Archive for the 'Civil War' Category

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].'” (

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 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. 


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 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. 


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

The Official CSS Virginia Homepage:

Naval History and Heritage Command:

Souvenir Spoons:

Apr 27

The Civil War 1861-1865

Tuesday, April 27, 2010 12:59 PM

From our YouTube Channel: The Civil War comes to life in this 1958 Navy documentary, created using original artwork.

Apr 18

The Navy Runs the Guns at Vicksburg: April 16-17, 1863

Sunday, April 18, 2010 12:26 PM


One event in U.S. Naval history slipped by this past week, that had it not been successful, would have delayed and perhaps stopped Grant’s campaign to seize Vicksburg during the Civil War. 

The winter of 1863 saw General Ulysses S Grant trying to find a way to take Vicksburg, Mississippi. Located on a commanding bluff at a hairpin turn in the Mississippi River, the guns of Vicksburg made a any thought of a direct assault a suicide mission. The only reasonable approach was along the broad band of high ground that lay between the Yazoo and Black Rivers, stretching off to the northeast. The idea then was to get the army across the river by moving them down the west bank and then crossing the river south of Vicksburg so as to gain access to the broad plain.

From January to March, the army labored to find a way to bypass Vicksburg. First, they tried digging a canal across the peninsula at De Soto Point, a long finger of land that made up the inside of the hairpin turn opposite Vicksburg. When the canal failed to produce enough draft to be useful;Grant turned to other schemes, Lake Providence, Yazoo Pass, and Steele’s Bayou all ending in failure. By late March Grant turned to the only hope he had to get army across the river. 

On March 29, Grant sent a message to Admiral David Dixon Porter who since October 1862 had commanded the Mississippi Squadron. Grant’s plan was bold and should it fail the navy would be completely out of any future efforts to take Vicksburg. The plan was for Porter to run his gunboats past Vicksburg’s guns and seize control of the river south of the city. It was a simple plan, but fraught with massive reasons for failure. First the river took a sharp turn and then narrowed right under the the bluffs. Then, there were the guns, 9 inch Confederate Dahlgren copies, and 10 inch Columbaids, for a total of 37 siege guns and 13 field pieces, all ready to blast shot and shell into anyone trying to steam past the city.

USS Benton

USS Lafayette

The plan was twofold. First, it would involve running the gunboats downriver, then later running a fleet of transports, regular wooden riverboats past the bluffs. Grant’s first plan was to just have Porter move one or two gunboats past Vicksburg to control the lower river. But, Porter countered that he would need most of his squadron. Porter warned Grant that once he got his gunboats downstream, all hope of getting them back up river was lost, due to the speed of the boats, six-knots, and the river, four-knots. Porter studied the plan and made careful preparations to make the attempt. On April 16, he ordered seven ironclad gunboats, one armed ram, three army transports and a tug to start down river towards the guns of Vicksburg. Here is where the ingenuity of Porter and the Navy is revealed, each boat had barges lashed to each side which loaded with baggage, supplies and coal. The ram and the tug were lashed to the westward side of the ironclads, USS Benton and USS Layfayette to provide them added protection. The wooden transports had wet cotton bales stacked along their sides and around their steam engines. The little fleet, filled out with the Carondelet, Pittsburg, Louisville, Mound City and Tuscumbia, rounded the bend at De Soto Point and began to take fire. The sound of Vicksburg’s guns could be heard as far as thirty miles up and down river. The whole army could hear the roar and not seeing, feared the worst for the navy. The firing continued for four long hours as the little fleet progressed past a series of Confederate batteries that ranged for twelve miles along the eastern bank. Shortly after 3:00 a.m., silence graced everyone’s ears and they were left waiting the dawn to see what the guns has wrought.

Nothing appeared on the river when dawn broke twenty miles down river at Ione Plantation, then just as the sun began to warm the landscape, smoke smugged horizon up river. Around the bend came a burned out hulk of a steamboat surrounded by burning bales of cotton. Next, came a few barges drifting slowly down river in the eddying currents. Hours passed and near noon, coming around the bend, steamed the flagship, Benton, belching smoke and proudly flying the Stars and Strips, as Porter’s little fleet followed behind. 

During the entire passage, only the transport, Henry Clay had been lost; struck by many shells, she burst into flames and was abandoned without any loss of life. Several hits were registered on the flotilla, leaving one transport with a disabled engine, and the rest a few dents and dings. The total human cost was a dozen wounded during the passage.

The significance of this little engagement was that Grant was able to secure the transports to cross the river south of Vicksburg and march on Jackson, and in the coming month, open the siege that would lead to the fall of Vicksburg.

The navy for her part, went on to provide gunfire support from the river, as well as loaning guns to the army for emplacement on the landward side. This little engagement that took place one hundred and forty seven years ago yesterday, was conducted in the finest traditions of the American Navy and made control of the Mississippi River possible. Without the Navy’s support, the outcome may have been the same, but at a horrific cost that would have left Grant’s reputation tarnished and the likelihood that he would have never been chosen to command the Grand Army of the Republic. One little action barely remembered, proved to be the linchpin that held the whole enterprise together .

