• Be Free or Die

  • The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls' Escape from Slavery to Union Hero
  • By: Cate Lineberry
  • Narrated by: J. D. Jackson
  • Length: 8 hrs and 19 mins
  • 4.6 out of 5 stars (158 ratings)

1 title per month from Audible’s entire catalog of best sellers, and new releases.
Access a growing selection of included Audible Originals, audiobooks and podcasts.
You will get an email reminder before your trial ends.
Your Premium Plus plan is $14.95 a month after 30 day trial. Cancel anytime.
Buy for $24.95

Buy for $24.95

Pay using card ending in
By confirming your purchase, you agree to Audible's Conditions of Use and Amazon's Privacy Notice. Taxes where applicable.

Publisher's Summary

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 23-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. 

©2017 Cate Lineberry (P)2018 Tantor

Featured Article: The Best Biography Audiobooks to Educate, Fascinate, and Inspire


The best biographies are ranked not only by the scale and skill of their writing, but also by the strength of their subjects. In the audiobook world, these selections are also judged for the quality of their narrative performances, making those that rise to the top all the more excellent. From lighthearted entertainment to inspirational origin stories, these titles represent the best biography audiobooks now ready for your listening pleasure.

What listeners say about Be Free or Die

Average Customer Ratings
Overall
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • 5 Stars
    116
  • 4 Stars
    30
  • 3 Stars
    9
  • 2 Stars
    1
  • 1 Stars
    2
Performance
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • 5 Stars
    102
  • 4 Stars
    33
  • 3 Stars
    9
  • 2 Stars
    2
  • 1 Stars
    1
Story
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • 5 Stars
    112
  • 4 Stars
    28
  • 3 Stars
    2
  • 2 Stars
    1
  • 1 Stars
    1

Reviews - Please select the tabs below to change the source of reviews.

Sort by:
Filter by:
  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Great Book about a Great man

I live in Beaufort so I'm partial to stories about our history. And no man of Beaufort was as great of a mam as the Honorable Robert Smalls. This book should be adapted into a screenplay and made into a movie.

7 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

My favorite Civil War hero

I only discovered Robert Smalls a couple years ago on my favorite history podcast and was blown away by him. Also blown away by the fact that I’d never heard of him. Why is he not in our schools’ history textbooks, and why are there not statues of him in South Carolina now!? This book did him justice - I really enjoyed it.

4 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

very good book

outstanding take on history about a person who lived the true meaning of free man and dedication to service of his country

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Wow!

What an amazing person, I can't believe I never heard of him before, truly inspiring.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Extremely well done!

This book not only does an excellent job of recounting Robert Smalls extraordinary life, pursuit of freedom and contributions to this country, it also gives the reader a feel for the complex climate of the times by examining the political policies and players involved that lead to and followed the failed rebellious coup of the Confederacy.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Must read. fascinating history

I've wanted to read about Robert Smalls for a long time. this book did not disappoint. This is important, fascinating history that all Americans should read.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Introduced to someone...

My family and I were introduced to someone we did not know about. An American Hero that needs to be known by more.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

history

powerful mostly unheard of history. narrator made it easy listen as well thank you

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

American Legend

Great bio on a guy who only ever gets anecdotal props on the Internet. We probably don't hear about him much because he refused to accept a life of victimhood, and instead fought for his freedom without bitterness or resentment.

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

Primarily about the Civil War years.

I do not remember when I first heard about Robert Smalls. I am sure it was a history book sometime in the past ten years, but I have regularly seen him mentioned in passing in various books without really getting a full sense of his life story. There are two books that I am aware of that are about Robert Smalls, this one, Be Free or Die, is primarily about the Civil War years with a chapter on his early life for context and an epilogue for the remainder of his life. The second book is Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915. My understanding is that Gullah Statesman is a more comprehensive biography and more focused on his later life, but it is not on audiobook, and the audiobook was on sale recently. So I listened to this audiobook, mainly on a long drive this weekend.

Robert Smalls was born into slavery in 1839. He was leased out for his labor and eventually started working as a deckhand on the steamer packet boat, The Planter. He quickly rose from deckhand to pilot. And in May 1862, when the White officers left the ship to spend the night with their families, Robert Smalls and the rest of the enslaved crew, along with at least some of the wives and children of the crew, left the dock and sailed out of the harbor and past the Confederate defenses and patrol boats out to the line of Union ships that were blockading the port. In addition to freeing themselves, the crew had just loaded three cannons that were being moved and Confederate codebooks and Smalls knowledge of the waters as a pilot. The crew shared a reward for turning over the ship leased to the Confederacy, and Smalls became the pilot of the Planter working for the Union and eventually its captain.

The book opens with that story, breathlessly told. That story is important, and it was hazardous and audacious. But there is a breathless quality to the storytelling that I thought detracted from the book. The book returns to the story of his mother and his early life and the context before moving on with the rest of Smalls' exploits during the Civil War. Using part of the reward money for turning over the Planter and his salary as the pilot, Robert Smalls started a store that served the thousands of formerly enslaved living in the Union-controlled islands around Charleston. Eventually, earning enough money to purchase the home where he had grown up as an enslaved person in a federal tax sale. The fact that it was a federal tax sale was important because most other property that formerly enslaved people purchased or entrusted with from field orders was stripped away in the early Reconstruction years. But Smalls, although sued for the property and the case going the whole way to the Supreme Court, was able to keep the property. (He allowed the widow of his former owner and her family to continue to live in a portion of the home for years, although the White family refused to eat meals with their benefactor.)

Smalls' story was not just immediately exciting and widely told in newspapers and by Smalls himself, but the intelligence that Smalls and the crew were able to share with the Union leadership and the skills and knowledge of the local waters was important throughout the Civil War. In addition, partly because of his initial fame, Smalls went on tour to Washington and Philadelphia to raise support for the war and awareness of the plight of the formerly enslaved living in refugee camps under Union-controlled areas. Smalls personally delivered a letter from the Union general that was in charge of the Union-controlled areas to allow for the recruitment of Black soldiers from the formerly enslaved. While the Union had not previously authorized Black soldiers, Smalls' personal delivery of the letter and his intervention with President Lincoln and the Secretary of War did bring about the authorization for Black troops. The more well-known 54th Regiment portrayed in the movie Glory was established after the troops from the Sea Islands. Initially, the Union was going to abandon the Sea Islands (without evacuating 10,000 formerly enslaved and leaving them to fend for themselves), but the establishment of Black troops to defend the islands and support the Union's work in attacking Charleston and surrounding areas were important precedents. Eventually, nearly 200,000 Black soldiers and sailors served during the Civil War.

The biggest weakness of Be Free or Die is that it only briefly touches on the last fifty years of Robert Smalls' life. He served for five terms in the US Congress; he was in opposition to the new constitution of South Carolina that eventually brought about Jim Crow, he was a federal tax collector, he was on the board for a Black-owned and controlled Railroad that served to move goods and people inland from the Charleston port, he helped establish a newspaper. He expanded his store that was started during the Civil war. He attained the rank of brigadier-general in the South Carolina Militia in the 1870s until white Democrats started to regain power after the fall of Reconstruction. Unfortunately, this part of the story is only told in a few pages, and I will have to read Gullah Statesman to get a better sense of his later life.