Captain Robert Smalls

Captain Robert Smalls

USS Chancellorsville Is Renamed In Honor Of Black Ship Pilot Robert Smalls

John Konrad
Total Views: 7105
February 27, 2023

today the US Navy announced it is renaiming a warship to honor Robert Smalls, a skilled ship pilot and statesman born into slavery in South Carolina. The ship that will be taking his name is the USS Chancellorsvill, a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser in service in the United States Navy. She is named for the Battle of Chancellorsville of the Civil War, which was a victory for the Confederate States Army. 

Black ship pilots have a rich and fascinating history in America. During the colonial era, many enslaved Africans and their descendants were skilled in navigating the waterways along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, and their knowledge was highly sought after by European traders and ship captains. Despite the limitations placed on their freedom and opportunities, black pilots played a vital role in American maritime commerce, guiding ships through treacherous waters and helping to establish important trading routes. In the years leading up to the Civil War, some black pilots even used their knowledge and expertise to help enslaved people escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Following Emancipation, black pilots continued to make significant contributions to the American maritime industry, serving as captains and pilots on both civilian and military vessels. Today, the legacy of black ship pilots lives on as a testament to the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and resilience of African Americans in the face of oppression and adversity.

One of the most accomplished black pilots of the era was Captain Robert Smalls. Not only did he excel in his role as a pilot, but he also went on to serve as a brigadier general in the South Carolina militia and was elected to the United States Congress.

The decision to name a warship after Smalls arrived after a congressionally mandated Naming Commission outlined several military assets across all branches of service that required renaming due to confederate ties. In September 2022, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin accepted all recommendations from the naming commission and gave each service until the end of 2023 to rename their assets.  

“I am proud to rename CG 62 after Robert Smalls. He was an extraordinary American and I had the pleasure of learning more about him last year when I visited his home in South Carolina,” said Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro. “The renaming of these assets is not about rewriting history, but to remove the focus on the parts of our history that don’t align with the tenets of this country, and instead allows us to highlight the events and people in history who may have been overlooked. Robert Smalls is a man who deserves a namesake ship and with this renaming, his story will continue to be retold and highlighted.”

A Salor and Patriot

Robert Smalls (1839-1915) was born into slavery in South Carolina. He became a skilled sailor and was an expert navigator of southern coasts. Smalls was conscripted in 1862 to serve as pilot of the Confederate steamer Planter at Charleston. On 13 May 1862, he executed a daring escape out of the heavily fortified Charleston harbor with his family, other enslaved people, and valuable military cargo onboard, and successfully surrendered Planter to the U.S. Navy.

Smalls continued as pilot of the ship, but also piloted ironclad Keokuk and other vessels. He ultimately became captain of Planter. An ardent advocate for African Americans, Smalls led one of the first boycotts of segregated public transportation in 1864. This movement led to the city of Philadelphia integrating streetcars in 1867. After the Civil War, Smalls was appointed a brigadier general of the South Carolina militia, and from 1868 to 1874 he served in the South Carolina legislature. In 1874, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served for five terms, advocating for greater integration. After his time in Congress, Smalls was twice appointed collector of the Port of Beaufort, South Carolina.  He died at Beaufort in 1915. 

The logistical aspects associated with renaming the ship will begin henceforth and will continue until completion with minimal impact on operations and the crew. CG-62 was commissioned in 1989 and named USS Chancellorsville (CG 62) to honor the Battle of Chancellorsville, a Confederate victory during the Civil War. CG-62 is currently assigned to Carrier Strike Group Five and is forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan.  

Those interest in learning more about the vital role black American ship pilots and captains have played in the rich maritime history of the United States are encouraged to reach out t the Organization of Black Maritime Graduates (OBMG), a non-profit organization dedicated to the encouragement, advancement and history of minorities in the maritime and engineering professions.

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