Steering to Freedom

Written by Patrick Gabridge
Review by John Kachuba

It is fitting that this novel should be published in the sesquicentennial of the last year of the Civil War. Both Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and his order to include African-American troops had a profound effect on the lives of freed slaves and on the progress of the war itself. One man, an escaped slave named Robert Smalls, played an important, although largely unknown, role in elevating the position of African-Americans as soldiers and citizens.

In 1862, Charleston riverboat pilot Smalls develops a daring plan: to steal the riverboat Planter from under the noses of the Confederate army and to sail his crew and their families to freedom. But first the gallant crew must maneuver the boat past the guns of Fort Sumter and other Confederate batteries and try to dodge the mines and torpedoes placed in the harbor to thwart a Union attack. Even if they succeed in that feat, will the ships of the Union blockade consider their little boat friend or foe?

Author Gabridge weaves a tight, suspenseful tale that is a valuable addition to the ever-growing library of books that recount the contributions African-Americans made to the war effort. The novel is meticulously researched; by the time the reader finishes the book, he may be able to pilot a riverboat. The research is never pedantic, however, and it never gets in the way of an entertaining story. This book is highly recommended.