Navy to rename USS Chancellorsville for former slave who commandeered Confederate warship

Goodbye, USS Chancellorsville. Hello, USS Robert Smalls.
Jared Keller Avatar
USS Chancellorsville action
The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville transits the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen M. Votaw)

The Navy will rename the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville for Robert Smalls, a former slave-turned-sailor and statesman known for commandeering a Confederate steamer and delivering it into the hands of the Union during the Civil War, the service said in a statement.

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro announced the new name for the cruiser on Monday, months after the congressionally-mandated ‘Commission on the Naming of Items of the DoD that Commemorate the Confederate States of America or Any Person Who Served Voluntarily with the Confederate States of America’ (or, “the Naming Commission”) recommended renaming the vessel due to the Chancellorsville’s ties to the Confederacy.

Subscribe to Task & Purpose Today. Get the latest military news, entertainment, and gear in your inbox daily.

“The renaming of these assets is not about rewriting history, but to remove the focus on the parts of our history that don’t align with the tenets of this country, and instead allows us to highlight the events and people in history who may have been overlooked,” Del Toro said in a statement. “Robert Smalls is a man who deserves a namesake ship and with this renaming, his story will continue to be retold and highlighted.”

Here’s a capsule history of Small’s heroism, according to the Navy

Robert Smalls (1839-1915) was born into slavery in South Carolina. He became a skilled sailor and was an expert navigator of southern coasts. Smalls was conscripted in 1862 to serve as pilot of the Confederate steamer Planter at Charleston. On 13 May 1862, he executed a daring escape out of the heavily fortified Charleston harbor with his family, other enslaved people, and valuable military cargo onboard, and successfully surrendered Planter to the U.S. Navy. Smalls continued as pilot of the ship, but also piloted ironclad Keokuk and other vessels. He ultimately became captain of Planter. An ardent advocate for African Americans, Smalls led one of the first boycotts of segregated public transportation in 1864. This movement led to the city of Philadelphia integrating streetcars in 1867. After the Civil War, Smalls was appointed a brigadier general of the South Carolina militia, and from 1868 to 1874 he served in the South Carolina legislature. In 1874, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served for five terms, advocating for greater integration. After his time in Congress, Smalls was twice appointed collector of the Port of Beaufort, South Carolina.  He died at Beaufort in 1915. 

The push to rename the Chancellorsville came amid renewed debate in recent years over U.S. military bases and other installations that bear the names of Confederate officers. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin officially approved the implementation of the final recommendations of the Naming Commission to alter the names of some 1,111 installations and facilities in a memo last October.

The Chancellorsville, commissioned in 1989 and named for an 1863 battle in which the Confederacy emerged victorious, is one of two vessels looking at a new name in the coming years. The other is the oceanographic survey ship USNS Maury, which is named for oceanographer and U.S. Navy-turned-Confederate sailor Matthew Fontaine Maury.

“After reviewing the commissioning ceremony and studying the heraldry made for the ship, the commission decided the cruiser celebrated the Confederacy,” as USNI News noted on Monday.

These installations are “powerful public symbols of our military, and of course, they are the places where our Service members and their families work and live,” Austin wrote at the time. “The names of these installations and facilities should inspire all those who call them home, fully reflect the history and the values of the United States, and commemorate the best of the republic that we are all sworn to protect.”

The Chancellorsville is currently assigned to Carrier Strike Group Five and is forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan. Implementing the Naming Commission’s renaming plan is expected to cost the Defense Department roughly $62.5 million, according to the commission’s final report.

The latest on Task & Purpose

How Green Beret Paris Davis’ teammates fought the Pentagon for his Medal of Honor