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.
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.