearing the captains hat and by standing in the pilot house behind the smokestack. The plan was to then to go to the north wharf to pick up the women and children from another steamer in which they were hiding and cruise out of the harbor up to the union blockade. There were many obstacles, not the least of which was convincing the other enslaved men on the vessel, but also his wife, Hannah. Some of the men needed convincing, this was indeed a do or die mission. Hannah on the other hand was all in, saying, " It is a risk, dear, but you and I, and our little ones must be free. I will go, for where you die, I will die." For me this was as illustrative as any as to how brave this family was, how desperate, and how much his family and the others on the ship had faith in Smalls.
They made it. They passed the Confederate guard stationed about fifty yards away who assumed that the officers were on board the Planter. They picked up Smalls' family and others who were willing to risk everything for freedom. They passed Fort Sumter and Fort Johnson. Smalls even saluted a gunboat with a whistle. The last test in this terrifying journey was to approach the Union warships. Smalls' crew took down their Confederate flags and raised a white sheet of surrender. Although a sudden fog had obscured the flag, the Union clipper named the Onward realized in time that this was surrender and Smalls, his family and crew, were free.
This feat, which not only brought freedom to Smalls and family, but a steamship with cannons and munitions to the Union would have been enough to instill Robert Smalls as a hero in American history. However Lindberry's account of Smalls' life continues. Because of his fame he met President Lincoln, and held talks to embolden others enslaved. He was a mediator of sorts between whites and blacks. His charm and intelligence led him to be one of the first African American members of Congress. He had his enemies, but he was steadfast in his love for his country. I was so grateful to find this book. Cate Lindberry's vivid account of Robert Smalls life, so well written and researched is a delight to read.