As debate rages and turns bloody in Charlottesville and elsewhere regarding the place that monuments to the slave-holding Confederacy should have in 21st century America, the guided-missile cruiser Chancellorsville steams along as part of Pacific Fleet.
The ship is named after the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, a Civil War engagement considered to be the greatest victory of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The Navy commissioned the Chancellorsville in 1989, when it joined at least four other ships named in honor of a Confederate force that sunk U.S. warships during the Civil War.
The predominance of gray in the ship’s crest speaks to ”General Robert E. Lee’s spectacular military strategies and his dominance in this battle,” according to the ship’s website.
An inverted wreath also memorializes the Confederacy’s second-best known general, Stonewall Jackson, who was mortally wounded in the battle.
Such homages to the Confederacy on land have been contentious at best in recent years.
The conflict in Charlottesville this past weekend stemmed from local efforts to remove a statute of Lee.
Such removals elsewhere have at times metastasized into physical confrontations over what these symbols mean today and whether icons of a slave-holding past still belong in public spaces of regard.
Naming ships after defeated enemies of the United States remains baffling to Earl J. Higgins, a 75-year-old retired Navy officer, author and lawyer who wrote about the issue earlier this year.
“We are naming ships of the United States Navy after people who fought war against the United States,” Higgins said. “We’ve twisted the narrative so that we make these people the heroes.”
A war’s winners ordinarily dictate the narrative, Higgins noted.
“For some reason or other, in the Civil War, the losers got to,” he said.
The Navy named a ballistic missile submarine after Jackson in 1964, one that was decommissioned 31 years later in 1995.
The H.L. Hunley was a Confederate submarine that sunk the USS Housatonic warship in 1864.
In 1962, the Navy commissioned a submarine tender and named it Hunley.
George Dixon commanded the Confederate submarine that sank the Housatonic. He got his own submarine tender named after him when the USS Dixon was commissioned in 1971.
How or why the Navy opted to name vessels after figureheads who fought the United States remains unclear.
A Southern Poverty Law Center timeline shows a spike in schools named after the Confederacy — as well as other monuments and tributes — during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, the same decade the Navy commissioned the Lee, Jackson and Hunley.
Navy secretaries get inundated with suggested names for new ships, Higgins said, and the names may have been the result of clout held by southern U.S. legislators.
He also said it may have been meant as an homage to the military prowess of enemies.
Naval History and Heritage Command officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding naming of those ships.
Higgins said he first started pondering the issue as he watched people protesting the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans earlier this year.
“They were people who fought war against the United States, and yet people are sort of claiming them as some sort of American hero,” he said. “We have very bizarre notions of history.”
Higgins grew up in Louisiana, where he saw the irony of mythologizing the Confederacy. He blames the romanticization of the Civil War South on “the whole ‘Gone with the Wind’ nonsense,” and the sheer trauma of the conflict.
“I grew up here, and we got the view of the Civil War that it wasn’t about slavery, it was about state’s rights and so forth,” Higgins said. “The Civil War was so horrible. Nobody could face the horror of it, so they were making up a mythology.”
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson voiced his opposition on social media Saturday to the right-wing hate groups bearing the stars and bars of the Confederate flag alongside swastikas in Charlottesville.
“The Navy will forever stand against intolerance and hatred,” he said. “We want our Navy to be the safest possible place — a team as strong and tough as we can be, saving violence only for our enemies.”
Whether Navy leadership would change the name of the Chancellorsville cruiser remains unclear, but Higgins said he does not hold out hope.
Any such initiative would mobilize “the crazies” that came to Charlottesville, Higgins said.
“People have either an ignorance of history, a twisted notion of history or they simply do not like and refuse to accept the reality of history,” he said. “And that is the Civil War, slavery, Jim Crow.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.