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Cutting Confederate Ties, the U.S. Navy Names Ships for a Pioneering Female Oceanographer and a Daring Enslaved Pilot

The U.S. Navy has announced it is renaming one of its oceanographic survey ships after Marie Tharp, a Columbia University geologist, oceanographer and cartographer who drew the first modern maps of the ocean floors. The vessel previously honored Matthew Fontaine Maury, a key figure in 19th-century oceanography who quit the U.S. Navy to join the Confederacy. Also renamed: the warship USS Chancellorsville, namesake of an 1863 Civil War battle considered a Confederate triumph; it now honors Robert Smalls, an enslaved man who commandeered a rebel vessel to sail himself and others to freedom.

Marie Tharp, born in 1920, was one of the very few women trained in earth sciences up to the mid-20th century, holding degrees in geology and mathematics. She went to work in 1948 at what soon became Columbia University’s Lamont Geological Observatory (now Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory). At the time, the ocean floor was thought to be largely flat and featureless. Collaborating with oceanographer Bruce Heezen, Tharp used sonar data systematically collected by research vessels to painstakingly hand-draw the first detailed maps of the Atlantic Ocean floor. She also used survey data to help find downed military aircraft.

Marie Tharp at work, 1961. As a woman, for much of her career she was barred from the research cruises that collected the data she turned into maps. (Courtesy Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

The Heezen-Tharp mapping project revealed in striking detail many topographic features including what is now known as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a continuous mountain chain spanning the ocean roughly north-south. Tharp hypothesized that a V-shaped rift running down its middle meant the ocean floor was slowly splitting along this seam. This supported the then still controversial theory of continental drift, that the earth’s surface is in constant motion. The Atlantic map was published in 1957. Tharp soon mapped similar structures in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and other areas, much of the work paid for by the Navy.

These maps gradually piled up with other evidence, including patterns of seafloor earthquakes and magnetism, and by the early 1970s, the continental drift idea—by then known in modified form as plate tectonics—was universally accepted. In 1977, Tharp and Heezen published the first global map of all the ocean floors, a spectacular artistic and scientific landmark that is is still widely used around the world.

All that said, because Tharp was a woman, she was long barred from the research cruises that collected the data she translated. Only in 1968 was she first allowed to sail with Heezen and other researchers. Moreover, Heezen (who died in 1977 aboard a Navy sub) and other male colleagues got most or all of the credit as authors of the scientific papers that drew on her cartography and ideas. It was not until the early 2000s that Tharp’s contributions started to become widely known and celebrated. She died in 2006. She has since become the subject of biographies, children’s books and short films; a 72-foot research vessel launched in 2021 by the nonprofit Ocean Research Project carries her name.

The Heezen-Tharp global topographic map of the ocean floors, published in 1977. (Courtesy Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced the renaming of the 350-foot USNS Maury on March 8, 2023, International Women’s Day. “[Tharp’s] dedication to research brought life to the unknown ocean world and proved important information about the earth, all while being a woman in a male-dominated industry,” he said. A similar Navy research vessel launched in 2000, the USNS Bruce C. Heezen, is not up for renaming.

The other ship, the newly dubbed USS Robert Smalls, is a heavily armed guided-missile cruiser, launched in 1988.

At age 12, the enslaved Smalls was sent by his master to the coastal city of Charleston, S.C. to hire out as a laborer. He became a longshoreman, rigger, sail maker and finally a “wheel man,” piloting vessels through the Charleston harbor and rivers along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts. By age 23, on May 16, 1862, he was helming the CSS Planter, an armed Confederate transport vessel. That evening, the three white officers who commanded the Planter went ashore for the night, entrusting the ship to Smalls—who had been plotting to make a run for freedom.

In the middle of the night, Smalls and his enslaved crew mates stealthily picked up their wives and children at a wharf. Smalls donned the captain’s uniform and guided the ship past six harbor forts, giving the secret signals at each that allowed them to pass. The last was Ft. Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War had been fired. Once out of gun range, he ran straight for a Union Navy fleet forming a blockade seven miles offshore and surrendered the ship.

In 1862, enslaved man Robert Smalls commandeered a Confederate military vessel to run his family and those of his enslaved crew mates to freedom. (Courtesy U.S. National Park Service)

Besides delivering the valuable ship to the Union, Smalls brought the code book of Confederate marine signals, military maps, and his own intricate knowledge of coastal defenses and locations of underwater mines. Lionized in the Northern press, he  joined the Union Navy and piloted a series of vessels during more than a dozen major battles. His feats were credited with helping persuade President Abraham Lincoln to allow Black soldiers to enlist in the Union Army. At the war’s end, he observed the re-raising of the U.S. flag over Ft. Sumter.

Smalls afterward co-founded a small railroad, published a newspaper in Beaufort, S.C., and served in the state legislature. He went on to five terms in the U.S. Congress from 1875 to 1887. He supported racial integration legislation and other efforts to achieve equality for Black people—efforts undone as the Jim Crow era took over, and Southern Blacks were largely disenfranchised. He died in 1915.

The newly renamed ships are part of a comprehensive project started after the 2020 police murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, when Congress ordered the military to expunge all “names, symbols, displays, monuments and paraphernalia” celebrating the Confederacy. The renaming process for hundreds of properties began this January; the Navy had only these two ships that carried such baggage. Matthew Fontaine Maury’s name was also removed from the U.S. Naval Academy’s engineering building; it is now called Carter Hall, for former president Jimmy Carter, a 1947 alumnus and Navy nuclear engineer.

In a 1999 book about Lamont-Doherty, Marie Tharp wrote of her own marine career: “Not too many people can say this about their lives: The whole world was spread out before me (or at least, the seventy percent of it covered by oceans). I had a blank canvas to fill with extraordinary possibilities, a fascinating jigsaw puzzle to put together.”

The ship that will carry her name is currently off Japan; a renaming ceremony will be held when it can be brought to port without disrupting its scientific work.

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Ralph McWhorter
Ralph McWhorter
1 year ago

Every Sailor knows that changing the name of a Ship once it is commissioned, bring Bad Luck to that Ship and her crew.