USS Chancellorsville’s Name Shift and the US Navy’s History of Confederate-Named Vessels
In recent years, the US government ordered all service branches to investigate and collate listings of all installations named honoring Confederate leaders, symbols, or events. While many are familiar with the army bases named after Confederate leaders (Forts Bragg, Polk, and A.P. Hill for example), less known are warships that have previously or currently bear Confederate-related names. On February 27, 2023, the US Navy announced that it was renaming one of its guided missile cruisers, USS Chancellorsville (CG 62).
Named after the 1863 battle of Chancellorsville, the cruiser was first commissioned in 1989. Having a cruiser named to honor a Civil War engagement is not unusual. Most cruisers in the US Navy have historically been named after battles, and there are also currently USS Shiloh, USS Antietam, USS Vicksburg and USS Gettysburg in the navy’s order of battle (USS Port Royal was decommissioned in 2022). But Chancellorsville is not named for a Confederate leader, so why the change?
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro released a statement that Chancellorsville’s renaming is deliberate 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 who may have been overlooked.”
The battle of Chancellorsville is largely considered Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s most significant victory, highlighting his military expertise. It is also the battle where his trusted lieutenant, ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, fell mortally wounded. Many might not see any issue with having a warship named for a Civil War battle, but diving a little deeper, it becomes apparent why USS Chancellorsville is getting its name changed.
Chancellorsville is one of the few warships currently in the US Navy’s order of battle named for a battle the United States lost. Other warships named for battles lost by the US include USS Bunker Hill, USS Bataan, USS Germantown, and USS Pearl Harbor. There is a distinct difference between these and Chancellorsville, however. All of the other battles, though the United States may have lost the engagement, served as rallying points for the military, civilian, and international communities. Chancellorsville is a battle which only inspired the Confederacy, so renaming the warship based on that warrants serious consideration.
For another, USS Chancellorsville has history honoring Confederate leadership. The ship’s motto “Press On” is something ‘Stonewall Jackson’ is said to have yelled during the namesake battle. The ship’s crest also has a gold wreath, turned upside down, supposedly to commemorate Jackson’s wounding at the battle.
Chancellorsville is not the only US Navy ship whose name might soon be changed. There is also USNS Maury, an oceanographic survey ship operated by the Military Sealift Command named in honor of scientist – and Confederate naval officer – Matthew Fontaine Maury. The same naming commission also recommended renaming a street at the US Naval Academy bearing Maury’s name, as well as a road and building named for the academy’s first superintendent, Confederate Admiral Franklin Buchanan. To date, the Navy has only announced formally what Chancellorsville will be renamed to, with decisions and new names pending for the rest.
The Department of Defense has issued a deadline of the end of 2023 for all renaming action to be taken, and if this deadline sticks, Chancellorsville will be but the first of many renaming announcements this year.
Because of the nature of ships being commissioned and decommissioned over time, the US Navy has significantly fewer installations and ships bearing connections to the Confederacy compared to the US Army’s plethora of forts. However, the Navy historically had many warships named to honor Confederates. Even in the Civil War, there were warships named for Confederate officers, though these were generally Confederate vessels captured and impressed into US service. USS General Bragg serves as a good example. Part of the Confederacy’s River Defense Fleet, it was captured at the battle of Memphis and later commissioned as a US Navy gunboat.
During World War I, the Navy had four Wickes-class destroyers named for Confederate naval officers: USS Maury (DD 100, Matthew Fontaine Maury), USS Tattnall (DD 125, Josiah Tattnall), USS Buchanan (DD 131, Franklin Buchanan), and USS Ingraham (DD 111, Duncan Ingraham). In World War II, there were two more USS Maury warships named for the oceanographer (AGS 16 and DD 401), and two more USS Ingraham warships named for Duncan Ingraham (DD 444 and DD 694). Other WWII-era warships named for Confederate officers include another USS Buchanan (DD 484) and USS Semmes (DD 189), named to honor Confederate Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes.
Another large concentration of US Navy warships named for the Confederacy occurred near the war’s centennial. At that time, there was another USS Semmes (DDG 18), and another USS Buchanan (DDG 14). There was also the submarines USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN 601) and USS Stonewall Jackson (SSBN 634). Supporting these submarines and others were the submarine tenders USS Hunley (AS 31, named for the Confederate submersible) and USS Dixon (AS 37, named for Confederate Lieutenant George Dixon who commanded Hunley). Besides these, there was also USS Brooke (FFG 1, named for Confederate Commander John M. Brooke), USS Richard L. Page (FFG 5, named for Confederate Captain Richard L. Page), and USS Waddell (DDG 24, named for Confederate Lieutenant James I. Waddell).
Clearly, the US Navy has a lengthy history of naming its warships to honor Confederate leaders, symbols, or activity, just as it has a large history of likewise honoring US actions in the Civil War as well. There have been three USS Gettysburg warships through the years and there is also a US Military Sealift Command vessel currently named USNS John Ericsson, for example. It is only because of the decommissioning of aging warships that the Navy’s current list of vessels only includes two related to the Confederacy.
