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 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.