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U.S. warship renamed after ‘an extraordinary American’ from Beaufort. Here’s why

The 78th Secretary of the Navy The Honorable Carlos Del Toro. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ford Williams)

A warship has been renamed the USS Robert Smalls after the Civil War hero who was born in Beaufort as the U.S. Navy continues efforts to rename assets with Confederate ties.

The guided missile cruiser was originally named the USS Chancellorsville. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced Monday that it would be renamed.

It is fitting the warship was named after the native son Smalls, Beaufort Mayor Stephen Murray said Tuesday, when he announced at a City Council meeting that the warship would now be known as the USS Robert Smalls.

“I wonder if we might make a formal request to the Navy to bring the USS Robert Smalls into the harbor at some point — although there might be a bridge issue with that,” joked Murray, referring to the Woods Memorial swing bridge.

“You might bring it to Port Royal,” City Councilman Mike McFee said.

The decision to rename the guided missile cruiser is part of a larger renaming effort by the Naming Commission. A congressional mandate required military assets such as bases and ships with Confederate ties to be renamed..

The guided missile cruiser was commissioned in 1989 and named USS Chancellorsville to honor the Battle of Chancellorsville, a Confederate victory during the Civil War.

The ship is currently assigned to Carrier Strike Group Five and is forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan.

Modern U.S. Navy guided missile cruisers are capable of supporting carrier battle groups and amphibious forces, according to They can also operate independently and as flagships of surface action groups. Cruisers are equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles giving them additional long range strike capability.

Navy Secretary Del Toro called Smalls a “an extraordinary American,” adding he learned more about him in 2022 when he visited South Carolina. In January 2022, Del Toro visited Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in Port Royal, where he reviewed recruit training and attended a graduation.

“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,” Del Toro said in a statement, “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.”

Smalls (1839-1915) was born into slavery in Beaufort. He became a skilled sailor and was an expert navigator of southern coasts. He 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. 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.

Congress created the Naming Commission in 2021 to come up with a list of military assets with names associated with the Confederate States of America and recommendations for their removal.

In September 2022, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin accepted the recommendations and gave each service until the end of 2023 to rename their assets.

The logistical aspects associated with renaming the guided missile cruiser to the USS Robert Smalls will have minimal impact on operations and the crew, the Navy said.


(c) 2023 The Island Packet

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