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RECOMMENDED READING: "BE FREE OR DIE: THE AMAZING STORY OF ROBERT SMALLS ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY TO UNION HERO" (246 hits)

USA TODAY--Reading Cate Lineberry’s Be Free or Die (St. Martin’s, 231 pp., *** out of four stars) is a little like recovering a national heirloom that was lost, stolen or buried through decades.

It recounts the amazing-because-it’s-all-true story of how an African-American slave named Robert Smalls led his family and other enslaved people on a daring escape almost a year after the Civil War began, by piloting a Confederate steamer out of South Carolina and toward Union waters. In doing so, the book serves to remind us that black people were active, daring and, often, successful agents in securing their own freedom.

Smalls was 23 years old and a married father of two small children when, in the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, he and seven other enslaved blacks serving on the CSS Planter pulled the ship from its Charleston port, stopping along the way to pick up Smalls' family and those of some of the other fugitive crewmen.

Smalls wore a captain’s uniform and a straw hat similar to the one worn by the ship’s captain, who along with the other white crew members left the ship the night before unattended, except by the slaves. Thus attired, Smalls, mimicking what he knew to be the captain’s regular motions, was able to guide the Planter through a gauntlet of five Confederate harbors northward.

A Union ship was about to fire at the ship until its captain and crew saw a white bed sheet flying as a flag of surrender. Upon boarding the ship, Union Navy officers found that it not only had a ship in captivity, but also four artillery pieces, 200 pounds of ammunition and, most important, a codebook with valuable intelligence about mines and torpedoes in Charleston Harbor and enemy signals.

All that is covered in the book’s first chapter. The rest mostly concerns itself with the reverberations of Smalls’ death-defying gamble.

Be Free or Die maintains a tautly rendered perspective on the complex social dynamics of Civil War-era race relations, especially in the North, where its embrace of emancipation was warmer than whites' embrace of newly freed blacks.

But Smalls’ heroism was so widely hailed that he got to meet with President Lincoln and other cabinet members and military leaders. There are no specific details about that meeting just as there are no specifics available in historic records about Smalls beyond chronicles of his cool, resolute heroism while serving as a civilian pilot of Union warships.

He even got to pilot the Planter out of danger after its “brawny white” Union captain abandoned his post in panic when the ship came under heavy fire. (Smalls was immediately appointed its new captain.)

With each account of Smalls’ progress, up to his postwar political success as one of the first African Americans elected to the House of Representatives, one’s admiration for his seemingly imperturbable drive grows. And yet, something about his personality, the character that gave him such a cool head and an unconquerable will, remains just out of reach.

It’s not the fault of Be Free or Die, which deserves credit for restoring his name and his achievements to public attention. If we’re going to find out more or at least engage in educated guesses, that may require navigation by dramatists, novelists and other imaginative artists.
Posted By: Siebra Muhammad
Thursday, June 29th 2017 at 5:29PM
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Ms. Muhammad,

I hope that you are much smarter than to think that a slave in South Carolina steals a vessel and sails this vessel into union territory and now this slave is free!

Ms. Muhammad freedom for the slaves is when we have our own country. Freedom for the Children of Israel wasn’t going from one part of Egypt to another part of Egypt. Freedom for the Children of Israel was completely leaving Egypt for their Promised Land; the land of Canon. This was the moment in time that the Jewish people first became a nation.
What I’m trying to do is help you to focus in on what it takes for a slave race of people to be free; it takes land a size enough to be a country otherwise Black Americans will always be a part of White Americans and we don’t want this. We want our own! We have different people and we want our own! Our requests, feelings and demands about this long-standing issue go directly to God. It is the absolute responsibility of God to set us free otherwise we will always naturally be submerged by White Americans. There is no such thing as equality of two different people in one country.
The time of division has come in God definitely into play since we have a genuinely and properly anointed prophet, Christ Harry. My prophecy is that we Black Americans will soon come into the territory from the northern borders of North Carolina into the Gulf of Mexico and from the middle of the Mississippi River into the Atlantic Ocean. Only God can bring this about!

So, Ms. Siebra don’t fool yourself and believe that that slave was free by leaving one part of this country and go into another part of the same country doesn’t make him free because he is still in the country as a whole.

Friday, June 30th 2017 at 7:26AM
Harry Watley
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