Biography A Welcome Addition to Teach a Difficult Subject

The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls by Janet Halfmann, illustrations by Duane Smith. Lee and Low Books Inc., New York, 2020. (Grades 3-7)

The story of Robert Smalls is most likely not known by many. Born to a house slave in 1839, he would go on to accomplish one of the most daring escapes of the Civil War.

 As a twelve-year-old, Robert was sent away from the plantation in Beaufort, where he was born, to work in Charleston waiting tables. There, he made five dollars a month—money he then had to hand over to Master McKee. But he spent his off time on the docks, watching the boats go in and out. Master McKee soon gave him permission to work at the docks, and, by age fifteen, he was foreman of a crew.

At the young age of 17, he met Hannah Jones, a Charleston hotel maid. They fell in love and received permission to marry. He later made a deal to buy his wife’s and daughter’s freedom for $800, but he didn’t know how he would ever save up that much.

Robert had, however, saved $700 by the time the Civil War broke out. He took a job as deckhand on the Planter, a boat that had hauled cotton but now delivered arms and soldiers for the Confederacy. His knowledge of navigation soon got him promoted to wheelman. In that capacity, he learned the secret steam whistle signals for passing the many Confederate forts. This knowledge would serve him well when he finally decided to escape.

When I first reviewed the picture book, Seven Miles to Freedom the Robert Smalls Story, I was impressed that a biography could be so suspenseful. This new edition, written in chapter book format, keeps to that winning formula, but adds informative sidebars that will stretch the reader’s knowledge and lead to further research. This edition has highlighted vocabulary words, a timeline, a glossary, a bibliography and a list of recommended reading. There is much here to capture the interest of young readers. As I said in my initial review, the story of Robert Smalls and his elaborate plan to gain his freedom is “edge of your seat” thrilling.

This edition elaborates on the type of ships that existed in Robert’s time, how they were designed and what type of cargo they carried. These details are sure to intrigue young people who have an interest in ships. Details on the slave ships of the time are included. What life was like for slaves, whether they be field hands or “house slaves” and the cruelty behind slave auctions is also new information.

Sidebars on the history of slavery, causes of the Civil War and an explanation of  how the Mason-Dixon line was drawn are clear and concise. Teachers looking for a biography that will interest their students and also be a door to further research, this story of a little known African American hero is the perfect choice. With a skilled teacher’s guidance, this extra information will enhance student’s understanding of an important chapter of American history.

About stephanielowden

I am the author of two middle grade novels: Time of the Eagle, published by Blue Horse Books, and Jingo Fever, published by Crickhollow Books. Time of the Eagle is a survival story and takes place during the fur trade era in the Lake Superior region. Jingo Fever takes place during WWI and deals with bullying amidst an anti-immigrant atmosphere.
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