Steering to Freedom
Steering to Freedom
by Patrick Gabridge
Publication Date: May 11, 2015
Publisher: Penmore Press
Formats: eBook, Paperback
Genre: Historical Fiction
A troubled country, a courageous heart, and the struggle for freedom. In May 1862, Robert Smalls, a slave and ship’s pilot in Charleston, South Carolina, crafts a daring plan to steal the steamship Planter and deliver it, along with, the crew and their families to the Union blockade. After risking his life to escape slavery, Robert faces an even more difficult challenge: convincing Abraham Lincoln to enlist black troops. Based on a true story, Steering to Freedom tells the powerful and inspirational story of a young man who becomes the first black captain of a US military ship, while struggling to navigate a path to freedom for himself, his family, and his people.
“Steering to Freedom sweeps back the curtain on an extraordinary story of heroism and sacrifice. Escape is only the beginning. Robert Smalls doesn’t just save himself: he brings out his family, his friends and his mates — and then he goes back, fighting not just the navies of the South but the deep-rooted prejudices and ignorance of the North. With a sure touch for historical detail and a mastery of the human condition, Patrick Gabridge brilliantly evokes the spirit of a time, a country in struggle, and the heart of a man at its center”.— Mike Cooper, author of Clawback and Full Ratchet.
“In Patrick Gabridge’s meticulously crafted new novel Steering to Freedom, we’re treated to the gripping true tale of Captain Robert Smalls, a South Carolina slave who, after seizing his freedom, risked his life in a series of nautical adventures to win freedom for all of his enchained brothers and sisters. This powerful and inspirational story is skillfully and dramatically rendered by a writer who not only knows how to steer a good story, but who does so without losing sight of the heart-breaking humanity of his players.” — Mark Dunn, author of Ella Minnow Pea and Under the Harrow.
“Engaging characters and captivating storytelling make this inspiring historical adventure a must-read. For readers who enjoy seeing history through the lens of imagination. ” — Sophie Littlefield, author A Bad Day for Sorry and A Garden for Stones.
“Steering to Freedom brings to life the extraordinary true story of Captain Robert Smalls, an important figure in American Civil War history who should not be overlooked.
This is an inspiring story of a hero: a slave who steals a steamship and navigates treacherous waters to lead his crew and their families to freedom. Yet in the hands of novelist Patrick Gabridge, Robert Smalls is entirely human, real, and relatable. Gabridge shows us a man whose highest ambitions are fueled by the important personal relationships in his life, especially his wife and children. With its cinematic scope, action-packed adventure, historical detail and emotional heft, Steering to Freedom will appeal to many audiences. ” — Diana Renn author of Blue Voyage, and Latitude Zero.
“Patrick Gabridge’s Steering to Freedom is a swashbuckling, page-turning epic set against the immaculately detailed backdrop of Charleston Harbor during the Civil War. Robert Smalls, a brilliant, resourceful slave, makes a daring and audacious bid for freedom. The story, based on actual events, reads with the freshness of fiction and the authenticity of truth. The characters from every walk of life earn your respect and then your admiration and finally your love. Patrick Gabridge has given us a whole new lens on the Civil War by bringing a previously unknown chapter to vivid, deeply moving, unforgettable life. — Laura Harrington, award winning author of Alice Bliss and selected for Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” program, and as an Entertainment Weekly “Best Reads of the Summer,” and a Publishers Weekly First Fiction title.
In Steering to Freedom, Patrick Gabridge has intertwined history with a meticulous and moving narrative of Robert Smalls—Confederate steamboat pilot, family man, and slave—whose daring vision to claim freedom against all odds will grab the reader from the first page. —Jessica Maria Tuccelli, author of Glow.
Chapter One April 30, 1862
Robert kept a tight grip on the wheel of the Planter. With the tide rising, she wanted to wriggle and twist in the current sweeping through Hog Island Channel. General Ripley was standing on the deck of the Confederate steamer, and the last thing Robert wanted was to nudge the Planter into the sand bar off Shutes Folly Island and fling the general into Charleston Harbor. Slaves didn’t get second chances after mistakes like that, even those with precious navigation skills like Robert.
