A conversation with Cate Lineberry, author of Be Free or Die

A conversation with Cate Lineberry, author of Be Free or Die

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - WIS asked author Cate Lineberry several questions about her book Be Free or Die the Amazing Story of Robert Smalls' Escape from Slavery to Union Hero. Here is the full text of the questions and answers:

What inspired you to write this book?

I've always been fascinated by the Civil War and the massive impact it had on our country. In fact, I have ancestors who fought on both sides at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. (They were each injured, and the Confederate soldier eventually became a prisoner of war.) When I read an article about Robert Smalls a few years ago, I was amazed that I had never heard of him and his incredible heroism and perseverance. I wanted to know how an illiterate enslaved man had accomplished so much in such a short period of time and against all odds. I also wanted to understand why he was not more widely known and celebrated—and hoped to change that through this book.

How is Robert Smalls' story relevant to today?

Robert Smalls is an American hero who triumphed over incredible difficulties. His story is as inspiring as it is riveting, and it showcases so many important aspects of our country's history, particularly the struggles of African Americans during the war and immediately following it. Unless we understand that history fully, it's unlikely that we'll be able to move forward with the racial issues that plague our country today.

What do you think it was about Smalls that led Henry McKee to place him, a slave, in such a position of trust?

Smalls was not only smart and hardworking but he had a charm about him that served him well throughout his life. I think it was these characteristics that endeared him to McKee and, following his escape, the nation.

What resources and places did you visit in Charleston and Beaufort for your research?

I find spending time in places I'm writing about to be essential to my research even if much has changed over time. It's important to have a sense of place and understand how geography and culture impact a story, so spending time in both Charleston and Beaufort was critical. I also accessed various library collections in both places and met with local experts on the history of the area, the Civil War and African American history.

Why did you decide to focus the book on his Civil War years and not his later years in Reconstruction politics? 

I focused the book on Smalls' Civil War years because I felt that those times were the ones that shaped him the most and helped him discover the skills that launched his political career after the war. I also saw his story during the war as incredibly dramatic and exciting and thought it would captivate readers. His escape from slavery was a derring-do that highlighted his tremendous bravery, courage and intelligence. I also hoped to illustrate through Smalls' story some of the many issues faced by the country and particularly African Americans at the time.

Did you uncover any facts or information in your research that surprised you?

I knew going into the project much of what Smalls had achieved, but it was not until I immersed myself in the details of his story that I fully appreciated just how significant his role was in helping change the country's attitude toward African Americans. It's hard to imagine that many people, even in the North, questioned whether blacks would fight for their freedom and their country. Smalls' daring act on May 13, 1862, and the steps he took afterwards, helped change that. And though he was nearly as famous as Frederick Douglass at the time, today many Americans do not know his story. Smalls deserves to be remembered and honored for his heroism and all that he accomplished.

Probably the most striking and unsettling document I came across was an 1847 bill of sale for Smalls' wife Hannah, and her three children to Samuel Kingman. The price for all four souls was $850. I also found the claim Kingman put into the state of South Carolina for Hannah and her children after they escaped. Both of these documents underscored the horrific nature of slavery and its absolute disregard for human life.

Did you meet any of Smalls' descendants for your research and if so, where are they now?

Short answer: I was fortunate in that Smalls' family is very interested in preserving and promoting his story. His great granddaughter, Dr. Helen Boulware Moore, has created a traveling exhibit on Smalls, and his great, great grandson, Michael Boulware Moore, is the President and CEO of the International African American museum. They have been incredibly supportive of this project.

Long answer: I was delighted to discover that Smalls' family has been preserving his story. Smalls' great granddaughter, Dr. Helen Boulware Moore, was so determined to educate people about Smalls' heroism and his accomplishments that she created a traveling exhibit on Smalls, which has been featured in libraries and museums throughout the country. Dr. Moore grew up hearing stories about Smalls from her grandmother, Smalls' daughter, Elizabeth, who lived with Dr. Moore and her parents in her later years. Elizabeth, who lived to be 101, was just four years old in 1862 when Smalls and his wife, Hannah, hid her and their infant son on the Planter and made their escape from slavery.

Over the past few years, Dr. Moore shared numerous stories of Smalls with me. A few particularly stand out. She told me of when, as a young boy, Smalls' mother, Lydia, took him to watch a slave auction at the arsenal in town and to the Beaufort jail to see a slave being whipped. Lydia wanted Smalls to fully understand the harsh realities of slavery and to be prepared for whatever he encountered in life. Dr. Moore also spoke of Smalls as a dedicated father who made sure that his children received the best education possible. She told me of how at the age of thirteen, Smalls' daughter, Elizabeth, read the Declaration of Independence to an audience of mostly former slaves in Beaufort who had never been given the chance to learn to read. Hearing these stories from a direct descendant was an incredible experience that helped me understand Smalls more fully.

Other than a history lesson, what is the message you would like/hope readers get from the book?

I hope readers are inspired by Smalls' courage and determination as well as his refusal to allow others to define his path in life.

A University of South Carolina history professor, Andrew Billingsley, wrote a book about Smalls. Was it used in your research?

No. Dr. Billingsley is a sociologist so his goal with his book was very different. His book focuses more on analyzing the impact Smalls' family had on him.

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