Under the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress established the Naming Commission to rename bases like Fort Bragg that honored the Confederacy. The USS Chancellorsville (CG-62), a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser named for a Civil War battle that resulted in a Confederate victory, was identified by the commission to be renamed. On February 27, 2023, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced that the ship would be renamed for Robert Smalls.
Smalls was born into slavery in the Lowcountry of South Carolina and became a wheelman in Charleston Harbor. During the Civil War, he was assigned to pilot the CSS Planter, a Confederate gunboat. On May 12, 1862, Smalls and the other enslaved crewmen stole the ship and used it to escape slavery with their families. With his knowledge of southern waterways, Smalls served the Union Navy and Army as a civilian boat pilot and armed transport captain. He went on to serve in the South Carolina state legislature and U.S. Congress.
While there is no question of Smalls' bravery and service to the Navy and nation, the renaming of the Chancellorsville in his honor breaks naval convention. All but one of the Ticonderoga-class cruisers are named after battles or notable events in American military history. Only the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), named for the Secretary of Defense in the later years of the Eisenhower Administration, was named after a person. Instead, the Navy generally names destroyers after naval heroes.
There were plenty of notable battles that the Navy could have honored in renaming the Chancellorsville. Doris Miller, the Black messman who fought back during the attack on Pearl Harbor, continued to serve on warships throughout WWII and was killed in action during the Gilbert Islands campaign. During the Guadalcanal campaign, another Black mess attendant named Charles Jackson French distinguished himself when his ship was sunk. French and other sailors were aboard a life raft that was drifting towards a Japanese-held island. French towed the raft, swimming for hours through shark-infested waters, out to sea until the survivors were spotted and rescued. Among other battles and events, a USS Gilbert Islands or Guadalcanal would have honored these sailors and maintained the naming convention.
Feature Image: U.S. Navy