Officers and various hangers on lined the deck of the transport, all grateful to have been permitted aboard the general’s flagship. With her tight teak decks, polished brass fittings, and double paddle wheels, Robert thought she was the finest ship in all of Charleston. Even though she was a hundred and fifty feet long, she was almost as fast as a racehorse. Robert had heard one lieutenant complain that it was a shame to see the General floated about the harbor in a converted cotton boat. Maybe the lieutenant didn’t understand the importance of a ship that could haul a thousand bales of cotton, or a hundred men and guns, and still not get caught up in the muck of the twisting channels in these parts.
Captain Relyea stood down on the deck beside General Ripley, and from his inflated chest and proud lift to his chin, it was clear that he was plenty proud of his vessel. Every once in a while, Robert would see him run a slow eye back around the ship, checking on each of the black crew members, making sure nothing was even slightly out of order. But Chisholm and Turno knew better than to risk the captain’s wrath, which he would be happy to unleash upon them in the person of First Officer Smith, a man for whom the whip seemed made to fit in his hand. Even Johnny, slow and hulking as he was, knew he needed to be his most perfect self whenever the general was on board.
Right now, Smith stood a few steps behind Captain Relyea, balanced on the rail, hanging onto a guy wire to the signal mast, looking out with the rest of the crowd at the flotilla of skiffs, longboats, and small steamers arranged across the width of the channel, all trying to keep steady in the turbulent water. A fresh spring breeze out of the south broke the surface into chop, bringing in the scent of the marshes on Morris Island. The palmetto trees lining the shore of Hog Island swayed in the morning sun like gentle dancers. It would have been moment of grand serenity, if they weren’t loading so much destructive force into the water.
For the past week, they’d been pounding piles and logs down into the shallow seabed around the channel. Now the sailors on the longboats were stringing floating torpedoes across the deepest part of the channel. A munitions sergeant directed a crew of black slave laborers as they carefully slid a string of barrels into the water. Each was so heavy with gunpowder that it took two men to handle it. Pointed cones on each end kept them from rolling in the water, and contact switches stuck out of the side of the barrels. Once an invading ship pressed against the switch: kaboom!
Chisholm climbed up the ladder and joined Robert in the pilothouse, digging into the pockets of his mismatched uniform, searching for his pipe. He was brown as a cocoanut with tiny black freckles across his cheeks and big bushy hair, which seemed out of proportion to his skinny body.
“What you doing up here?” Robert asked.
“Worried you might be lonely. Plus I wants to see better—all them army officers is blocking the view, not to mention Smith’s big fat head.” Chisholm lit his pipe and took a puff.
“He catch you up here loafing, he give you some new stripes,” Robert warned, knowing that Smith would be happy to give some to him, too.
“We ain’t doin’ nothing besides watching. Look at Billy out there with those torpedoes. I thought you were gonna get him on the Planter with us.”
“Maybe once you get whupped and tossed overboard, we’ll have an open spot for him,” Robert countered.
Their friend Billy was out on the skiffs, loading. Robert could always count on Billy to connect him with sailors on incoming blockade runners who might have a little something for a side trade, some lace or some tea. Billy was dark and strong, with an easy smile.
Down below, General Ripley paced impatiently. He was like a larger version of Captain Relyea—bigger belly, bigger beard, bigger ego. “We’ll be here all day if they keep moving at this pace,” he complained loudly. “By the time they finish, the Union scouts will already be having dinner at the Mills House Hotel.”
Apparently, the general’s complaints carried quite well across the water, and Robert heard the sergeant bark at the laborers. Billy and his partner pulled another banded barrel over the side into the water and attached the stone weight that would keep it floating just below the surface. With the Hog Island Channel blocked, the Union would be forced to use the main shipping channel for any attack on the heart of the Confederacy, and the main channel was defended by half a dozen heavily armed forts, including Fort Sumter.
“Ain’t nobody coming through Hog Island Channel ‘less they wants to put on a fireworks show for all of Charleston,” Chisolm said.
The scent of the air changed subtly, losing the flavor of marsh, and Robert could feel the wind shifting to come from the northeast, maybe bringing a storm. He felt the Planter take a step back, and he rang the bell to tell Alfred in the engine room to increase power just a notch.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Three huge explosions rocked the Planter back on her haunches, as one of the laborers grounded a torpedo switch on the gunwale of his boat. A tower of water, wood, and bloody bits of men rose into the sky and splattered back down on the ships and boats all around. The men on the Planter lay flat on the deck, holding their collective breaths, waiting to see if the rest of the torpedoes would detonate, too.
