Be Free or Die

Cate Lineberry, Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017)

As the title indicates, this book focuses on the life of Robert Smalls beginning with his capture of and escape with a Confederate army vessel in May of 1862. Lineberry does not solely focus on Smalls’ escape, but elaborates into his contributions to the nation, the war, and his own personal successes. Rather than depicting Smalls’ first as an enslaved person leading up to the escape, Lineberry begins with the escape and focuses primarily on the Civil War, some of the battles that Smalls participated in and his overall contributions leading to him becoming a captain of his own Union army vessel. Essentially, Lineberry presents Robert Smalls in a heroic and idolized manner.

Robert Smalls, along with his wife and two children, were enslaved on a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. After years of being oppressed and bonded, listening to the commands of a white man, Robert Smalls was fed up. He had, had enough. He wanted more for his family, especially his young children. Though he never experienced freedom, he knew it must be better than remaining a slave. The Civil War began in 1860, and while the causes of the Civil War across all levels of society, slavery was definitely in the backs of many people’s minds. Robert Smalls was no different. Slavery was beginning to become a more centralized focus and freedom was becoming, somewhat, promising. In May of 1862, Robert Smalls, at the age of twenty-three, seized a Confederate steamer. He hid his wife and two children on board and gathered together a small crew. Smalls and his crew delivered the war vessel and the massive weaponry it carried to nearby Union forces. It was because of Smalls’ act of courage and bravery during his escape that made him a Union hero. The supplies he brought to them were truly beneficial. Smalls continued to fight for and with the Union army. He made many accomplishments, including becoming the first black captain of an army vessel. At the same time, he forced the country to reconsider their opinions and views of African Americans. African Americans would, essentially, do just about anything for their freedom. A more satisfying moment in Smalls’ life, aside from achieving freedom for himself and his family, was likely when he purchased the home in which he and his mother had once been house slaves in.

Within the contents of the book, Lineberry appears to argue that Robert Smalls is a Civil War Union hero who achieved both military and personal success, from becoming the first African American captain of an army vessel to purchasing one of his former slave master’s homes. In addition, Robert Smalls defied all odds, and forced the country to confront their prejudices about African Americans and how desperate they were to achieve freedom. Lineberry does this by diving right in. The initial vibe of the book is almost like a story-telling. Lineberry utilizes sources to help paint a vivid images of Robert Smalls’ escape, activity during the war, and so forth. Her approach is very biographical, but also very informative, leaving out excess fluff and bias.

From a historian point of view, I didn’t feel like there was much historiography. While other sources were referenced, I wasn’t sure what other historians had previously researched about Robert Smalls. I am curious to know what other historical approaches there may be. This version is definitely a good read for a combination of biography and Civil War. Lineberry did use other sources to help detail the life and bravery of Robert Smalls, but her approach lacked insight on past historical approaches on the subject. I question what other significant events may have been relevant in understanding Robert Smalls and why he chose to seize a Confederate vessel.

Overall, Cate Lineberry and her book are an essential read to understanding the Civil War. Robert Smalls is one African American who experienced life as an enslaved person and then escaped slavery and fought for the Union Army. He aided in the Union seizure of Charleston, becoming a Civil War Union hero. He also became the first African American captain of an army vessel. The book also provides insight on how African Americans desperately wanted to achieve freedom and at what lengths they would go to get their freedom. At the same time, the book provides insight on a change in how the country views African Americans. While I am sure other significant events were occurring, the Lineberry made it appear as though Robert Smalls’ brave escape with the confederate vessel was the turning point in the minds of many Americans. That he forced them to confront their prejudice views and begin to rethink the idea of keeping slavery all together.

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