There was no announced timeline on when Chancellorsville’s name will officially change, but the Navy has announced what its new name will be: Robert Smalls. In fact, the ship’s official website already lists itself as USS Robert Smalls. The formerly enslaved man was impressed as a pilot for the Confederate steamer Planter, commandeered that ship and guided it to US lines, served as a US Navy coast pilot, and later became a leader in the postwar South Carolina militia and member of Congress. As a Navy veteran myself, I can attest that Smalls’s accomplishments are quite worthy of commemoration through a warship’s name. He serves as an inspiration for many. I even keep a poster of his accomplishments on my classroom wall.
Ironically, the US Army has already honored Smalls with a vessel of their own. USAV Major General Robert Smalls (LSV 8) is roll-on/roll-off military transport capable of carrying fifteen M1 Abrams tanks or dozens of cargo containers. Commissioned in 2007, it remains in the Army’s flotilla of operational support craft and is named honoring Smalls’s “service in the militia” of South Carolina after the Civil War.
If USS Chancellorsville had been named for another Confederate victory that galvanized US action or inspired the country to fight (maybe such as Fort Sumter or Monocacy) then perhaps its name might have remained. However, since it is named for the quintessential Confederate military victory, it will be changed. With many other Navy ships honoring Civil War battles, this change is not erasing the Navy’s attempts to commemorate the Civil War. Other battles remain with ships named after them and even after being renamed, Chancellorsville is still going to bear a name related to the conflict. My only complaint for the choice is that Chancellorsville is nearing the end of its operational life and will only bear the name Robert Smalls for a handful of years. I would argue that the slave-turned-Congressman deserves a ship that will remain operational for decades.
 Geoff Ziezulewicz, “Navy to change name of warship honoring Confederate battle victory”, Navy Times, February 27, 2023, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2023/02/28/navy-to-change-name-of-warship-honoring-confederate-battle-victory/, accessed March 1, 2023.
 “SECNAV Renamed Ticonderoga-class Guided Missile Cruiser USS Chancellorsville After Robert Smalls, US Navy Press Release, February 27, 2023, https://www.navy.mil/Press-Office/Press-Releases/display-pressreleases/Article/3312337/secnav-renames-ticonderoga-class-guided-missile-cruiser-uss-chancellorsville-af/, accessed March 1, 2023.
 Sam Lagrone and Heather Mongilo, “Commission Recommends Renaming Two Navy Ships with Confederate Ties”, USNI News, September 13, 2022, https://news.usni.org/2022/09/13/commission-recommends-renaming-two-navy-ships-with-confederate-ties, accessed March 1, 2023.
 Fellow Emerging Civil War Navy Writer Dwight Hughes previously discussed these names at the Naval Academy: https://emergingcivilwar.com/2020/07/11/whats-in-a-confederate-name/.
 Smalls’s exploits have been documented by Emerging Civil War previously: https://emergingcivilwar.com/2022/02/01/robert-smalls-and-the-daring-capture-of-planter/.
 Steve Harding, “Latest Army Vessel Honors Black American Hero”, Army.mil, https://www.army.mil/article/4877/latest_army_vessel_honors_black_american_hero, accessed March 1, 2023.
26 Responses to USS Chancellorsville’s Name Shift and the US Navy’s History of Confederate-Named Vessels
When is this Woke BS going to stop?
Smalls’s naval story is incredible and definitely worth commemoration.
Put it on another ship.
I actually agree somewhat with you, armytncsa, as I noted in my conclusion. I personally would like to see Robert Smalls honored instead with one of the new Constellation-class frigates being designed and developed right now. Frigates are typically named for naval heroes, so the name fits better there. Perhaps Smalls will also have a frigate named in his honor years down the line after the cruiser is decommissioned later this decade.
It’s embarrassing to see you try to justify this.
Even though it was a confederate victory Union soldiers fought, were maimed and died there.
Doesn’t naming a ship after the battle honor them as well?????
My thoughts exactly. The heroic union warriors deserve recognition. If the “defeat” excuse card is played, I would add Chosin and Hue City to the mix. And how about Bataan? As far as Maury, he obviously was a major contributor to nautical science, if you like him or not.
Scott, thanks for the comments. The argument could be made that renaming the ship to Robert Smalls is honoring a heroic Union warrior, though admittedly that would be one individual veteran instead of the thousands that fought at Chancellorsville. To counter slightly, the argument could be made (and likely was in the renaming boards held by DOD) that the cruisers USS Gettysburg and USS Antietam honor the same Army of the Potomac you mention deserve recognition by keeping the ship named Chancellorsville. I do want to thank you for pointing out USS Chosin, as I did not mention that on my list of vessels named for US military defeats, though the argument could be made that the lost battle at Chosin Reservoir galvanized US morale in the Korean War, whereas Chancellorsville did not do the same for the US population. I think we can all agree at least that if USS Chancellorsville was going to be renamed, at least they did so with another Civil War themed name.
Again, I say this “woke” propaganda is a demoralization tactic on the part of the left to not only desensitize Americans and the battles BOTH sides of Americans fought in during the Civil War ( we DID come together to re-form ONE NATION, didn’t we? Right triumphed.). Why is there this continual push to drag down our past occuring? Because the powers in back of the left want us to forget about the past and start a NEW nation the way THEY see fit! Everything else is irrelevant to them.
