Navy Renaming USS Chancellorsville to Honor Union Army Hero, Statesman Who Was Born into Slavery

Ticonderoga-class guided missile USS Chancellorsville.
Sailors stand in formation on the flight deck of the Ticonderoga-class guided missile USS Chancellorsville in celebration of the ship's 30th birthday. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jeremy Graham)

The Navy's top civilian leader announced that he will rename the guided missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville after a commission called for a new name last spring.

The cruiser is named after the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, which, despite heavy casualties, is considered Gen. Robert E. Lee's greatest victory in the war. The battle also led to the wounding of Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, who was shot by his own men after being mistaken for Union cavalry. He died a week after the battle.

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro announced that he would name the ship after Robert Smalls, a former slave who was conscripted into Confederate service in 1862, stole a Confederate steamer ship and escaped from Charleston, then turned the ship over to the Union Navy. Smalls would go on to be appointed a brigadier general of the South Carolina militia and serve in the South Carolina legislature, as well as the U.S. House of Representatives for five terms.

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"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," Del Toro said in a press release Monday.

"Robert Smalls is a man who deserves a namesake ship and, with this renaming, his story will continue to be retold and highlighted," he added.

While all the Navy's Ticonderoga-class cruisers are named after major battles, including others from the Civil War, the Chancellorsville is the only ship named after a Confederate victory.

The ship's crest glorifies the Confederacy, as well. Before it was removed from the cruiser's webpage, a description noted that "the predominant gray refers to General Robert E. Lee's spectacular military strategies and his dominance in this battle." The crest also features the motto "Press on" -- a rallying cry Jackson used while routing Union troops in the battle.

Navy journalist Chris Cavas reported that the ship's wardroom featured a large painting of Lee and Jackson until at least 2016. USNI News reported in 2022 that the painting had since been removed.

The choice to rename the ship struck some in the Navy community as a curious move since the cruiser is set to be decommissioned in 2026.

Bryan McGrath, a retired naval officer and now managing director of The FerryBridge Group, noted in a tweet Tuesday that he "would have preferred leaving the ship with its current name for the short life it has remaining, while naming the next name-able FLIGHT III Destroyer after Robert Smalls so that his name might be in the fleet for decades."

Some civil rights groups, which have called for the removal of Confederate names, holidays, flags, statues, and symbols nationwide, praised the move.

"We are pleased to see the Navy rename this ship after a hero who risked his life for our nation instead of for a victory by those who betrayed it in defense of slavery and white supremacy," the national spokesman for The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Ibrahim Hooper, said in an emailed statement.

The congressionally ordered Naming Commission, which was headed by history-making retired Adm. Michelle Howard, recommended changing the names of around 750 assets across the military, including signs, streets, memorials and bases, when it released its report in March 2022.

The commission also suggested the Navy rename the oceanographic survey ship USNS Maury, which honors Confederate naval officer Matthew Maury, considered the father of the science of oceanography.

The U.S. Naval Academy renamed its engineering building last week -- previously named Maury Hall after the same officer -- to Carter Hall after former lieutenant and Class of 1947 alumnus President Jimmy Carter.

The Navy, in its statement, said that the logistical aspects associated with renaming the ship will begin "henceforth and will continue until completion with minimal impact on operations and the crew."

The ship is currently based out of Yokosuka, Japan.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Naval Academy Honors President Jimmy Carter, Drops Confederate Name from Building

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