by Sandra Stringer
The full title is Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero. Whether you like reading cool true stories or you’re a history buff (or both), you’ll love this book.
One Confederate ship to freedom
I had heard of Robert Smalls and was vaguely aware of his story, but maybe you’re not. Robert Smalls was a slave in Charleston during the Civil War. He stole a Confederate ship and gave it to Union forces parked just off the Charleston harbor. That’s the short version. The long version is this fantastic book, and I was startled by what a gripping read it turned out to be. There are several reasons for this.
First, part of the story takes place where I live. Charleston, James Island, Folly Beach, and Morris Island all play a role in this captivating story. The writing is so good that it’s easy to imagine the world I live in today as it was then.
Second, Robert Smalls himself is such a strong and memorable personality. His reasons for escaping the confines of his slavery are so moving and thought-provoking that it’s easy to root for him on every step of his journey.
Third, I couldn’t put it down. I have a literal stack of books, magazines and movies calling for my attention, but this one took the place of any and all other diversions while I was reading it.
Of course, I know the history of the Civil War about as well as any local resident, and I certainly know the outcome, but this book goes into such amazing detail that you can’t help but feel that sense of “being there”. There are descriptions of Union-occupied Beaufort that taught me completely new (to me) aspects of this critical period of history. The level of research that went into this, coupled with the clean and accessible writing, makes this true story come to life.
An email interview with Cate Lineberry
I was so taken with this book that I decided to contact the author and see if she was up for answering a few questions. She graciously obliged, and here’s the result.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? (Whatever you want: education, your horrible fear of spiders, how you became a writer, etc.)
I’ve always loved stories and storytelling, and I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer. I studied journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a master’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins while working at National Geographic magazine. Years later, I worked at Smithsonian magazine as its web editor. Both places honed my research and writing skills and allowed me to really embrace my passion for history and culture, which eventually led me to write books. My first book is called The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of Nurses and Medics Behind Enemy Lines. Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero is my second book.
What first got you interested in Robert Smalls’ story?
I’ve always been fascinated by the Civil War and the huge impact it had—and continues to have—on our country. In fact, I have ancestors who fought on both sides at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. (They were each injured, and the Confederate soldier eventually became a prisoner of war.) When my youngest brother sent me an article about Robert Smalls several years ago, I found myself deeply intrigued. I couldn’t understand how I had never heard of Smalls and his incredible heroism and perseverance during such a monumental time in our nation’s history. I wanted to know how an illiterate enslaved man had accomplished so much in such a short period of time and against all odds. I also wanted to understand why he was not more widely known and celebrated—and hoped to change that through this book.
How long did it take you to research?
Once I decided to pursue Smalls’ story, I spent about nine months searching for as much information as I could find about Smalls and the time period. More questions arose as I wrote the book, of course, so I continued to do follow-up research for the next year. The whole process, from book proposal to hitting the shelves, took about three years.
Did you spend much time in South Carolina as part of your research? If so, how did that affect the book?
I had been to Charleston and Beaufort several times before working on the book, but I knew I had to visit both again once I started this project. I find spending time in places I’m writing about to be essential to my research even if much has changed over time. It’s important to have a sense of place and to understand how geography and culture impact events. I think the time I spent in South Carolina helped me more accurately and vividly evoke the setting in which much of Smalls’ story takes place.
When you were writing Smalls’ story, how did it affect you personally?
Studying Smalls and his many achievements has given me a profound respect for this remarkable American hero and has made me believe even more in the power of a single individual to change the world for the better.
What was the biggest challenge for you in writing this book?
Authentically telling a story is always my goal as a journalist, and I definitely wanted to make sure that I was capturing the African American experience of the 19th century as accurately as possible. To do this, I interviewed numerous historians, including Civil War and African American Studies experts. I consulted Smalls’ descendants, including Dr. Helen Boulware Moore, who created a traveling exhibit to help preserve and promote Smalls’ story. I read the best books on the many subjects covered in the story, combed through numerous archives and studied primary documents. I also had a variety of readers review the final manuscript. No matter what story I’m trying to tell, it’s incredibly important to me to get it right.
Get your own copy of Cate Lineberry’s book Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero. You can visit her website for a list on online locations that have the book or simply go to your favorite book store or online book seller.