The US Navy named one of its Ticonderoga-Class cruisers after a former slave Robert Smalls, who broke away from the shackles of confederate slavery and went on to script history as a war hero in the American Civil War.
The Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Carlos Del Toro announced on February 27 that the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser formerly USS Chancellorsville (CG 62) will now be rechristened USS Robert Smalls after a name derived from a Confederate Civil War victory.
The Ticonderoga class is a class of guided-missile cruisers in service with the US Navy that the service has been contemplating retiring to shore up finances for other resources.
The service decided on a congressionally mandated Naming Commission that, in 2022, listed numerous military assets from all branches of service that needed to be renamed due to their Confederacy heritage.
The US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, granted each service until the end of 2023 to rename their assets.
The commission entrusted with purging Confederate names shortlisted two ships last year, one of which was Chancellorsville. The cruiser was initially named after a Rebel victory over the Army of Northern Virginia in 1863 under the command of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
The commission concluded that the cruiser celebrated the Confederacy after reviewing the commissioning ceremony and looking at the insignia created for the ship.
The Navy did not give a schedule for formally renaming the ship, which is currently deployed in Japan and is expected to be decommissioned from service in 2026. However, renaming this vessel after a former slave who is now a celebrated figure in the annals of American history is significant.
Robert Smalls, a former slave conscripted into Confederate service in 1862, was a very skilled navigator who managed to pull off an escape that changed his life and paved the way for him to sit in the US House of Representatives as an esteemed lawmaker.
Robert Smalls: A Slave Who Sailed To Liberation
In the 1800s, what is today the mighty United States of America was split into northern and southern states that remained at odds with one another over several moral rights and policies and eventually fought the bloodiest conflict in the history of the entire North American region.
In the latter half of the century, in 1861, a civil war began between the northern ‘federation’ or ‘union’ states that opposed slavery at the time and the ‘confederation’ of southern states that supported and wanted to expand slavery. It lasted for four years, till 1865, and ended with the North’s victory.
A decade before the war broke out, a slave of the Confederate named Robert Smalls was transported by his enslaver to Charleston in South Carolina in 1851, where he was made to work odd jobs such as a waiter in a hotel, a hack driver, and a rigger.
When the Civil War began in 1861, he was made to work on board the steamer vessel CSS Planter, which served as an armed transport and dispatch vessel and transported weapons and ammunition for the Confederate army. During their first year on the ship, he became a skilled navigator.
On May 13, 1862, just before dawn and in the absence of the white captain and his two mates, Robert Smalls and a crew of fellow slaves snuck a cotton steamer off the dock, gathered up family members at a rendezvous spot, and then slowly navigated their way through the port.
At two Confederate checkpoints and other defense positions, Smalls, who also sailed the ship, answered with the appropriate coded signals while dressing in the captain’s wide-brimmed straw hat to assist in concealing his face. Smalls entered the open sea after receiving clearance.
Once outside of Confederate seas, he ordered his men to raise a white flag and turned the ship, its cargo of weapons, and several important documents over to a Union naval squadron that was blockading the city.
He freed his wife, children, and other people on board, managed to get past Confederate checkpoints, and then Smalls and the other passengers on the Planter were liberated, and he rose to fame as a war hero throughout the North.
In 1863, he commanded the ironclad USS Keokuk, which suffered numerous blows and was ultimately sunk while the Union bombarded Fort Sumter.
Later that year, as a reward for his bravery, Smalls was given command of the USS Planter, making him the first African-American captain in the US Navy. Throughout the Civil War, he participated in several conflicts and became a celebrated war hero of the United States.
Smalls transitioned into business after the war and later rapidly advanced in politics. He served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1868 to 1870 and the state Senate from 1870 to 1874. He served five terms in the US House.
From being a black slave to a free man, Smalls scripted history and became the first-ever Black captain of a vessel in US service. The US Navy’s decision to name a Tinconderoga-class vessel after Smalls is a tribute to his struggle and bravery.