Apr 5

Remembering the Navy at Shiloh

Monday, April 5, 2010 2:54 PM

In the scope of Civil War scholarship, naval operations remain a minority (Please see Civil War Navy 150 posting here). Although recent articles point to the lack of attention on Union and Confederate navies, there is still much work to be done. As we approach the 148th anniversary of the Shiloh Campaign tomorrow, it is poignant to point to both topics under the lens of the Civil War Navy. 

Federal timberclads USS Lexington and USS Tylerwere essential in the April 1862 Shiloh Campaign. Both vessels protected Union Army transports on the way to Shiloh along the Tennessee River. Indeed, protection of rivers like the Tennessee during the Civil War became one of the most important war aims of Federal Forces (Think Anaconda Plan, Mississippi River, Red River, Vicksburg Campaign, etc.). Both ships engaged at Pittsburg Landing a month before the famous battle occurred (1 March 1862), landing Federal infantry while returning fire to those Confederates witnessing the first engagement of the campaign ashore. During the engagement in April, gunfire from the river aided in Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard’s decision to call off a final southern push to break through the Union line in the evening hours of the 6th

Although one may argue Confederate success on the first day of battle, the ultimate victory went to Union forces on 7 April. We will never know what might have happened if the Lexington and Tyler were not part of the Union defensive line that first day, but it is foolish to assume naval assistance played anything less than a fundamental role in the battle. 

Shiloh is merely one example of combined Army-Navy cooperation often overlooked in the scope of eastern and western theater operations. These kinds of topics of contention involving the role of the Union and Confederate navies exist to this day. On the Battle of Shiloh Blogspot page, the blogger reviews Timothy B. Smith’s 2006 study, The Untold Story of Shiloh: The Battle and the Battlefield. Smith’s worked is well received, both by historians and the internet population (i.e. Amazon). The blogger offers readers 10 myths surrounding the Battle of Shiloh based on the facts and interpretation of Smith’s work. Of these myths, the only one which the reviewer “did not agree with” was the fifth myth: The Navy was not important. As a response to this argument, the reviewer wrote: 

“I don’t think the Navy contributed much in the way of firepower but completely agree with Smith that the Navy did a ton of logistical work [. . .] I’m not sure if that’s because its a somewhat dry topic or if the source material is thinner, but it is generally an overlooked part of battles. So I guess on that myth I only think of the Navy doing little when it came time to expend powder.”

This is not a way to offend or admonish the work of the individual posting the above quote. It does, however, warrant discussion. Upon further insight into the book itself, you see an entire chapter of Smith’s work devoted to the role of the US Navy during Shiloh. As quoted in the fourth chapter, Smith states:

“Historians rarely give full credit to the navy’s role in the Shiloh campaign, except simply to cite the activity of the two gunboats, the Lexington and Tyler, on the afternoon of April 6, 1862, when they helped repel the last Confederate assaults of the day. Such a narrow view does not do the navy justice, however. While Shiloh was primarily an infantryman’s fight, the navy did play a critical role in the campaign and battle. The use of waterborne craft to transport the army and its immense amount of supplies and equipment was extremely vital to the Northern army’s success [. . .] the Confederates feared the gunboats.” (pg. 53-54)

Smith is correct to note the same “relatively unaided” Federal Navy captured Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee River just months before. This all plays into a larger five month naval offensive by the US Navy, beginning with the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in February and ending with the decisive naval battle of Memphis, 6 June 1862. Far more than simply firepower and logistics, the Federal Navy was a source of psychological torment for Confederates on land. At a time when the Union Army under General George B. McClellan failed in the 1862 Peninsula campaign, the Navy achieved great success. If this argument is too audacious, then another one championing the success of the western theater of combined operations in early 1862 might suffice. Regardless, success in 1862, if not the entire war, was aided and won with the help of the Union Navy. Shiloh is no different. As we begin to commemorate the brave men who fought on land tomorrow, remember and honor those sailors in “Mr. Lincoln’s Navy.”

The naval role in the Civil War does not tarnish the heroics and embattled courage of opposing armies on land. It can stand as a compliment to the myriad campaigns waged during the Civil War. When you think of General Bernard Bee’s exclamation, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall,” remember Admiral David G. Farragut’s famous exclamation, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” 

It is the hope of the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial Commission that more scholarship will surface in the upcoming years. Recent research like Naval Academy Professor Emeritus Craig Symonds’ Lincoln and His Admirals helps foment discussion in both lay and academic circles. Yet Dr. Symonds’ work will hopefully be the start of a long series of new research and interpretation during the sesquicentennial years.

Yes, land offensives outweigh those on water. Yes, it may be too bold to suggest the “road” to Appomattox was paved through naval operations. It is safe, however, to assume that the war was won with the help of the fleet. And for that, we must consider and commemorate those brave sailors who fought on both sides nearly 150 years ago. 

The Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial (2011-2015) will be posting interesting and informative articles to this blog in an effort to expand scholarship and discussion on the role of both Union and Confederate navies during the American Civil War. If you have any questions, please feel free to email the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial Commission coordinator, Matthew Eng, at or visit the blog at

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