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A Navy ship named for a Confederate victory now honors a Black Union hero

The USS Chancellorsville has been renamed the USS Robert Smalls, to honor the enslaved man who stole a Confederate battleship in the Civil War and delivered to the Union forces, loaded with weapons. The USS Robert Smalls is shown here off the Japanese island of Iwo To, on its way to honor the fallen service members of the World War II battle of Iwo Jima.
Navy Media Content Services
The USS Chancellorsville has been renamed the USS Robert Smalls, to honor the enslaved man who stole a Confederate battleship in the Civil War and delivered to the Union forces, loaded with weapons. The USS Robert Smalls is shown here off the Japanese island of Iwo To, on its way to honor the fallen service members of the World War II battle of Iwo Jima.

The U.S. Navy has finally shed the last two ship names that honored the Confederacy — and renamed one of them in honor of a man whose life story reads like an action movie hero.

The USS Chancellorsville is now called the USS Robert Smalls, the man who stole a Confederate steamer loaded with guns and delivered it to the Union Navy, delivering himself and 16 other crew and their families from slavery.

"It is a move much more consistent with the Navy's values," said Capt. Edward Angelinas, who commands the ship. "Going from a Confederate victory to this incredible story of a former slave, who commandeered a Confederate ship and turned it over to the Union Navy."

Rebel generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson won a decisive victory over the U.S. military at Chancellorsville, Va., in 1863. As recently as 1989 the U.S. Navy saw fit to name a warship for that battle. Just seven years ago there was still a portrait of Lee and Jackson displayed in the ship's wardroom.

The U.S. military is in the process of renaming all the bases and warships that honor the Confederacy, including civil war generals who enslaved people and fought against the U.S. military. The newly christened USS Robert Smalls may be the most direct repudiation of that legacy.

Robert Smalls, a Civil War hero who escaped from slavery in 1862. Smalls was the first Black man to command a U.S. Naval vessel, and later served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
/ Ullstein bild via Getty Images
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Ullstein bild via Getty Images
Robert Smalls, a Civil War hero who escaped from slavery in 1862. Smalls was the first Black man to command a U.S. Naval vessel, and later served in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Born into slavery in Beaufort, S.C., Robert Smalls was already such a skilled mariner by his 20s that his enslaver rented him out as a pilot in Charleston harbor.

In May 1862, that meant ferrying munitions on a 150 foot side-wheel steamer called the Planter. The white officers on board trusted Smalls so much, or were so blinded to his capabilities, that they often left the ship to go home to their families at night. But Smalls was thinking about his own family.

"He was married, he had two children, among them my great-grandmother Elizabeth," said Michael Moore, and South Carolina businessman.

"He knew in slavery that his family could be separated from him in an instant. To make a long story short, he knew that there was a (Union Navy) blockade just outside the mouth of Charleston River," said Moore.

On May 12, Smalls enlisted the rest of the enslaved crew and sailed away. They made an audacious stop to collect their families, and then one more ruse de guerre — he disguised himself as the captain.

"He donned a straw hat and long sort of top coat that the Confederate captain wore, and in the middle of night and at distance, he rang the various pass-codes to be allowed to pass by about five forts in Charleston Harbor and sailed passed them all into freedom," said Moore.

The risk was absolute. Smalls and probably the entire crew would have been made gory examples if they'd been caught.

"They would've been killed in a very public way to deter other enslaved African Americans from trying such a heist," said Robin Moore, also a great-great grandchild.

Smalls and his shipmates knew it was freedom or death. Some accounts say they rigged the boat with explosives in case they were caught.

Once they slipped past Confederate lines, the danger wasn't over. Seeing a Southern ship heading directly at them, the Union sailors prepared their cannons. The dawn's early light revealed a white flag just in time, sewn by Smalls' wife from bedsheets.

Smalls handed over an entire steamship loaded with Confederate guns.

"Robert got a reward for delivering the boat to the United States. And he actually could have lived a very comfortable, happy life, perhaps up in the north where he was received as a real hero," said Michael Moore.

Michael Moore takes a selfie with a statue of his great-great-grandfather, the Union Navy hero Robert Smalls.
/ Michael Moore
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Michael Moore
Michael Moore takes a selfie with a statue of his great-great-grandfather, the Union Navy hero Robert Smalls.

Instead, Smalls returned to war. He first piloted the same ship he'd taken from the Confederates, and later took command of a Union ship under fire in an attack on Charleston, becoming the first African American to command a U.S. Navy vessel.

After the war he kept serving — in the South Carolina legislature and then the U.S. House of Representatives. He promoted equality and public education, and made sure his own children were educated, said Robin Moore.

"His commitment to education was passed along to his daughter Elizabeth, who was that four-year old on that ship. All of Elizabeth's children went to college," she said.

His list of accomplishments is almost unbelievable. On a Philadelphia streetcar he was asked to give up his seat to a white man. He started a boycott that led to integration. He served as brigadier general in the South Carolina militia. He bought his former enslaver's house. And he started a school, published a newspaper and founded a railroad.

Suffice to say, there's plenty for the sailors aboard the USS Robert Smalls to take pride in today, said Capt. Angelinas. He spoke with NPR while sailing off the coast of Japan. The first time he walked aboard and was announced as the captain of the USS Robert Smalls, the crew started cheering.

"They certainly weren't cheering for me or my arrival. They were cheering for the namesake. And that's the first time I've seen that in three command tours and 27 years in the Navy," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Quil Lawrence
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.