Summary: A biography (primarily of the Civil War years) of Robert Smalls, best known for captaining a steamship from Charleston harbor to escape from slavery during the Civil War, but who eventually served five terms in Congress.
I do not remember when I first heard about Robert Smalls. I am sure it was a history book sometime in the past ten years, but I have regularly seen him mentioned in passing in various books without really getting a full sense of his life story. There are two books that I am aware of that are about Robert Smalls, this one, Be Free or Die, is primarily about the Civil War years with a chapter on his early life for context and an epilogue for the remainder of his life. The second book is Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915. My understanding is that Gullah Statesman is a more comprehensive biography and more focused on his later life, but it is not on audiobook, and the audiobook was on sale recently. So I listened to this audiobook, mainly on a long drive this weekend.
Robert Smalls was born into slavery in 1839. He was leased out for his labor and eventually started working as a deckhand on the steamer packet boat, The Planter. He quickly rose from deckhand to pilot. And in May 1862, when the White officers left the ship to spend the night with their families, Robert Smalls and the rest of the enslaved crew, along with at least some of the wives and children of the crew, left the dock and sailed out of the harbor and past the Confederate defenses and patrol boats out to the line of Union ships that were blockading the port. In addition to freeing themselves, the crew had just loaded three cannons that were being moved and Confederate codebooks and Smalls knowledge of the waters as a pilot. The crew shared a reward for turning over the ship leased to the Confederacy, and Smalls became the pilot of the Planter working for the Union and eventually its captain.
The book opens with that story, breathlessly told. That story is important, and it was hazardous and audacious. But there is a breathless quality to the storytelling that I thought detracted from the book. The book returns to the story of his mother and his early life and the context before moving on with the rest of Smalls’ exploits during the Civil War. Using part of the reward money for turning over the Planter and his salary as the pilot, Robert Smalls started a store that served the thousands of formerly enslaved living in the Union-controlled islands around Charleston. Eventually, earning enough money to purchase the home where he had grown up as an enslaved person in a federal tax sale. The fact that it was a federal tax sale was important because most other property that formerly enslaved people purchased or entrusted with from field orders was stripped away in the early Reconstruction years. But Smalls, although sued for the property and the case going the whole way to the Supreme Court, was able to keep the property. (He allowed the widow of his former owner and her family to continue to live in a portion of the home for years, although the White family refused to eat meals with their benefactor.)
Smalls’ story was not just immediately exciting and widely told in newspapers and by Smalls himself, but the intelligence that Smalls and the crew were able to share with the Union leadership and the skills and knowledge of the local waters was important throughout the Civil War. In addition, partly because of his initial fame, Smalls went on tour to Washington and Philadelphia to raise support for the war and awareness of the plight of the formerly enslaved living in refugee camps under Union-controlled areas. Smalls personally delivered a letter from the Union general that was in charge of the Union-controlled areas to allow for the recruitment of Black soldiers from the formerly enslaved. While the Union had not previously authorized Black soldiers, Smalls’ personal delivery of the letter and his intervention with President Lincoln and the Secretary of War did bring about the authorization for Black troops. The more well-known 54th Regiment portrayed in the movie Glory was established after the troops from the Sea Islands. Initially, the Union was going to abandon the Sea Islands (without evacuating 10,000 formerly enslaved and leaving them to fend for themselves), but the establishment of Black troops to defend the islands and support the Union’s work in attacking Charleston and surrounding areas were important precedents. Eventually, nearly 200,000 Black soldiers and sailors served during the Civil War.
The biggest weakness of Be Free or Die is that it only briefly touches on the last fifty years of Robert Smalls life. He served for five terms in the US Congress; he was in opposition to the new constitution of South Carolina that eventually brought about Jim Crow, he was a federal tax collector, he was on the board for a Black-owned and controlled Railroad that served to move goods and people inland from the Charleston port, he helped establish a newspaper. He expanded his store that was started during the Civil war. He attained the rank of brigadier-general in the South Carolina Militia in the 1870s until white Democrats started to regain power after the fall of Reconstruction. Unfortunately, this part of the story is only told in a few pages, and I will have to read Gullah Statesman to get a better sense of his later life.