The U.S. Navy recently announced that it would rename a guided-missile cruiser after a former slave, Robert Smalls. Born into slavery in Beaufort South Carolina in 1839, Robert Smalls was a maritime prodigy, who became a Civil War hero and later served as a congressman for South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The U.S. Navy originally named this missile cruiser after the Battle of Chancellorsville during the Civil War. The Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863) was a massive victory for the Confederacy over the Union Army. It became known as General Robert E. Lee’s “perfect battle” because of his risky decision to divide his army in the presence of a much larger Union force. In fact, only seven years ago, a portrait of General Lee was still displayed in the ship’s wardroom.
Renaming our nation’s military bases and warships that honor the Confederacy and their leaders is long overdue. We must never forget our history. We must not, however, celebrate or honor the racist ideals and the individuals who fought to preserve a brutal capitalist system built upon the backs of enslaved people and their free labor. These symbols of the Confederacy and its racism, slavery, and oppression are divisive and offensive. Honoring the leaders and symbols of the Confederacy is disrespectful, shameful, and inconsistent with the values of our military and the country.
Renaming our nation’s military bases and warships that honor the Confederacy and their leaders is long overdue. We must never forget our history. We must not, however, celebrate or honor the racist ideals and the individuals who fought to preserve a brutal capitalist system built upon the backs of enslaved people and their free labor.
Plans for changing the names of our military bases have been talked about for decades but intensified in the wake of the 2020 protests over the police murder of George Floyd. Today, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the first African American to serve in that position, is working to approve additional name changes and move the process forward.
The decision to rename the USS Chancellorsville in Smalls’ honor is a fitting tribute to Robert Smalls’ legacy. At 12 years of age, Robert Smalls worked in Charleston, where he stood out as a superior sailor. In 1862, at 23, Smalls made history when he commandeered a Confederate transport ship, the CSS Planter, and sailed it through the Confederate blockade to deliver the ship and its valuable cargo to the Union Navy. This daring bravery made Smalls a hero and helped turn the tide of the Civil War.
After the war, Smalls continued to be a prominent figure in American politics. He was elected to the South Carolina State Legislature and later served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Throughout his career, Smalls fought tirelessly for equality and access to public education. His accomplishments included serving as brigadier general in the South Carolina militia, founding a railroad, starting a school, publishing a newspaper, and purchasing his former enslaver’s house.
The decision to rename the USS Chancellorsville to the USS Robert Smalls is an essential step towards creating a more inclusive and diverse military that honors the contributions of all Americans. Before he died in 1915, Robert Smalls witnessed slavery, emancipation, and the right of African American men to vote and serve in the U.S. government. As the South worked to recreate slavery through Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, Robert Smalls remained optimistic. Addressing the South Carolina legislature, he said, “My race needs no special defense, for their history in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”