May 10

What’s in a Name? Remembering CSS Virginia

Monday, May 10, 2010 8:55 PM

As we celebrate the 148th anniversary of the CSS Virginia‘s final day (11 May 1862), it is important to note how the legendary “Mistress of Hampton Roads” is remembered. Although she is two years away from being properly celebrated by the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial, her importance in the annals of naval history remains a yearly affair. 

At the beginning of the American Civil War, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory puzzled over an effective way to break the Union Blockade. How does one wrestle the “great snake” without succumbing to its venom in the process? With no naval might at the start of the war, Mallory knew he had his hands full. The limited material of the Confederacy as a whole had to be used to the fullest of capabilities. Mallory needed to play magician from the outset. How does one create a navy from nothing? Smoke and mirrors aside, the “rabbit” he needed to pull from his hat needed to effectively test his foes in Washington would be tough. Eventually, it was decided the best chance to meet these demands was to create the CSS Virginia. Perhaps Mallory did find his rabbit. The Virginia proved to be a formidable opponent to the might of the US Navy until its own vanishing act in May 1862. 

Virginia’s career, albeit short, still resides in the memories of those who study and admire her. Although there were two other attempts to bring the combatants of the “first duel of ironclads” back together in April and May 1862, sadly they failed to engage in general action again. When the Federals fired on Confederate batteries at Sewell’s Point on 8 May, Virginia decided to stand down from conflict for fear of being ambushed and attacked by a larger Union foe. Her enormous draft would not allow her to engage the Federal flotilla near Fortress Monroe. The realization proved ominous. 

 Two days later on 10 May, four Union infantry regiments landed off Ocean View near Willoughby Point. General Benjamin Huger, commanding Confederate Forces in Norfolk, decided to evacuate the city and its fortifications. Virginia, upon this realization, would have to follow suit for fear of capture by overwhelming forces. Mallory ordered her to protect the mouth of the James River, the main artery to the Confederate heart in Richmond, yet the odds were stacked against the famed “mistress.” As historian Raimondo Luraghi noted in his History of the Confederate Navy, Virginia’s only choice was to “immediately sail up the James river before the enemy could arrive at its estuary overland, attack and destroy (John) Rodgers’s flotilla, and then help defend the Confederate capital, Richmond.” (History of the Confederate Navy, 165)

Confederates decided to evacuate and subsequently destroy (again) Norfolk Navy Yard as they withdrew from the coast from Union forces. Virginia intended to follow. Attempts made to lighten her draft proved a failure. It was decided that her crew would destroy her. On 11 May, her sailors watched from the woods on Craney Island as the ship went up in flames, among them Catesby ap R. Jones, the daring Lieutenant who fought the Monitor to a draw two months previous. 

Burning of CSS Virginia, 11 May 1862. Painting by Colonel Samuel Wetherill, 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry. The picture shows the destruction of the Virginia by her crew off Craney Island in Hampton Roads. (NHHC)

An UN-Civil War of Names

Not unlike battlefields spanning east to west, Civil War-era ships are remembered based on regional differences. Much of this is attributed to the notion that “winners write the history,” and commemorates them as such by their own choosing. For instance, the battle of Shiloh in April 1862 is often referred to as Pittsburg Landing. The bloodiest single day of the American Civil War, Antietam (or Antietam Creek), is revered by some geographically as Sharpsburg.

For the CSS Virginia, however, the debate continues over how she is properly named. And why not? Almost any mention of something involving the Confederate Navy has a picture of the Virginia on it. Upon first glance on the CSS Virginia’s official website, the first tab on the left side of the screen reads in bold letters NOT the “Merrimac,” and continues with this description:

“The misspelling continues today. The fact that the battle at Hampton Roads is often called the battle of “the Merrimack and the Monitor” rather than “the Virginia and the Monitor” may be because much of the press coverage (and hence history) was by Union newspapers and magazines who, along with the Union military, may have knowingly continued to use the prior name of the ship rather than her proper name. Throughout the Official Records, Federal sources referred to the ship as the “Merrimack” while Confederate sources refer to her as the “Virginia.” (It appears that the compilers of the Official Records would use the name “Merrimack” regardless of whether the original document had used “Merrimac” or “Merrimack.”) Harper’s Weekly refers to the ship as “Merrimac“. Some Southern sources did refer to the ship as the “Merrimac[k].’” (cssvirginia.org)

One author which speaks differently of this name is Ivan Musicant. In his 1995 work Divided Waters: The Naval History of the Civil War, Musicant’s only mention of the Virginia itself is a “see also” to the Merrimack’s indexed pages. Merrimack, in Musicant’s eyes, takes place of all things Virginia, including the Battle of Hampton Roads, which is a duel between the Monitor and Merrimack. Virginia is textually included only when scantly mentioning the ironclad ram built and named in honor of the original ship, then named CSS Virginia II (Divided Waters, 430). 

