Many biographies of American Civil War heroes have so far been written. ‘Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero’ is a first such book of a largely forgotten life of an African-American slave by Cate Lineberry, a veteran journalist author.
Robert Smalls, a 23 year old illiterate slave, was hired out as a deck-hand by his owner on the ‘Planter,’ a 147 foot long cargo ship chartered to Confederate Government. Realising his ability, Planter’s master promoted him to wheelman. While the ship was in the port of Charleston in South Carolina, her white master, mate and engineer were ashore at their home for the night. Robert, with eight other slave crew members, commandeered the vessel out of the berth, went further up the river, picked up his wife, two daughters, family members of other crew, and piloted the ship out of the heavily guarded and fortified harbour, pretending to be her regular master wearing his distinctive hat and observing all regulations like blowing whistles at right turns. At daybreak, having neared the blockading Union warships outside the harbour, he lowered Confederate flags, raised linen as white flag and surrendered to the Union Commander. Smalls had not just hijacked a Confederate ship with a cargo of military cannons in holds, he had sailed to freedom with fifteen other slave men, women and children. Author’s narrative full of suspense, keeps the reader riveted.
Both North and South were incredulous that black slaves could perform such a daring feat successfully and the latter also declared a bounty of $2000 on Smalls’ head. Admiral Du Pont from the Union forces was however so impressed, that he not only employed Robert as civilian pilot for naval ships but recommended prize reward for him. Smalls continued piloting naval ships through intricate channels around coastal islands of South Carolina. On one such mission to deliver provisions and men, his former ship Planter was so heavily fired upon by enemy batteries that the white captain panicked, left the pilothouse and hid himself. Smalls took charge, manoeuvred the ship out of range of enemy guns to safety and delivered the cargo and men. Thereafter, he was immediately appointed Captain of the Planter.
Smalls met President Lincoln. He had to take the Planter to Philadelphia for repairs for seven months during which he gave several interviews and speeches. In Philadelphia (which in Greek means city of brotherly love), his fame proved useless when he was forced out of his seat in a tramcar because of his skin colour. Instead of enduring the indignity of travelling on footboard, as was the custom for blacks, he chose to leave and walk.
Every mariner will find the incident in the last chapter absolutely thrilling. After the war, Smalls had taken some Union army brass for an inspection of the islands on the Planter. While returning to Savannah, another ship named Fannie belonging to Planter’s former owner, followed up from behind and tried to push him on to the shore on the port side. If Smalls had altered to port, he would have run aground. Instead, he maintained course, increased speed and ploughed into the Fannie’s port side. Both ships, in that condition, went up the Savannah River about half a mile when McNulty the Fannie’s master came out with a revolver in trembling hands and pointed at Smalls. Smalls brought out his shotgun, pointed at McNulty. Comments he uttered were short but powerful. “Now shoot” he said, “and mind you don’t miss, for I won’t.”
Army generals present and watching, intervened and abated the situation. On arrival, McNulty was arrested.
I was particularly touched on reading that after the war, Smalls bought the house where he, and his mother had lived as slaves. Smalls was magnanimous to invite family of the former white owner/landlord. They accepted, came and had dinner, though on separate tables.
Civil War history connected to life of Smalls is covered extensively with supporting notes. But, author has not used much space to narrate Smalls’ life as a Congressman elected five times after the war. In this well researched book, reader’s interest is naturally evoked to find out more about African-American history on perusing names like Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner and Denmark Vessey, daring accounts of whose escapes from slavery are compelling and inspiring. Reading the whole book, ready for a big screen, constantly brings back to memory India’s own freedom struggle.