Robert hung onto the wheel and straightened out the Planter, wondering what would happen next. Out in the channel, Billy’s longboat had been completely pulverized, and the two nearest boats were in broken chunks, grasped by bleeding, sputtering men.
General Ripley and his entourage slowly stood, brushing themselves off. A detached brown hand twitched on the deck not far from Captain Relyea, who unceremoniously picked it up and tossed it overboard.
“Get a diver into the water and get that line reattached,” commended General Ripley. “And find some Negroes who are considerably less clumsy to launch the rest of the torpedoes. We just lost a valuable sergeant out there. Competence! War is won by boldness and competence. Let me see plenty of both. Now!”
The men scattered to tend to the wounded and reconvene the torpedo party, all while General Ripley and Captain Relyea shook their heads and shared a look that seemed to say, “I am surrounded by idiots.”
Chisholm rose shakily to his feet. “Sometimes I think Hell ain’t nearly as far away as it supposed to be.”
Robert smacked him on the shoulder. “Get down there now, or else Smith is gonna make
you wish you was in Hell. Go make yourself look like you’s useful.” “But Billy—”
“Billy gone. And if you don’t get down there, they might make you take his place on that crew. Go help those officers clean the blood off theyselves. Now.”
Chisholm slid down the ladder to the deck, joining in the swell of activity. Robert watched Smith and Captain Relyea carefully, waiting for orders.
Billy was gone. Eventually, the army would draft a list of the dead, even the slave laborers. The Confederate government would pay damages to their owners, but their women and children would never see a penny. One minute he was there, the next he was nothing but fish food. Sometimes life made no sense at all. Billy and the others blown to bits working for an army that was fighting to hold them as slaves forever. Robert had no idea what he could do about it, but he needed to do something.
Robert leaned forward with the lamp to give Alfred more light as he whacked the mallet against the blunt iron wedge. Without this adjustment to the port engine, the Planter wasn't going anywhere, and that meant more scolding and shouting, and maybe even a beating from Smith. Alfred gave five more thunderous whacks, but the metal key refused to slide into place.
“You gon’ get it,” Robert encouraged. Not many men in all of Charleston were better at fixing steam engines than Alfred, and that included Pitcher, the actual engineer of the ship, who was in his berth sleeping off yet another hangover.
“Come on, you tight little sow,” Alfred growled. Sweat streamed down his face, and his scrubby grey hair glistened in the lamplight.
“No, she's a lady. You gotta sweet talk her.” Robert stroked the side of the boiler lovingly. “Maybe bring her some flowers.”
“I think she like to play rough sometimes,” Alfred countered and gave another sharp whack with the hammer. The wedge slipped into place.
A crash of firewood erupted behind them. “You ain’t done yet? Captain be back soon,” said Turno, as he straightened the pile of wood, just in time to have Johnny, who nearly filled the room with his bulk, dump another load.
A white straw hat flashed in the doorway, and they all snapped to attention before seeing the wiry brown body of Chisholm under it.
“Look what the wind done blew on my head,” he said with a broad smile.
“Th- tha- that's the captain's hat,” Johnny said slowly. Born a little on the slow side, he spent a good chunk of his day confused, and the world was more confusing than ever these days.
“You can call me Captain Chisholm.”
Turno scowled. He was tall and muscled and serious as midnight. “He gon' to take it back and yo' head with it.”
Chisholm took the hat off, spun it around on his hand, and tossed it onto Robert's head. “Perfect fit. Ain't that right, Captain Smalls?”
Robert laid down the lantern and puffed out his chest. He crossed his arms officiously in his best imitation of Captain Relyea, strode to the center of the room, and then boomed out, “Alfred, full speed ahead! Turno, cast off those lines. Smalls, put us on the sand bar again and I'll have you roasted alive.”
The engine room filled with laughter. Alfred leaned his tired body against the boiler, wiping off the grease from his hands on a rag. “Suits you, don't it?”
Chisholm admired Robert, as if in amazement. “Dead ringer for him.”
“Just order us out of the harbor, Captain. Right to the blockade,” said Turno, still chuckling. It wasn't easy to make Turno laugh.
