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The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls

By Janet Halfmann

Illustrated by Duane Smith

Lee & Low Books

Grades 3-7, Nonfiction Chapter Book, softcover

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JANET TAKES YOU INSIDE THE BOOK! Click here for the video.



2021 Bank Street College of Education Best Children's Books of the Year

2020 Cybils Awards Finalist—Elementary Nonfiction 

On Three Booklists of Social Justice Books, Teaching for Change


The Story

This exciting entry in Lee & Low's "Story of" line of chapter-book biographies introduces readers to Robert Smalls, an enslaved steamboat wheelman who commandeered a Confederate boat during the Civil War and escaped with his family, crew, and their families to freedom.


Growing up enslaved in South Carolina, Robert Smalls always dreamed of the moment freedom would be within his grasp. Now that moment was here.


Robert stood proudly at the Planter's wheel. Only seven miles of water lay between the ship and the chance of freedom in Union territory. With precision and amazing courage, he navigated past the Confederate forts in the harbor and steered the ship toward the safety of the Union fleet. Just one miscalculation would be deadly, but for Robert, his family, and his crewmates, the risk was worth taking. 


The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls is the compelling account of the daring escape of Robert Smalls, an enslaved steamboat wheelman who became one of the Civil War's greatest heroes. His steadfast courage in the face of adversity is an inspiring model for all who attempt to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.


This Chapter Book edition includes black-and-white illustrations as well as sidebars on related subjects, a timeline, a glossary, and recommended reading.

My Inspiration

I was inspired to write the story of Robert Smalls while researching African American achievements during the Civil War. "What a gripping adventure!" I thought, as I read about how Robert Smalls stole a Confederate steamboat right from under the noses of the Confederates and delivered it to the Union Navy. I was sure young readers would be as spellbound by his daring escape to freedom as I was. And at the same time, they would learn the story of an important African American hero seldom found in history books.

Educational Connections

Themes: ​African/African American Interest, Biography/Memoir, Conflict Resolution, Courage, Heroism, History, Nonfiction, Overcoming Obstacles, Persistence/Grit, Slavery, United States History, War

Publisher Lee & Low's page about The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls

Review by 11-year-old Esther:

"So I have to be honest. I don't usually read many books like this - I mean unless I have to for school. I'm more of a fiction girl. But I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It's actually a great book for everyone because not only does it tell the true story about a pretty amazing man called Robert Smalls (for the story lovers like me,) but it's also packed full of interesting fact pages about the civl war and slave ships in the 1800's (for the kids who love all that history stuff too.) Win, win!" 


Janet's Journey Writing The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls: Writing and Illustrating blog


"The daring escape of Smalls and his crew is exciting and well told, with just enough detail to hold the attention of younger readers who may just be learning about the Civil War. Interspersed throughout the chapters about Smalls's life are sections on slavery, the origins of the Civil War, steamships, and the story of Lear Green, who escaped from slavery by hiding in a steam trunk. Smith's abstract but evocative art enriches the factual details of Small's fascinating and exciting life story. School Library Journal

"The Story of . . . series takes the narrative text from each author's well-regarded picture book on the biographee, incorporates facts previously appended, and inserts five multi-page presentations on related topics, effectively refashioning the original biographies for an older audience. These sections offer well-organized information as well as insights into the social and political challenges faced by the person profiled. Added topics discussed in Civil War Hero Robert Smalls (based on Halfmann's Seven Miles to Freedom, 2008) include slavery, ships in the 1800's, and causes of the Civil War . . . . These well-crafted, insightful biographies provide a useful historical context for each person's story." Booklist


"Author Janet Halfmann first wrote about this impressive unsung hero in her picture book, SEVEN MILES TO FREEDOM: THE RO0BERT SMALLS STORY. At the time very few in the general public knew his name or accomplishments. Published by Lee and Low in 2008, and illustrated by Duane Smith, that book was my introduction to Robert Smalls. Halfmann's dramatic writing swept me along on his remarkable journey to freedom, and back matter revealed the intensity and authenticity of Halfmann's research that enriched the telling with accuracy and detail. 

The same publisher and creative team (Halfmann/Smith) have now released a new book about Robert Smalls. This chapter book format provides expanded details in the biographic narrative and extended history context in each chapter's supplementary pages. This title is a recent addition to the powerful Lee & Low series "'The Story of . . .'" —An Open Book, Sandy Brehl

"History can be so interesting if told correctly, and this book definitely accomplishes that." —Bookworm for Kids

"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." golowd: a blog about teaching and writing

"I am always looking for biographies about previously unheralded people, especially those from marginalized populations. This short biography explains what life was like for African Americans before the Civil War, something that many of my students haven't really studied. The fact that Smalls was able to overcome the strictures put on people of color during this time period is impressive and an important piece of history for children to know."  —Ms. Yingling'Reviews

"The daring escape in The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls is what will likely initially attract readers, but it is the fascinating history that will keep them reading. This book is perfect for unit on the Civil War or for Black History Month." —Wrapped in Foil

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