Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero

Written by Cate Lineberry
Review by Justin Lindsay

Robert Smalls’ meteoric rise from a slave at the eve of the American Civil War to famous war hero, then member of the House of Representatives, sounds like the stuff of fiction. But this little-known tale is inspiringly true. We begin with Smalls’ (and crew) nerve-wracking heist of his master’s steamboat. From there Lineberry follows his contributions to the Union war effort, and on through his later life as a freedman, leader, and politician. His audacity, coupled with the wisdom needed to navigate the dark waters of the post-war South, proved to be an inspiration to countless Americans. Sadly, his story has largely been lost to history. Thankfully, Lineberry brings new life to it.

This book focuses mostly on Smalls’ war service and unfolds in a dramatic way that compels the reader along. We learn of his and his family’s life prior to his escape, and of the many hats he wore during the war (pilot, captain, booster). More could have been told of his post-war life, which is for the most part summarized without too much detail. However, it’s a tale well told and not easily forgotten. Recommended.