Skip to main content
US Macmillan Tradebooks for Courses

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

Cate Lineberry


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

ISBN10: 1250183898
ISBN13: 9781250183897

Trade Paperback

304 Pages



Request Desk Copy
Request Exam Copy


Sign up to receive information about new books, author events, and special offers.

Sign up now

Facing death rather than enslavement—a story of one man's triumphant choice and ultimate rise to national hero

It was a mild May morning in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1862, the second year of the Civil War, when a twenty-three-year-old slave named Robert Smalls did the unthinkable and boldly seized a Confederate steamer. With his wife and two young children hidden on board, Smalls and a small crew ran a gauntlet of heavily armed fortifications in Charleston Harbor and delivered the valuable vessel and the massive guns it carried to nearby Union forces. To be unsuccessful was a death sentence for all. Smalls’ courageous and ingenious act freed him and his family from slavery and immediately made him a Union hero while simultaneously challenging much of the country’s view of what African Americans were willing to do to gain their freedom.

After his escape, Smalls served in numerous naval campaigns off Charleston as a civilian boat pilot and eventually became the first black captain of an Army ship. In a particularly poignant moment Smalls even bought the home that he and his mother had once served in as house slaves.

Be Free or Die is a compelling narrative that illuminates Robert Smalls’ amazing journey from slave to Union hero and ultimately United States Congressman. This captivating tale of a valuable figure in American history gives fascinating insight into the country's first efforts to help newly freed slaves while also illustrating the many struggles and achievements of African Americans during the Civil War.


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

“Reading Cate Lineberry’s Be Free or Die is a little like recovering a national heirloom that was lost, stolen or buried through decades . . . maintains a tautly rendered perspective on the complex social dynamics of Civil War-era race relations . . . ”USA Today

“A neat piece of narrative history, told with exceptional brio. It flows with energy and bravado. Thanks to Lineberry for reminding us of the existence of such people as Smalls.”The Christian Science Monitor

“In writing Be Free or Die, journalist Cate Lineberry has done readers and history a good turn by chronicling the life of a man who led one of the most daring escapes from American slavery during the Civil War.”Dallas Morning News

"An excellent read . . . provides fascinating insight into a little-known heroic incident of the Civil War and into race relationships in the Reconstruction South."Bowling Green Daily News

"A stunning tale of a little-known figure in history. Robert Smalls' astounding heroism during the Civil War helped convince Lincoln and the country that African Americans were extraordinarily capable of fighting for their freedom. Lineberry has produced a triumph in this heroic story that illuminates our country's ongoing struggles with race."Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Professor of American History at Harvard University, and Executive Producer of Finding Your Roots

“One of the great tales of heroism to come out of the Civil War now has the book it deserves. Be Free or Diebrings us for the first time a complete picture of Robert Smalls, the slave who stole a Confederate ship, liberated his family and friends, and went on to be a member of Congress. Thank you, Cate Lineberry, for telling so well the extraordinary story of this extraordinary man.”Christopher Dickey, New York Times bestselling author of Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South

“Robert Smalls’ daring, determined effort to free himself and his family from slavery stands as a thrilling representative of the thousands of unknown acts of self-liberation performed by slaves during the war. In Be Free or Die, Cate Lineberry brings to life the exciting story of this modest man whose dash for freedom under the guns of Charleston harbor led to service in the union navy, a successful business career, and election to the US House of Representatives.”Jamie Malanowski, author of Commander Will Cushing: Daredevil Hero of the Civil War and lead writer of the New York Times’s award-winning “Disunion” series

"Lineberry ably provides context for Smalls' saga: slavery's horrors, the story of blacks in the Union fighting force."Booklist

"A valuable narrative history that will benefit readers interested in African-American, Civil War, or naval history."Library Journal

"Succinct and powerful prose . . . Lineberry elevates Smalls to America's pantheon of black leaders, showing him to have been as courageous and inspirational as Harriet Tubman . . . and Booker T. Washington."Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


The Escape

Darkness still blanketed the city of Charleston in the early hours of May 13, 1862, as a light breeze carried the briny scent of marshes across its quiet harbor. Only the occasional ringing of a ship’s bell...

About the author

Cate Lineberry

CATE LINEBERRY is a journalist and the author of The Secret Rescue, a #1 Wall Street Journal e-book bestseller and a finalist for the Edgar and Anthony Awards. Lineberry was previously a staff writer and editor for National Geographic Magazine and the web editor for Smithsonian Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times. Lineberry lives in Raleigh, NC.

Joy Lyn Photography

Cate Lineberry

Official Links