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Navy ship with a Confederate name now honors Black Union Hero Robert Smalls instead

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

After a yearslong process, the U.S. military has begun renaming bases and warships that honored Confederacy figures, including Civil War generals who were enslavers and led troops against the U.S. Army. NPR's Quil Lawrence sent this report about one of the most recent name changes and the remarkable man one Navy ship's name now honors.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The Confederate Army won a decisive victory at Chancellorsville, Va., in 1863. As recently as 1989, it still seemed OK for the Navy to name a U.S. warship for that battle. Only seven years ago, there was still a portrait of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson displayed on board. Today, Captain Edward Angelinas commands the ship.

EDWARD ANGELINAS: It is a move much more consistent with the Navy's values.

LAWRENCE: The ship now named for Robert Smalls, who in 1862 stole a Southern steamship and sailed to the Union side.

ANGELINAS: Going from Confederate victory to this incredible story of a former slave who commandeered a Confederate ship and turned it over to the Union Navy.

LAWRENCE: Robert Smalls was 23 and already such a skilled mariner that his enslaver rented him out as a pilot.

MICHAEL MOORE: He worked on a boat called the Planter, which was a 150-foot side-wheel steamer that carried munitions based in Charleston Harbor.

LAWRENCE: Michael Moore is a descendant of Robert Smalls.

M MOORE: He was married. He had two children, among them my great-grandmother, Elizabeth. And he knew that - in slavery that his family could be separated from him in an instant. To make a long story short, he knew that there was a blockade just outside the mouth of Charleston River, a Union blockade.

LAWRENCE: Union ships just outside Charleston Harbor a few miles away. Smalls had one advantage. The white crew couldn't conceive of a Black man being capable of stealing their ship, so they often went home for the night, leaving him on board. On May 12, Smalls enlisted the other enslaved crew and sailed away. They made an audacious stop to collect their families and then one more ruse de guerre.

M MOORE: He donned a straw hat and a long sort of top coat that the Confederate captain wore. And in the middle of night and at distance, he rang the various passcodes to be allowed to pass by about five forts in Charleston Harbor, sailed past them all into freedom.

ROBIN MOORE: Had they had been caught, certainly they would have been killed.

LAWRENCE: Robin Moore is also a great-great-grandchild, Michael's sister.

R MOORE: They would have been killed in a very public way to deter other enslaved African Americans from trying to do such a heist to escape.

LAWRENCE: Robin Moore says Smalls and his shipmates knew it. It was freedom or death. They faced danger from the union ships as well.

R MOORE: Once he got to the union blockade, of course, the Union, seeing a Confederate ship steering right towards them - they certainly would be blown right out of the water. So they put up a white sheet of surrender.

LAWRENCE: Smalls handed over an entire steamship loaded with Confederate guns. That would have been enough, says Michael Moore.

M MOORE: Robert got a reward for delivering the boat to the United States, and he actually could have lived a very comfortable, happy life, perhaps up in the North, where he was received as a real hero.

LAWRENCE: Instead, he returned to war, first piloting the same ship he'd captured from the Confederates and later taking command of a Union ship under fire.

M MOORE: And in doing so was the first African American to command a United States naval vessel.

LAWRENCE: And he kept serving after the war, elected to the South Carolina legislature and then the U.S. House of Representatives. And the list goes on and on. He was booted off a Philadelphia streetcar after refusing to give up his seat to a white man. He started a boycott that led to integration. He promoted equality and public education and made sure his own children were educated, says Robin Moore.

R MOORE: His commitment to education that was passed along to Elizabeth, his daughter, who was that 4-year-old on that ship. All of Elizabeth's children went to college.

LAWRENCE: And he was a brigadier general in the South Carolina militia. And he bought his former enslaver's house. He started a school. He published a newspaper and founded a railroad. Robert Smalls died peacefully in 1915 at the age of 75. Suffice to say, there's plenty for the sailors aboard the USS Robert Smalls to take pride in. Captain Angelinas says they showed it the first time he boarded the newly christened ship.

ANGELINAS: After the announcement had been made, the first time I was walking up the pier, they rang four bells, and they said, Robert Smalls arriving.

LAWRENCE: They announce him by the ship's name.

ANGELINAS: The officer of the deck and the quarterdeck and those sailors immediately around started cheering. And they certainly weren't cheering for me or my arrival. They were cheering for the namesake.

LAWRENCE: He says it's the first time that's happened during three command tours and 27 years in the Navy. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.