Book Review: Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls, Escaped Slave Turned Union Hero

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Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Eric Sterner

Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls, Escaped Slave Turned Union Hero.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017

Lately, public discussions of Civil War memorials have focused on Confederate statues and whether they should be left in place, moved, or taken away entirely.  The controversies would seem to make it an ill opportune time to propose raising another Civil War statue, which would likely get sucked into contemporary debates about how we remember people a century and a half ago.

But, in 21st Century South Carolina, two state senators, one Republican and one Democrat, have introduced a bill to set aside land on the statehouse grounds for a statute of Robert Smalls, whose heroism ought to make all Americans proud.  In the early hours of May 13, 1862, Smalls, a South Carolinian slave used as a pilot aboard a coastal steamer, Planter, led a small group of fellow slaves who stole the Planter out from under the Charleston garrison commander’s nose, steamed across Charleston’s fort-ringed harbor, and delivered the ship into the arms of the United States Navy.  His remarkable feat made Smalls a household name across the country, north and south, giving the illiterate former slave an unheard-of degree of celebrity.  Subsequent speaking tours fundraising for the Port Royal Experiment, advocacy for arming African Americans, continued service for the U.S. Navy and Army as a civilian ship pilot and captain of the Planter, and a post-war political career only burnished his reputation during the 19th century.  Unfortunately, like many African Americans during the Civil War, his dedication to his country and service under its flag were eventually lost to the popular imagination.

Cate Lineberry’s book, “Be Free or Die” tells the tale and introduces Smalls to a 21st century audience.  Lineberry writes with the flair of a novelist, alternating between telling Smalls’ personal journey and providing necessary context.  Thus, she explains the roles the abolitionist movement, slaveholders, the Union Army, Federal Navy, and Lincoln Administration played in Smalls’ Civil War experience.  The Port Royal experiment figured prominently in the story.  After the Navy seized Port Royal sound in 1861, white plantation owners fled the surrounding sea islands in advance of the occupying Union army, leaving thousands of slaves to fend for themselves.  Abolitionists and charity groups descended on the region and established an “experiment” in self-government by the newly un-enslaved.  Under the protection of the Union Army, businesses, schools, and even plantations run by their former slaves thrived, enabling many, including Robert Smalls, to succeed on their own terms.  Smalls even bought the manor house in Beaufort, SC where he and his mother had both worked as house servants.  As a narrative, “Be Free or Die” holds together very well, although Lineberry attributes thoughts and feelings to Smalls which she can only infer.

Lineberry uses official records, archives, correspondence, newspaper reports, websites, and an occasional book for her source material.  The lack of a bibliography makes it challenging to assess the overall strength of her research, but it may be the book’s Achilles Heel. She tends to take news reports at face value, ignoring or glossing over their political and ideological agendas.  She also short shrifts some primary sources and skips many secondary works that might have benefitted her biography.  Philip Dray, for example, profiled Smalls in “Capitol Men,” his 2008 book about the first black Congressmen during Reconstruction.  Naturally, the Civil War figures prominently and Dray covers many of the same issues and experiences that Lineberry examines.

For naval and military operations Lineberry relies on websites crafted more as introductions for the general public and an occasional book or interview.  While valuable, they are hardly comprehensive and she misses some of the latest scholarship, even on events in which Smalls played a direct role.  For example, he piloted the monitor Keokuk during the United States Navy’s April 1863 attack on Charleston.  Her retelling of the battle makes mistakes easily avoided by simply considering Robert Browning, Jr.’s definitive 2002 work on the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron: “Success is All That Was Expected.”  Lineberry’s occasional lapse in citations and apparent unfamiliarity with naval and military operations—particularly one in which Smalls was a participant—have to raise an eyebrow.

Its weaknesses notwithstanding, “Be Free or Die” is a quick, pleasant read.  It reintroduces a national hero to a popular audience and highlights the interplay among abolitionists in the north, newly liberated slaves in South Carolina, relief agencies on the ground, politicians, the Army, and the Navy in telling Smalls’ Civil War story. It should be welcome in any Civil War library.

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