Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Be Free or Die


Our book club at work selected Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls' Escape from Slavery to Union Hero for our next discussion. Although, getting dust jacket endorsements from Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and James McPherson certainly didn't hurt in my ultimate decision to buy a copy, after reading it, I'm happy I've added it to my library. 

Robert Smalls' story is not one of those that could be considered "untold," but amazingly, his biography has somehow not received much historical coverage. Journalist Cate Lineberry's book tells not only Smalls' amazing escape from slavery by stealing a Confederate contracted steamer and piloting it along with 15 enslaved individuals, including his family, to the Union blockade, it also tells the results of such a daring act. 

Once the ship was delivered to the Union Navy Smalls' previous anonymity disappeared and he became the most recognized African American not named Frederick Douglass. The daring deed also brought Smalls a well paying job as a civilian pilot and then as a captain of an army ship. Smalls' reward for capturing the Planter along with his boating positions afforded him with the opportunity to purchase his former masters' house when its taxes went unpaid during the war. His sudden celebrity even brought a meeting with President Lincoln. 

Told though solid research, and written in an engaging style Be Free or Die is a yet another must read for Civil War students. My only minor complaint with the book is that too little coverage was provided about Smalls' post war life and career as a U.S. Congressman. His role in South Carolina Reconstruction politics deserves a much more thorough examination. Despite this small quibble, I still highly recommend it. 

Hopefully, someday, Smalls' inspiring life story will also make it to the silver screen so he will receive the additional recognition he so richly deserves.

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