Maybe Musicant is right. After all, a part of the original ship Merrimack, which was named after the Merrimack River, still existed on Virginia. Then again, when parts of ships were used to outfit newer vessels, most were not named after only parts of the whole. So then maybe the folks at CSSVirginia.org are correct. What about just calling it “The Rebel Monster,” like many Union sailors often did during the Civil War. One recent Civil War work worth reading, Ari Hoogenboom’s 2008 study Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy, uses both Virginia and Merrimack interchangeably in the text and index. Maybe there is hope for a middle ground after all. 

Other monographs and online resources, such as the Naval History and Heritage Command, refer to the ship as the “ex-USS Merrimack.” The NHHC write-up acknowledges the conversion and rechristening of the steam frigate to ironclad, giving her its proper name when it was commissioned as CSS Virginia in February 1862. Even the Merrimack falls victim to incorrect spelling. NHHC historians note that before, during, and after the war, Merrimack’s name was often mispelled “Merrimack,” and is oftentimes confused with the USS Merrimac, a 684-ton side-wheel steamship built by England and captured by USS Iroquois in 1863. 

Other disputes in the correct usage of the ship are more widely known. The Monitor Merrimac Bridge tunnel, which connects the Peninsula to the Hampton Roads Beltway, is one such example. Similarly, one of the showcases at the 1907 Jamestown Exposition in Hampton Roads, VA was a diorama of the “Battle of the Merrimac and the Monitor.” According to one source, the amount of tickets sold to the event at one point exceeded Exposition attendance. Sterling silver spoons sold at the Exposition commemorated the Merrimac and Monitor, not the Virginia. This may seem rather odd as the event itself was held in close proximity to the 8-9 March engagement itself. 

Source: www.souvenirspoons.com

One of the more interesting examples of the battle over the Virginia and Merrimack was included in The Daybook, the official publication of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. The article was titled the “First Annual Bamboozle Awards,” given to those ships which best exemplify the strange and curious throughout American naval history. The last “award” was given to the CSS Virginia under the category “Most Confusing.” Calhoun, writing in Clark Kent fashion as the “Museum Sage,” says it best:

“No vessel has been so confused and verbally abused as this ship. Many visitors who come to the museum see the model of this ironclad and instantly called it Merrimack. This the Sage can understand. After all that is why we have the museum here in the first place, to educate the public on Naval history. What the Sage can not understand, nor excuse, are when historians and other Civil War “experts,” refer to this ironclad as Merrimack. The Sage has seen many Civil War histories for sale in book stores written by professional historians that call the ironclad by the wrong name. Of further insult is when Merrimack is spelled without the “k.” The ship was named after the Merrimack River, thus the Merrimac spelling is incorrect.” (The Daybook)

These examples follow the same ideas put in place from the CSSVirginia.org website. When one looks at the myriad uses of information and misinformation from the battle itself, it dulls the conflict, leaving only the ship’s name, and not the memory or pride of the men who served on her during the Civil War. It’s dizzying, if not confusing. More often than not, every victory for Virginia is countered by one of the Merrimack or Merrimac

Some will always call it Merrimack. Others will always call it Virginia. You can hear faint sounds of Louis Armstrong singing “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in the background. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Merrimack or Virginia? Agree to disagree? 

Is there a way to find a resolve, or should opposing camps fight a renewed “civil war” over names? In a conflict where thousands of books are produced each year in its memory, it seems that this renewed fight will continue not with cannon fire, but with words. As a commemorative committee, the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial is interested in understanding what readers of this blog feel is the best way to celebrate Virginia’s storied past. For more information on the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial, visit the blog here.

Print Sources

Calhoun, Gordon. “The First Annual Bamboozle Awards.” The Daybook. Vol. 3, no. 6 (Sept.-Oct. 1997). 

Hoogenboom, Ari. Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. 

Luraghi, Raimondo. A History of the Confederate Navy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996. 

Musicant, Ivan. Divided Waters: The Naval History of the Civil War. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2000. 

Websites

Civil War News (Review of Gustavus Vasa Fox of the Union Navy):

http://www.civilwarnews.com/reviews/2009br/may/gustavus_hoogenboom_b050911.html

The Official CSS Virginia Homepage:

http://www.cssvirginia.org

Naval History and Heritage Command:

http://www.history.navy.mil

http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/cssvirginia.htm

Souvenir Spoons:

http://www.souvenirspoons.com/framesstories/merrimacandmonitor.html