Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families

Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families

by Andrew Billingsley
     
 

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On May 13, 1862, the enslaved African American Robert Smalls (1839-1915) commandeered a Confederate warship, the Planter, from Charleston harbor and piloted the vessel to the Union blockade, thus securing his place in the annals of Civil War heroics. Slave, pilot, businessman, statesman, U.S. congressman-Smalls played many roles en route to becoming an American icon.

Overview

On May 13, 1862, the enslaved African American Robert Smalls (1839-1915) commandeered a Confederate warship, the Planter, from Charleston harbor and piloted the vessel to the Union blockade, thus securing his place in the annals of Civil War heroics. Slave, pilot, businessman, statesman, U.S. congressman-Smalls played many roles en route to becoming an American icon. Sociologist Andrew Billingsley offers the first biography of Smalls to assess the influence of his families-black and white, past and present-on his life and enduring legend.

Born a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina, Robert Smalls was raised with his master's family and grew up amid an odd balance of privilege and bondage. Billingsley underscores the influence of the slaveholders' household as well as Smalls's biological family on the development of the passions and abilities that led Smalls to his bid for freedom in 1862.

Smalls served with distinction in the Union forces at the helm of the Planter. After the war he returned to Beaufort and bought the home of his former masters. A founder of the South Carolina Republican Party, Smalls was elected as a delegate to the black majority 1868 Constitutional Convention as well as to the overwhelmingly white Constitutional Convention of 1895. Between those two events, he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, the state senate, and five times to the U.S. Congress. Billingsley illustrates how Smalls's support system, coupled with his dogged resilience, empowered him for political success.

Today three branches of the Smalls family remain: the descendants of his daughter with first wife, Hannah; of Hannah's two daughters from a previousmarriage whom Smalls adopted; and of his son with his second wife, Annie. Writing of subsequent generations of Smalls's family, Billingsley delineates the evolving patterns of opportunity, challenge, and change that have been the hallmarks of the African American experience thanks in no small part to the investments in freedom and family made by Robert Smalls of South Carolina.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Billingsley crafts a superb genealogical history of Robert Smalls, blending family history with local and state history, while also placing Small's life and career within the wider framework of the national narrative. . . . Furthermore, he succeeds in impressing upon the reader the fundamental role that family networks played in all areas of Smalls's life. . . . Without the influence of family, Robert Smalls may not have become the man whose legacy lives on in the history of the African American communities that he once served.
Civil War History

Born a slave, Robert Smalls died a free man whose heroic actions and example inspired the freedom struggles of generations of oppressed blacks. His life story is at once inspirational and instructive. Smalls's capture of a confederate warship and the liberation of slaves combined General Grant's tactical brilliance with Harriet Tubman's legendary courage. Billingsley's thoughtful, pathbreaking book shows how Smalls's accomplishments were rooted in traditional black beliefs and practices which endure today. This is a must-read for students of the black experience and the promise of American democracy.
Walter R. Allen, Allan Murray Cartter Professor of Sociology, University of California-Los Angeles

Andrew Billingsley admirably combines an impressive command of the sociology of black families with a keen understanding of southern religious practices and Reconstruction politics in this original and richly documented biography of the audacious Civil War hero and visionary South Carolina statesman, Robert Smalls. Yearning to Breathe Free places Smalls's heroic achievements, abiding commitment to his families, and his championship of universal public education against the backdrop of the changing fortunes of the larger black community.
Darlene Clark Hine, Board of Trustees Professor of African American Studies, Northwestern University, and author of Black Victory: The Rise and Fall of the White Primary in Texas

From his sensational escape with the Planter in 1862, through his combat service in the Civil War, to his bold and implacable political leadership in the face of threatening opposition in Reconstruction South Carolina, Robert Smalls was an American hero in the truest sense of the word. Billingsley's new biography goes beyond describing the dramatic events of Smalls' public life; it explains the remarkable character behind them. It is, therefore, an important contribution to the history of South Carolina and the history of the United States.
Lawrence S. Rowland, professor emeritus of history, University of South Carolina Beaufort

Billingsley not only recounts the story of the man known as the 'first hero of the Civil War' but also provides a new framework for considering the role of family and community in the development of young men. His insights on these issues invite the consideration of contemporary policymakers as they address the social challenges of our day.
Kurt L. Schmoke, dean of the Howard University School of Law

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781570036866
Publisher:
University of South Carolina Press
Publication date:
05/28/2007
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
1,281,669
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

What People are saying about this

Lawrence S. Rowland
"From his sensational escape with the Planter in 1862, through his combat service in the Civil War, to his bold and implacable political leadership in the face of threatening opposition in Reconstruction South Carolina, Robert Smalls was an American hero in the truest sense of the word. Billingsley's new biography goes beyond describing the dramatic events of Smalls' public life; it explains the remarkable character behind them. It is, therefore, an important contribution to the history of South Carolina and the history of the United States."--(Lawrence S. Rowland, professor emeritus of history, University of South Carolina Beaufort)
Ronald Walters
"Billingsley enriches our understanding of the life of Robert Smalls, not only through a review of his expansive career, but by examining and connecting to it vital foundational aspects such as his family, friends and successors, a feat for which Billingsley has already gained national distinction."--(Ronald Walters, Distinguished Leadership Scholar, University of Maryland College Park)
Darlene Clark Hine
"Andrew Billingsley admirably combines an impressive command of the sociology of black families with a keen understanding of southern religious practices and Reconstruction politics in this original and richly documented biography of the audacious Civil War hero and visionary South Carolina statesman, Robert Smalls. Yearning to Breathe Free places Smalls's heroic achievements, abiding commitment to his families, and his championship of universal public education against the backdrop of the changing fortunes of the larger black community."--(Darlene Clark Hine, Board of Trustees Professor of African American Studies, Northwestern University, and author of Black Victory: The Rise and Fall of the White Primary in Texas)
Walter R. Allen
"Born a slave, Robert Smalls died a free man whose heroic actions and example inspired the freedom struggles of generations of oppressed blacks. His life story is at once inspirational and instructive. Smalls's capture of a confederate warship and the liberation of slaves combined General Grant's tactical brilliance with Harriet Tubman's legendary courage. Billingsley's thoughtful, pathbreaking book shows how Smalls's accomplishments were rooted in traditional black beliefs and practices which endure today. This is a must-read for students of the black experience and the promise of American democracy."--(Walter R. Allen, Allan Murray Cartter Professor of Sociology, University of California-Los Angeles)
Kurt L. Schmoke
"Billingsley not only recounts the story of the man known as the 'first hero of the Civil War' but also provides a new framework for considering the role of family and community in the development of young men. His insights on these issues invite the consideration of contemporary policymakers as they address the social challenges of our day."--(Kurt L. Schmoke, dean of the Howard University School of Law)

Meet the Author

Andrew Billingsley is a professor of sociology and African American studies and senior scholar in residence at the Institute for Families in Society at the University of South Carolina. His previous books are Mighty like a River: The Black Church and Social Reform and Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Enduring Legacy of African-American Families.

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