Robert Smalls: Union hero, steamer captain, congressman, U.S. Custom’s collector. There are many prestigious titles one could assign Smalls, and even more stories they could tell about the man. Author and veteran journalist Cate Lineberry touches on them all. Lineberry knows that before he became the subject of national news articles, before he met with President Lincoln in D.C., before he inspired thousands of recently freed and escaped African-American men to take up arms against the Confederate soldiers, Smalls was a Lowcountry slave. And Lineberry knows that in order to tell a good story, a true story, one must start at the beginning.
Smalls’ story begins in April 1839 when he was born in his mother Lydia’s “sparse slave quarters” in Beaufort, S.C. Although the vicissitudes of his life are not documented in a diary or a journal, Lineberry has been able to, through rigorous research, gather salient pieces of Smalls’ early years. “The most interesting part to me was the Civil War, his most formative years,” says Lineberry. “The drive to escape from slavery — that really propelled him on his journey.”
Lineberry, a history buff who was a staff writer and editor for National Geographic and the web editor for Smithsonian magazine, says she has always been interested in the Civil War, especially because she had ancestors who fought on both sides at the Battle of Gettysburg. But she’d never heard of Smalls. “My brother sent me an article about Smalls and I couldn’t believe I didn’t know about him. I started looking into it and found that I just fell in love with the story, this story of triumph. I thought ‘What does this person have that enables him to overcome the messages he’s received since he was a child?’ He really embraced the opportunities that came his way. I was hooked from the beginning.”
We know that Smalls’ mother Lydia, like many slaves at the time, was forbidden to learn to read, but she was well-versed in Gullah, a culture developed from customs stemming from the Bakongo, Igbo, Ewe, Malinke, Mossi, Gola, Wolof, and Kissi peoples of West and Central Africa. “The Gullah traditions helped people maintain their identities and their connections as they performed the grueling year-round work required of them on the plantations,” writes Lineberry. This was the culture Smalls was born into: a wealthy deep South town located 70 miles from what would be the “heart” of the Confederacy, populated mostly by enslaved Africans who toiled in the South Carolina sun day in and day out, finding connections when and if they could, working to produce the fine cotton that would further enrich their white owners.
Fortunately for Smalls, he was favored by his owner, Henry McKee, and was frequently by McKee’s side “accompanying him on his trips to Ashdale.” Lydia never named the boy’s father, but he was thought to be a white man, and possibly even to be McKee. This favoritism landed Smalls a position as a house servant, and, eventually, would send him to Charleston.
At only 12 years old, Smalls arrived in the “bustling port city” of Charleston. The city was aristocratic, busy, and beautfiul, but Smalls soon saw its dark side. “Naked men, women, and children were sold in open slave markets near the Old Exchange Building as potential buyers evaluated them as if they were livestock,” writes Lineberry. There was also the notorious Work House, a former sugar warehouse that Charlestonians called the “Sugar House.” Lineberry includes accounts from famous abolitionist Angelina Grimké, who wrote that one female slave “was forced to walk the treadmill, which provided power for grinding corn at the Work House. As with all enslaved people sentenced to this form of torture, her hands were tied above her head and her feet to a plank.”
This was not the first time Smalls had come face to face with the raw and vicious iniquities of slavery. Before traveling to Charleston, Smalls was taken by Lydia to a slave auction in Beaufort, to help “prepare Robert for whatever his future held,” writes Lineberry. After witnessing the brutal whipping of a slave, “Robert became angry and rebellious.” He would later write that while he had “no trouble with my owner … My aunt was whipped so many a time until she has not the same skin she was born with.”
In Charleston Smalls likely lived in the slave quarters of McKee’s sister-in-law Eliza Ancrum where he was hired out to others and “largely left to fend for himself.” Smalls, starting out as a waiter at the Planter’s Hotel, would eventually be drawn to the Charleston docks, quickly acquiring the skills necessary to pilot a ship.
By 19, Smalls was married and had a daughter. With this new responsibility, Smalls was determined to seek freedom, if not for himself, than for his family. Lineberry details the event that would change Smalls’ life — commandeering the 147-foot long steamer, the Planter, and delivering the valuable vessel and guns to Union lines — and all the events that would follow. It’s a redemption story, and, as Lineberry notes, a story of triumph.
Smalls was brave, skilled, astute, and determined to “be free or die.” But perhaps the most incredible part of his story, skillfully told and thoroughly researched by Lineberry in Be Free or Die, is thinking about all the other Robert Smalls that may have existed. “There were untold number of slaves that escaped to Union lines,” says Lineberry. “It speaks to the determination of people and the desperation of their circumstances. You wonder how many stories we don’t know.”
Fri. June 23 Lineberry, along with Michael Moore — the great great grandson of Smalls and the CEO/President of the new Charleston International African American Museum — will discuss Be Free or Die at an author luncheon.
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