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, S.C., Mr. 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, Mr. 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.
Mr. Smalls and the crew had lined the bottom of the boat with dynamite to detonate rather than be recaptured and face execution.
Now Mr. Smalls will be immortalized on a U.S. Navy warship named after him, as will that of 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.
ImageRobert Smalls was an enslaved person and pilot of Planter, an ammunitions transport ship of the Confederate Army. In the early morning of May 13, 1862, he commandeered the ship out of Charleston Harbor, S.C., and delivered it to the Union forces.Credit…U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command
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 U.S.S. Chancellorsville after the Confederate Civil War victory in Virginia, will be renamed the U.S.S. Robert Smalls.
The other, a Pathfinder-class oceanographic survey ship called the U.S.N.S. 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. It will be rechristened the U.S.N.S. 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, Md., 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.
More on U.S. Armed Forces
Afghan Withdrawal: The first House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan featured emotional testimony from two American service members who lived through it.Preparing for a Pacific Island Fight: A 10-day mock battle across Southern California gave a new Marine regiment the chance to test war-fighting concepts the Pentagon may one day need in a battle with China.Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: President Biden’s list of candidates to replace Gen. Mark A. Milley in the role appears tо be down to two names: Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., who is the Air Force chief of staff, and the 38th commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David Berger.Military Advisers: American troops are assisting Somali soldiers fighting Al Shabab, a branch of Al Qaeda, in what is the most active front in the “forever wars” that the United States has waged since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Navy is planning namesake ceremonies that do not disrupt operations of either ship, Ms. Hunston said.
The ships were renamed after two people who “have historically been overlooked, but leveled significant impact on not just our Navy, but also the nation,” Mr. Del Toro said in emailed comments to The New York Times.
“It’s a wonderful honor for my family and for Robert’s legacy,” said Michael Moore, Mr. Smalls’s great-great-grandson and a businessman in Charleston, S.C. “I think it’s an appropriate elevation of a true American hero.”
Mr. Smalls was born to an enslaved woman, Lydia Polite, in 1839, on a plantation in Beaufort, S.C. As part of the Gullah community, made up of descendants of West African enslaved people, he grew up on the water, learning to fish, build and sail a boat at a young age, Mr. Moore said.
He was working as an enslaved pilot of a steamer ship when war was declared. After his daring escape, he fought for the Union, becoming the first Black American to command a Navy vessel. After the war, he represented South Carolina in Congress, owned a newspaper and founded a railroad.
“At a time in which there was so much that needed to be done in America, he rolled up his sleeves and stepped in and made an enormous difference. He led a life of extraordinary consequence,” said Mr. Moore, who said he is planning to run for his relative’s congressional seat.
ImageMarie Tharp aboard the U.S.N.S. Kane as it traveled over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in 1968.Credit…AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Gift of Bill Woodward, USNS Kane Collection
The eponymous oceanographer, Ms. Tharp, was pioneering in her field, creating the first scientific maps of the Atlantic Ocean’s floor and helping to shape the U.S. military’s understanding of plate tectonics and continental drift, with some of her research funded by the Navy.
Born in 1920, Ms. Tharp took advantage of a change in university admissions allowing women to enroll during World War II to receive an education that until then had been restricted to men. Ms. Tharp and a colleague studied sonar data taken from the research vessel of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Atlantis, to create highly detailed seafloor profiles and maps.
Ms. Tharp noticed a cleft in the ocean floor that she hypothesized to be a rift valley that ran along the ridge crest and continued along the length of its axis, which she posited (and was later proven) to be evidence of continental drift.
“I had a blank canvas to fill with extraordinary possibilities, a fascinating jigsaw puzzle to piece together: mapping the world’s vast hidden seafloor,” Ms. Tharp wrote in a book about the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, where she once worked. “It was a once-in-the-history-of-the-world opportunity for anyone, but especially for a woman in the 1940s.”
The significance of her contributions would become evident as research in her field continued over the decades, others said.
“For most of her working career, her contributions weren’t really celebrated. Her intellectual contributions were discounted,” Maureen Raymo, dean of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said, even though her “evidence of sea floor spreading was probably the biggest scientific revolution of the 20th century, certainly in earth sciences.”
The vessels’ renaming is part of a broader Pentagon project to grapple with a legacy that for more than a century has paid homage to Confederate victories and leaders.
Naming Army bases and other military property, and erecting monuments and memorials, to honor the Confederacy was part of a campaign by the children of Confederate soldiers “to reimagine their fathers as not the villains of a treasonous war for slavery but instead for the Southern way of life,” said Michel Paradis, a lecturer at Columbia University.
President Woodrow Wilson, an ardent segregationist, saw granting the requests to honor Confederate soldiers as a good way to rally support among his southern base during a draft for World War I, Paradis said.
In the protests that broke out across the U.S. after Mr. Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020, demonstrators took down dozens of Confederate memorials and monuments. That summer, Congress voted to expunge from Defense Department assets “names, symbols, displays, monuments and paraphernalia” that commemorate the Confederate States of America. The same legislation established the Naming Commission, which quickly proposed new names for nine Army installations in the South.
In September 2022, it produced a report with recommendations to rename 1,111 places from bases to ships to monuments, according to a committee member, the retired Brig. Gen. Ty Seidule, emeritus history professor at West Point and professor at Hamilton College.
Mr. Del Toro said both Mr. Smalls and Ms. Tharp were among people whose work was worthy of historical recognition.
“Last year I visited Robert Smalls’s home and I knew his courageous endeavors in the face of the most harrowing scenarios, for me, made him the right choice for the renaming of the former U.S.S. Chancellorsville,” Mr. Del Toro said.
“Marie Tharp, as a pioneering oceanographer who had her work dismissed for most of her career, was also the right candidate for the renaming of the former U.S.N.S. Maury, a ship tasked with continuing her life’s work,” he added.
Many of the Confederate names that remain are attached to Army posts, Professor Seidule said, because the Civil War was largely fought on land.
“When the posts were being named in World War I and World War II, and the South was a one-party apartheid state, they would name them for people in their local community, these Confederate soldiers,” he said.
“It’s not just about getting rid of names. Whom you choose to honor is who you value,” he added. “I would be incredibly proud to serve on the U.S.S. Robert Smalls.”