In the early morning of May 13, 1862, the side-wheel steamboat Planter left its dock in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor and eased past an array of heavily armed Confederate fortifications toward the open sea. The Planter was a local vessel that regularly plied those waters. The only thing that made this morning’s passage remarkable was that the runaway slave Robert Smalls was piloting the boat. His “cargo” consisted of 15 other slaves, among them his wife and children.
It was a daring escape, minutely planned and flawlessly executed. And it was the beginning of Smalls’ life as a free man. After surrendering his craft to the Union navy, along with crucial military intelligence, he continued to serve the Union cause as a pilot and as a spokesman for black equality. Endlessly imaginative and resourceful, Smalls was able, within less than two years of his escape, to buy the “master’s house” in which he and his mother had recently been slaves. (To compound this irony, years after the war ended, he invited members of his former master’s family to his home—once theirs—for a prolonged visit. They accepted but refused to eat at the same table with his family.)
Smalls, who learned to read relatively late in life, did not leave voluminous written records behind. But in Be Free or Die, Cate Lineberry has pieced together a coherent arc of Smalls’ story through contemporary newspaper accounts—he was heralded as a hero throughout the North—military and government records and biographies of those who worked with Smalls and knew him well. Lineberry sets these collected, fascinating details into a larger narrative about how the Civil War played out in the Union-occupied coastal areas of South Carolina.