Live Free or Die Free: The Thrilling Escape of Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls 1862

Robert Smalls in 1862. (Hagley Museum and Library)

Robert Smalls was born on April 5, 1839, in Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother, a slave named Lydia Polite, gave birth in a small shack tucked behind the comfortable home of her master Henry McKee, who may very well have been Robert’s father.

Lydia taught her son about the true evil of slavery from an early age, taking him to a local jail to see a slave woman whipped mercilessly and to a slave auction to see human beings – children among them – bought and sold like cattle. She had been ripped away from her own family at age 9, and she was determined to prepare her son for a difficult and dangerous future. Robert took her teaching to heart. He remarked later in life, “Although born a slave I always felt that I was a man and ought to be free, and I would be free or die.”

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U.S. Grant: A Short(ish) Biography

The passage of time often allows us to look at the past with a clearer perspective. Sometimes, however, time obscures the truth, as in the case of Ulysses S. Grant. While recent biographers like Ron Chernow, Ronald C. White, and Jean Edward Smith have begun to restore his reputation, far too many people still think of Grant as a drunken military butcher and an incompetent president.

His contemporaries knew better. Indeed, when he died most Americans believed Grant belonged right next to Washington and the martyred Lincoln in the pantheon of our nation’s greatest heroes.

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First Blood: The Pratt Street Riot

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter on April 14, 2011.)

On April 19, 1861, four days after the surrender of Fort Sumter and 86 years to the day after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the City of Baltimore witnessed an outbreak of violence that resulted in the first combat deaths of the American Civil War.
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April 4, 1865: Lincoln Enters the City of Traitors

President Abraham Lincoln entered Richmond, Virginia on April 4, 1865, a day after the Confederate capital had fallen to the forces of the United States. He was accompanied by Rear Admiral David D. Porter, a handful of officers, a small escort of sailors, and his son Tad, whose twelfth birthday it was.
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