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Stripping Confederate ties, U.S. Navy renames two vessels

Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville, set to be renamed the USS Robert Smalls, pauses to honor fallen service members from the Battle of Iwo Jima while underway off the island of Iwo To, formerly known as Iwo Jima, on Sept. 29, 2015.  (Paolo Bayas/U.S. Navy)
By Emily Schmall New York Times

One night in 1862, as the Civil War raged, an enslaved mariner named Robert Smalls seized an opportunity.

When the enlisted crew of a Confederate steamer disembarked for a night of carousing in Charleston, South Carolina, Smalls, the ship’s pilot, gathered his family and the other enslaved sailors and their families. He then steered the ship for a dramatic escape past heavy fortifications to Union-controlled waters and freedom.

Disguised in a top hat and a Confederate captain’s long overcoat, Smalls gave the passcodes at each of five Confederate forts and, once past the reach of cannon fire, hoisted a white flag of sewn-together bedsheets that his wife, Hannah, had made – delivering the ship to Union forces.

Smalls and the crew had lined the bottom of the boat with dynamite to detonate rather than be recaptured and face execution.

Now, Smalls will be immortalized on a U.S. Navy warship named after him, as will Marie Tharp, a pioneering ocean geologist. Both are receiving broader recognition under a Pentagon program to rid military installations and other property of Confederate ties.

The Naming Commission, a committee created by Congress in response to a public backlash against Confederate memorials in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, identified two ships to be rechristened in the Navy’s fleet.

One, a warship deployed in the waters off Japan, called the USS Chancellorsville after the Confederate Civil War victory in Virginia, will be renamed the USS Robert Smalls.

The other, a Pathfinder-class oceanographic survey ship called the USNS Maury, was named after Matthew Fontaine Maury, a U.S. Navy commander who resigned in 1861 to join the Confederate Navy during the Civil War and who is known as “Pathfinder of the Seas” for his work charting the global paths of ocean currents. It will be rechristened the USNS Marie Tharp, after the ocean cartographer who helped document the phenomenon of continental drift.

When the Naming Commission informed the Navy that it would have four assets to rename – two buildings at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and two ships – dozens of suggestions flooded Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro’s office, said Tralene Hunston, a civilian employee in the public affairs office.

The Navy is planning namesake ceremonies that do not disrupt operations of either ship, Hunston said.

The ships were renamed after two people who “have historically been overlooked, but leveled significant impact on not just our Navy, but also the nation,” Del Toro said in emailed comments to The New York Times.

“It’s a wonderful honor for my family and for Robert’s legacy,” said Michael Moore, Smalls’ great-great-grandson and a businessman in Charleston. “I think it’s an appropriate elevation of a true American hero.”

Smalls was born to an enslaved woman, Lydia Polite, in 1839, on a plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina.

As part of the Gullah community, made up of descendants of West African enslaved people, he grew up on the water, learning to fish, build and sail a boat at a young age, Moore said.

He was working as an enslaved pilot of a steamer ship when war was declared. After his daring escape, he fought for the Union, becoming the first Black American to command a Navy vessel. After the war, he represented South Carolina in Congress, owned a newspaper and founded a railroad.

“At a time in which there was so much that needed to be done in America, he rolled up his sleeves and stepped in and made an enormous difference. He led a life of extraordinary consequence,” said Moore, who said he is planning to run for his relative’s congressional seat.

Tharp was pioneering in her field, creating the first scientific maps of the Atlantic Ocean’s floor and helping to shape the U.S. military’s understanding of plate tectonics and continental drift, with some of her research funded by the Navy.

Born in 1920, Tharp took advantage of a change in university admissions allowing women to enroll during World War II to receive an education that until then had been restricted to men. Tharp and a colleague studied sonar data taken from the research vessel of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Atlantis, to create highly detailed seafloor profiles and maps.

Tharp noticed a cleft in the ocean floor that she hypothesized to be a rift valley that ran along the ridge crest and continued along the length of its axis, which she posited (and was later proven) to be evidence of continental drift.

“I had a blank canvas to fill with extraordinary possibilities, a fascinating jigsaw puzzle to piece together: mapping the world’s vast hidden seafloor,” Tharp wrote in a book about the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, where she once worked. “It was a once-in-the-history-of-the-world opportunity for anyone, but especially for a woman in the 1940s.”

The significance of her contributions would become evident as research in her field continued over the decades, others said.

“For most of her working career, her contributions weren’t really celebrated. Her intellectual contributions were discounted,” said Maureen Raymo, dean of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, even though her “evidence of sea floor spreading was probably the biggest scientific revolution of the 20th century, certainly in earth sciences.”

The vessels’ renaming is part of a broader Pentagon project to grapple with a legacy that for more than a century has paid homage to Confederate victories and leaders.

Naming Army bases and other military property, and erecting monuments and memorials, to honor the Confederacy was part of a campaign by the children of Confederate soldiers “to re-imagine their fathers as not the villains of a treasonous war for slavery but instead for the Southern way of life,” said Michel Paradis, a lecturer at Columbia University.

President Woodrow Wilson, an ardent segregationist, saw granting the requests to honor Confederate soldiers as a good way to rally support among his Southern base during a draft for World War I, Paradis said.

In the protests that broke out across the U.S. after Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020, demonstrators took down dozens of Confederate memorials and monuments. That summer, Congress voted to expunge from Defense Department assets “names, symbols, displays, monuments and paraphernalia” that commemorate the Confederate States of America. The same legislation established the Naming Commission, which quickly proposed new names for nine Army installations in the South.

In September, it produced a report with recommendations to rename 1,111 places from bases to ships to monuments, according to a committee member, the retired Brig. Gen. Ty Seidule, emeritus history professor at West Point and professor at Hamilton College.

Del Toro said Smalls and Tharp were among people whose work was worthy of historical recognition.

“Last year, I visited Robert Smalls’ home and I knew his courageous endeavors in the face of the most harrowing scenarios, for me, made him the right choice for the renaming of the former USS Chancellorsville,” Del Toro said.

“Marie Tharp, as a pioneering oceanographer who had her work dismissed for most of her career, was also the right candidate for the renaming of the former USNS Maury, a ship tasked with continuing her life’s work,” he added.

Many of the Confederate names that remain are attached to Army posts, Seidule said, because the Civil War was largely fought on land.

“When the posts were being named in World War I and World War II, and the South was a one-party apartheid state, they would name them for people in their local community, these Confederate soldiers,” he said.

“It’s not just about getting rid of names. Whom you choose to honor is who you value,” he added. “I would be incredibly proud to serve on the USS Robert Smalls.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.