Severing Confederate ties, US Navy names ships for pioneering oceanographer and daring slave pilot
The United States Navy has announced that it rename one of its oceanographic survey vessels After Mary Tharpe, Columbia University geologist, oceanographer and cartographer who drew the first modern maps of the seabed. The previously honored ship Matthew Fontaine Maury, a key figure in 19th century oceanography who left the United States Navy to join the Confederacy. Also known as: the warship USS Chancellorville, namesake of an 1863 Civil War battle considered a Confederate triumph; he now honors Robert Petitsan enslaved man who commandeered a rebel ship to sail himself and others to freedom.
Marie Tharp, born in 1920, is one of the few women trained in the earth sciences until the middle of the 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. Collaboration with an oceanographer Bruce Heezen, Tharp used sonar data routinely 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 planes.
The Heezen-Tharp Mapping Project revealed in startling detail many topographic features, including what is now known as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a continuous mountain range stretching across the ocean from about north to south. Tharp theorized that a V-shaped fault running down its middle meant that the ocean floor was slowly separating along this seam. This supported the still-controversial theory of continental drift, according to which 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 regions, much of the work paid for by the Navy.
These maps gradually piled up with other evidence, including diagrams of earthquakes and seafloor magnetism, and in the early 1970s the idea of continental drift – then known in a modified form as the name plate tectonics – was universally accepted. In 1977, Tharp and Heezen published the world’s first map of all the seabed, a spectacular artistic and scientific landmark that is still widely used around the world.
That said, because Tharp was female, she was long excluded from research cruises that collected the data she translated. It was not until 1968 that she was first allowed to sail with Heezen and other researchers. Additionally, Heezen (died 1977 aboard a Navy submarine) and other male colleagues took most or all of the credit as authors of the scientific papers that relied on her cartography. and his ideas. It was not until the early 2000s that Tharp’s contributions began to be 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 non-profit organization Ocean Research Project bears his name.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro announced the name change 350 feet USNS Maury March 8, 2023, International Women’s Day. “(Tharp’s) dedication to research brought the unknown ocean world to life and proved important insights into the land, 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 to be renamed.
The other ship, the new dubbed USS Robert Smalls, is a heavily armed guided missile cruiser, launched in 1988.
At the age of 12, the little slaves was sent by his master to the coastal town of Charleston, South Carolina, to be hired as a laborer. He became a stevedore, rigger, sailmaker, and finally “helmsman,” piloting ships in Charleston Harbor and the rivers along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. At age 23, on May 16, 1862, he headed the CSS Planter, a Confederate armed transport ship. That evening, the three white officers who commanded the Planter went ashore for the night, handing over the ship to Smalls – who had plotted to make a run for freedom.
In the middle of the night, Smalls and his enslaved teammates quietly picked up their wives and children from a dock. The little ones donned the captain’s uniform and guided the ship past six harbor forts, giving each the secret signals that allowed them to pass. The last was Strong. Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Once out of gun range, he ran directly towards a blockading Union navy fleet seven miles offshore and surrendered the ship.
Along with delivering the valuable vessel to the Union, Smalls brought the codebook of Confederate marine signals, military maps, and his own intricate knowledge of coastal defenses and locations of underwater mines. Famous in the Northern press, he joined the Union Navy and piloted a series of ships in more than a dozen major battles. His exploits have been credited with helping persuade President Abraham Lincoln to allow black soldiers to enlist in the Union Army. At the end of the war, he watched the raising of the American flag over Ft. Summer.
Smalls went on to co-found a small railroad, publish a newspaper in Beaufort, South Carolina, and serve in the state legislature. He served five terms in the U.S. Congress from 1875 to 1887. He supported racial integration legislation and other efforts to achieve equality for blacks—efforts reversed as the Jim Crow era took hold. over it and that southern blacks were largely disenfranchised. He died in 1915.
The newly renamed vessels are part of a comprehensive project launched after the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd in 2020, when Congress ordered the military to remove all “names, symbols, displays, monuments and Accessories” celebrating Confederation. The renaming process for hundreds of properties began in January; the navy had only these two ships carrying such baggage. Matthew Fontaine Maury’s name was also removed from the US Naval Academy Engineering Building; it is now called Carter Hall, for former President Jimmy Carter, a 1947 alumnus and Navy nuclear engineer.
In a 1999 book on Lamont-Doherty, Marie Tharp wrote of her own naval career: “Few people can say this of their lives: the whole world has spread before me (or at least the seventy percent covered by oceans). I had a blank canvas to fill with extraordinary possibilities, a fascinating puzzle to put together.
The ship that will bear his name is currently off the coast of Japan; a renaming ceremony will take place when it can be brought into port without disturbing its scientific work.