Yeah for the Robert Smalls! Also WWII Liberty ship the US James Longstreet. It barely exists after it’s life as a target ship and rests off Eastham, MA(I had a postcard of it growing up as my paternal grandmother/step grandfather lived in Eastham). Some truth
to the rumor that Jubal Early was one of the pilots…..
Wow, I was not aware of the Liberty Ship James Longstreet or its history as a target ship for the Navy afterwards. It was towed all across the Atlantic coast for target practice. Pretty crazy stuff. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
I should also note here, since did not mention the Liberty Ship James Longstreet, that I also did not mention the cruiser USS Mobile Bay in my list of warships currently in service named for Civil War battles. Did not mean to leave it out of that list.
I don’t believe Smalls served as a “US Navy coast pilot.” Thought he served as a pilot on an army vessel. Wouldn’t swear to it, though. Agree 100% that his service warrants a ship named in his honor at the beginning of its life, not nearing the end.
Thanks for the comments Eric. You are right that Smalls continued piloting the steamer Planter for the US military. He was also the designated pilot of the ironclad USS Keokuk during the failed April 1863 Fort Sumter assault by S.F. Du Pont. Actually, two other enslaved men who escaped from Charleston, Richard Bell and Gabriel Pinkney, were also pilots for other US ironclads during the same battle and were recommended for promotion to become certified Navy coast pilots afterwards.
I forgot he was aboard Keokuk! You got me!
Thanks for sharing this Neil, I found your post really interesting.
When it comes down to it, this is yet another empty political gesture that defies common sense. This ship will be retired within the next few years, along with the rest of her (oh no, can I still use such a pronoun in such a manner?) class. Changing the name and paper trail and legacy references requires some amount of expense and effort. There are plenty of USN and auxiliary ships designated for use by the Navy that will be appropriated for and constructed going forward. Why not just name one of those with this man’s name?
Also, there is a belief among maritime that doing something like changing a commissioned ship’s name is bad luck. Us ‘land lubbers’ might smirk at such superstitions, but they are very real within certain entities.
The significant problem I have, Neil, is that given the upcoming (pending no unforeseen issues overseas) decommissioning of the Chancellorsville, this is much less about honoring the worthy Mr Smalls than about institutional virtue signalling. This view is further validated by the bizarre desire to change the Maury’s name. An oceanographic vessel named after the Pathfinder of the Seas, a key figure in United States naval history? Who’d have thought it!
As far as Chancellorsville NOT being in the class of Bunker Hill and Chosin Reservoir as events that “galvanized” public opinion, I would suggest that both these defeats stunned, rather than galvanized anyone. In the case of the former, when Washington rode into Cambridge after the battle, he was mortified by what he saw. In Korea, the fighting retreat from Chosin and the subsequent evacuation of the army and marine units, was hardly the Pearl Harbor rallying point of the “Police Action” A better case can be made for Chancellorsville’s motivational impact, especially among the largely uncommitted troops of the First and Fifth Corps, and the latter’s commander, George Gordon Meade.
The commission obviously wishes to get it’s work done quickly, before it’s membership is perhaps altered due to a possible change in the Executive Mansion. Bureaucracies, whether on the left or right of the political spectrum, always behave the same.
Its just more culture wars, except now by those who tend to vote Democratic.
Oh, dear Lord. What’s next? No ships named for tactical draws?
Maybe instead of bowing to pressure and renaming the vessel – how about recognizing that over 17,000 US casualties were sustained in the battle, fighting AGAINST the Confederates, and in opposition to slavery. That might be too complicated of a concept for the woke to understand.
What about the men and women who served on the U.S.S. Chancellorsville? What about their memories tied into that ship, separate and apart from the battle of that name? The navy is having trouble with recruiting, as well as retaining personnel. Maybe the focus should be on that, rather than virtue signalling.
Awesome write up! Very proud of the Navy for doing this. I hope they look to honor Robert Smalls in some other manner as well in the future.
Revolutions renamed Tsaritsyn to Stalingrad then Volgograd. Guns, immigration and ethnic cleansing made Russian Lvov into German Lemberg, Polish Lwow and- for now- Ukrainian Lviv. “Progress” means Palestine became Israel and something called either the West Bank or Judea and Sumeria. The Brits shipped hard working Indians to Burma and Africa; the Burmans expel the Royhinga and the Africans… don’t ask. The US is relatively new to this game; 1775 didn’t turn New York into Washingtonia or Maryland into Georgeland. People who killed each other in the Civil War saw nothing wrong with naming places after both sides. We of course know better. What happens when some town decides to change MLK Boulevard into Trump Avenue? Stay tuned… and buy guns. Passive-aggressive behavior comes with a price-tag.
I wonder if we’ll ever see a “USS Little Big Horn”?
Hey Douglas, there is currently a Kaiser-class fleet replenishment ship named USNS Big Horn. I have been alongside it many times to refuel in my days of active duty.