Ethics Quiz: The USS Chancellorsville

In a final flurry of Black History Month pandering by the Biden administration, the missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville was renamed USS Robert Smalls. A US government Naming Commission reviewed military bases and vessels that appeared to honor the Confederacy and made recommendations regarding which should to be renamed. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin approved the commission’s recommendations in October 2022, and this was one of the results. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced that the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser would lose its previous name and henceforth would bear the name of Smalls, a former slave who took over a Confederate ship and delivered it to the Union navy.

Esteemed reader Steve-O-in NJ brought this story to ethics Alarms’ attention, and makes this argument:

It used to be we would name carriers after battles, but, for whatever reason, when these cruisers, once the most expensive and most sophisticated non-carrier vessels afloat in the US Navy, were built, they decided to name them after battles instead (with one exception, the USS Thomas S. Gates, which left active service long ago because it was not built with the vertical launch system).  I questioned this choice of names from the get-go, since as far as I know all US ships named after battles were named for US victories or at least battles where our forces gave a good account of themselves (one of the other ships in the class is the USS Chosin, another the USS Anzio).  Why did they decide to name this one after a disastrous US defeat?  Well, presumably the same reason the names USS Semmes, USS Buchanan, USS Waddell, and USS Barney found their way into the Charles F. Adams and Spruance classes of destroyers, but are unlikely to be used again.
I can think of a long list of names that would not break the class tradition, nor stick out like a sore thumb, and speak to the entire US.  Notably the names USS Saratoga and USS Lexington are not presently in use, nor the names USS Coral Sea or USS Midway.  Give me a few minutes and I’ll come up with a dozen more.  But of course this couldn’t be just a switch of names to something more universally admired, it HAD to be the name of a former slave, as a rebuke to those evil racists who dared name a ship after a legendary victory led by Robert E. Lee, and now everyone who sees it or hears the name will know of the rebuke.  

A two-part Ethics Quiz of the Day arises from this discussion:

Was it responsible for the Navy to name a vessel after what was arguably the most disastrous U.S. defeat in the Civil War?


If so, is the renaming another gratuitous and unfair rebuke of Robert E. Lee, for whom Chancellorsville is seen as perhaps his most brilliant battlefield achievement?

I have a couple of observations in lieu of answers:

  • Smalls’ story is a great one, and deserves to be better known. The question is whether renaming the U.S.S. Chancellorsville is the best way to publicize it.
  • If I had to choose between the old name and the new one, it would be an easy choice: Smalls wins. But taking away an honor is different materially from eschewing one.
  • If we regard the Confederacy as American, which it was, then I can see the argument that a brilliant Confederate victory is an appropriate achievement to honor. But Chancellorsville was such a devastating defeat for the Union. I can see the argument, but I don’t agree with it.

15 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The USS Chancellorsville

  1. Personally, I’d start anew, and stick his name on one of the Buke-class destroyers, assuming we’re going to build any more on top of the 90(!) built or building. Meantime Chancellorsville would become USS Lexington, a good traditional name that everyone would recognize. I don’t feel the need to have everyone get clonked in the head with the rebuke everytime the ship is mentioned. That’s like the Kingdom of Jerusalem deliberately violating the rules of heraldry by putting yellow on white so that everyone who saw the flag would ask why and the story of the conquest could be told again (an again and again), just like at the end of Camelot. On a less lofty level, it’s also like telling a long-tired joke or long heard story again and again, because you think it’s just that funny or that important.

  2. How soon before the following ships are problematic:

    USS San Jacinto – Whiteys beating up on brown people from south of the border

    USS Monterey – Whiteys beating up on brown people on their own turf

    USS Hue City – Whiteys beating up on peace loving socialist brown people across the ocean

    USS Chosin – Whiteys beating up on peace loving communists

  3. Tangential, but Anzio was a victory? That’s news to me.

    Our great family friend was a Seabee in the Pacific during World War Two. Cleto, short for Anacleto, was a supremely serene, wonderful person, a tile setter by trade, who married his wife, Rita, after she’d been widowed, with three young children, when her first husband, Oscar, a radio operator on Pan Am’s flying boats (that were probably smuggling yellow cake into the Pan Am base in Miami from Africa to build the bomb) was killed in the crash of his likely over-aged “Clipper” due to pilot error when landing in Port of Spain. (Cleto and Rita never got over the fact neither Pan Am nor the U.S. government even flew Oscar’s body home to Miami, burying him instead in Trinidad.) Cleto raised the three stepchildren as if they were his own. Later in life, Rita was crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, and Cleto, then retired, nursed her for the rest of her very painful life.

    Anyway, one day during a visit, seemingly out of the blue, Cleto “went off” on “that murderer Mark Clark.” As far as Cleto was concerned, Clark’s ill-conceived and/or poorly executed invasion plan left “the Army guys” in the marshes at Anzio for weeks, like sitting ducks, to be shredded by the German artillery comfortably arrayed in the surrounding mountains. Suffice it to say, I don’t think Cleto would have been at all on board with the Navy naming a ship after what he considered a betrayal of his comrades in arms by their leadership.

    • Wikipedia lists it as an Allied victory, albeit a very costly one. John Lucas was a miserable failure as a commander.

    • Sheesh, if you regard Anzio as an Allied victory, you must think of Stalingrad as a minor setback for the Germans.

      I’d have to revisit my histories, but my recollection is that while Lucas is justly blamed for the Allied torpor at Anzio, the larger villain is the entire Allied Italian strategy. We rolled through southern Italy more or less unopposed, but then came up again the real German fortified lines in the mountains.

      What should probably have happened — especially since Overlord had absolute priority in 1944 — was that we should have gone on the strategic defensive once the attack stalled out. It was probably as bad as WWI trench warfare once the Allies came up against properly fortified and manned German lines.

      It wasn’t the only time in the European Theater that we ended up tossing divisions into a meatgrinder. The Hurtgen Forest is a prime example (I don’t recall the commander there), and I think Patton’s assaults on Aachen also qualify.

      Normandy was a bloodbath, but a probably unavoidable one given that we had to land somewhere — Eisenhower and Montgomery judged that the other possibilities would have been worse. On the other hand, Normandy basically wrecked the entire German army in France so there is that.

      I would tend to agree with the characterization of Clark, but I don’t think Anzio was the only (or even the primary reason) for it. Clark was just a terrible choice for the Italian command.

  4. Your observations match mine.

    Part of the resolution of the Civil War was that both sides got to save face. Soldiers got to go home. They even got pensions. They got to erect monuments to their respective heroes. They tried to bury the hatchet.

    Naming the Chancellorsville seems to fit that paradigm. It was probably a respectable name, even if it was a bad defeat.

    These days, people want to dig up that hatchet.

    Smalls is certainly someone whose name should be affixed to a naval ship of some sort. But there is no reason to change a current name to do that.

    Put his name in the queue so it can be put on a new boat.

    Then, of course, there will probably be no better opportunity than this post to remind Ethics Alarms readers of the Simpsons episode that referenced the USS Walter Mondale, a laundry ship.


    • “These days, people want to dig up the hatchet.” Comment of the month. The most eloquent description of the time we live in I’ve seen. Thanks Jut.

      • After the Restoration Charles II disinterred and desecrated the body of Oliver Cromwell, to make the point that no one should think of doing what was done to his father again. The lesson unfortunately did not stick. I wonder if soon they will be digging up the Confederate graves in Arlington National Cemetery and telling the families to come and get their traitors or they will be dumped in a mass potter’s grave.

    • He was actually in the navy, but was discharged other than honorably. But hey, he was a social justice warrior who checked a box.

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