Robert stared out at the imagined horizon with a steely gaze. “Go straight for those Union bastards. Break on through.”
“Straight to freedom,” drawled Johnny, his stutter vanishing.
The laughter died abruptly, smashed flat against a glass wall. They didn't even dare look at each other. Such words weren't meant to be spoken aloud, only whispered in the dark of
The laughter returned, but tinged with the rusty taste of reality.
“Fort Sumter boom!” chimed Turno.
“Fort Wagner boom!” said Alfred.
“Fort Morris boom!” said Chisholm.
“Fort Moultrie boom boom boom!” drawled Johnny, trying to keep up.
“Our little speck a driftwood make good target practice for those Union gunners out
there, huh?” said Turno.“Thanks for the orders, Captain!” said Chisholm.
“You do as you're told!” scolded Robert. “Now swab those decks, stack that wood!”
The hoots rose again, bouncing around the room, until a head popped into the doorway. Robert snatched the hat off his head and cursed himself for being surprised. He didn't have the luxury of surprises.
It was just Alston, the steward boy, fresh and shiny in his uniform. “What you niggers laughin' 'bout?”
“Nothin',” said Turno. “Come on, Johnny. We need more firewood if this hulk gon' to carry General Ripley and his soldiers today.”
With Turno and Johnny's bulk out of the room, it felt practically empty. Alfred shook his head and returned to his work.
“What you doin' with the captain's hat, Robert?” Alston was only fourteen years old and sometimes seemed as innocent as a baby. Robert never knew how much he could trust such a child. Maybe not too much.
“I was just looking for you, so you can give it to him.” Robert handed the hat to the boy, who inspected it for damage or stains.
“Good thing you found it, otherwise I get a beatin'.”
“Well, we don't want that. You run off and put it where it belongs.”
As Alston scampered up the stairs towards the captain's cabin, Robert wondered what the other men had thought of him when he first started as a deckhand. Never figured he'd pilot a ship by the time he got to twenty-three.
What came next?
He caught himself. What came next? Slaves weren't supposed to think that way. The future was for white men to worry about.
“Robert. A little more light, huh?” Alfred was tightening bolts on the pillow block, the great chunk of metal that bore the shaft. Robert raised the lantern higher again.
“Think you can fix it?” Robert asked.
“Yeah, I can fix it.” The lines on Alfred’s face deepened. “How 'bout you? What can you do?”
Their eyes met and held, and Robert wondered if they were both looking for the same answer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick Gabridge is an award-winning playwright, novelist, and screenwriter. His full-length plays include Flight, Distant Neighbors, Lab Rats, Constant State of Panic, and Blinders, and have been staged by theaters across the country. His passion for history extends to the stage, and his historical plays include work about the creation of the English Bible (Fire on Earth), the astronomers Kepler and Tycho (Reading the Mind of God), a volcanic eruption on Martinique (The Prisoner of St. Pierre), 19th century Boston publisher Daniel Sharp Ford (None But the Best), and the 1770 Boston Massacre (Blood on the Snow).
Patrick has been a Playwriting Fellow with the Huntington Theatre Company and with New Repertory. Recent commissions include plays and musicals for In Good Company, The Bostonian Society, Central Square Theatre, and Tumblehome Learning. His short plays are published by Playscripts, Brooklyn Publishers, Heuer, Smith & Kraus, and YouthPlays, and have received more than a thousand productions from theatres and schools around the world.
His other novels include Tornado Siren and Moving [a life in boxes]. His work for radio has been broadcast by NPR, Shoestring Radio Theatre, Playing on Air, and Icebox Radio Theatre.
Patrick has a habit of starting things: he helped start Boston’s Rhombus writers’ group, the Chameleon Stage theatre company in Denver, the Bare Bones Theatre company in New York, the publication Market InSight… for Playwrights, and the on-line Playwrights’ Submission Binge. He’s also a member of the Dramatists Guild, StageSource, and a board member of the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund. He is currently the co-founder and coordinator of the New England New Play Alliance and is actively involved with the Boston theater scene.
Patrick has received numerous awards for work, including fellowships from the Colorado Council on the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Commission. For more information visit Patrick Gabridge’s website, or on his blog, The Writing Life x3.
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