The Backstory

Here’s how it began….

Some of you know that almost 2 years ago, Tom and I loaded up our stuff and our dog and drove from Dallas to South Carolina. We began the adventure as a four month sabbatical and soon came to learn that we were entering an entirely new chapter of our lives.

Here’s what led to that pivotal move (and in a week or so, I’ll tell you more about what’s ahead!).

In May of 2013, after the youngest of our shared collection of kids graduated from UNC at Chapel Hill (Tarheels!), we took a brief little road trip to South Carolina. Specifically, Beaufort, pronounced Bew-furt. (Not Bow-furt; that’s the one in North Carolina.)

Beaufort is a sweet little coastal town. You’ve probably seen it – a handful of movies were made here: Prince of Tides, The Big Chill, part of Forrest Gump, and others.

We only had a couple of days to visit, so our first afternoon we took one of those touristy horse-drawn carriage rides through the historic part of town. And I mean, historic! The graveyard around the old Episcopal church is the resting place of soldiers from the Revolutionary War. Both sides.

Along the way, we heard a story that neither of us had ever heard before.

We heard about a man who was born enslaved, in the kitchen house behind the owner’s “big house”. Turns out he not only had the courage to escape to freedom, but he had the heart to make sure a bunch of others escaped.

Oh, and he was a Civil War hero.

Robert Smalls. A hero whose name we’d never heard.

So, after the tour, we stopped at a bookstore to find a couple of books about this man. There must be some amazing biographies, right? But I didn’t find what I was looking for. (Since then, a very good biography “Be Free or Die” by Kate Lineberry, has been published.)

We went home a few day later, but Robert Smalls wouldn’t leave me alone. I googled, and libraried, and amazoned. I found a few bits of information, which only fed my curiosity.

Surely someone would tell his story, right?

I can only describe it as a calling.

Or maybe an obsession.

I wanted to know…. How did he learn to pilot a boat? And how did he decide to take it? And where did that kind of courage come from?

How did he meet Hannah, who became his wife?

How did he learn to read, when it was illegal for enslaved people to read?

His mother’s name was Lydia — but no one seems to know who his father was.

Here’s a little of what I learned:

His owner sent him to work in Charleston at the age of 12. He worked in a restaurant and then on the docks. (His owner, of course, collected all the pay – standard operating procedure at the time.)

He was put to work on a cotton steamer. The Civil War began, the cotton steamer became a Confederate arms boat, and he was retained as part of the crew. (Imagine being forced to work for the side that’s keeping their boots on your neck.)

One night, when the confederate officers left the boat (against orders), Smalls sailed it right out of Charleston harbor, right past Fort Sumter, right into the Union blockade, where he delivered it to the Union Navy. He and Hannah and the slave crew on the boat were free.

There’s so much more.

Not only was he free, he continued to pilot the boat against the confederacy.

Not only was he invaluable on the water, he met with Lincoln to advocate for the enslaved men to have the opportunity to fight with the Union.

Not only did he return to Beaufort after the war, he bought the house where he’d been enslaved and raised his family there.

Not only did he have the drive and determination to teach himself to read, he was instrumental in making SC the first state in the union to ensure education for all children.

And not only was he a local leader in his community after the Civil War, he was elected a Representative to Congress.

And there’s still So. Much. More.

So I wrote about it.

And 2 years ago, we moved to Beaufort so I could research and finish a novel based on the extraordinary man’s life.

And now–

Now we’re having a – – book!

Yes, finally, after lots of researching and imagining and pages and pages and pages of so many words – – we’re expecting a beautiful book in May!

I couldn’t be more thrilled!

It’s a little premature to put up a cover image or even the title (ok, the working title is Trouble the Water) but over the next few weeks I’ll be posting a bit about the backstory and the process. Most of all, though, I’ll be introducing you to an amazing person who has changed lots of lives. Including mine.


Published by Rebecca Bruff

Every story has layers of stories underneath, woven through, all around. I love exploring stories.

26 thoughts on “The Backstory

    1. Rebecca, it was so good to read if this quest, desire, process, and the excitement toward its fruition! Congratulations on this decision and research that has uncovered a jewel for All of us! God knows there are many of us who seek to know that uncovers a great mystery that yields a Guft like this to share! His story had to be told—that’s passion!

  1. It is amazing how Americans can be supportive of hero’s on both the North and South regardless of where they live As a “”Southern born and Southern Bred” person I still revere and respect Northern persons
    Look forward to reading your book. A book signing party?

    1. It’s witness, I believe, to our shared story. So much good happens when we listen to, and learn from, one another. Kinda like how an Aggie like me and a T-sip like you can love and respect each other, right?
      (Smalls, however, was southern through and through!). And yes, a signing party would be a blast! Let’s do it!

  2. Wow! I am so proud to read this. Simply amazing courage by one who had no fear & have relied on God’s grace. Sister, l celebrate you.

    Living the risen life. From death, struggles births newness & life.

  3. I’m so excited to learn about your newest book! His story is certainly in the right hands and I know you view it as a sacred trust. Love it and love you!❤️

  4. So happy to read about your impressive writing project, Rebecca. We miss seeing your smiling face and look forward to attending your book signing.

  5. The best thing, of course, is that not only does the world get a fabulous book about one of the most incredible people ever . . . but we get to claim you as a Beaufortonian . . . AND we very special crew of the new Pat Conroy Literary Center get to claim you as our colleague! It’s all just too fabulous for words!

    1. Will, it IS too fabulous for words! I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the Pat Conroy Literary Center and for you, and for the beautiful and amazing gift of this place and all the stories that live here!

  6. Rebecca you have certainly inspired me to greater heights- to work more fiercely on finishing my lengthy tome! It goes slowly, with design projects, hip replacements, and living life, throwing road blocks right, then left. But persevere, I do! When the night air is quiet my fingers fly across the keys, always eager to catch the latest metaphor
    before it eludes me. Someday…

    1. Oh Blue! You’re amazing! And YOU inspire me! Please keep writing and writing, because I can’t wait to read your book – and then to bring it over for your autograph and talk about it over wine, with Atticus too, of course! Much love to you, my friend!

    1. Hi Sharon! Yes, isn’t the lowcountry gorgeous? It’s been such a gift to be here and to work on this amazing story. I hope to be in Dallas for some book clubs and signings after the May release – would love to see you then! All the best to you!

  7. As I sat next to you in a PCLCworkshop and heard another attendee read your story I thought to myself, “it won’t be long until this one gets published.” I am so delighted for you.” Congratulations, Becky!

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