The Debunker: Did the Monitor Fight the Merrimack?

by Ken Jennings

Even though the Civil War hasn’t receded all that far into the past—the Associated Press reported last month that two children-of-Civil-War-vets are still alive and well and receiving government veterans’ benefits!—we may not remember very much about it. This month, Ken “Burns” Jennings will reveal that a lot of what you think you know about the Civil War is a bunch of Bull Run.

Civil War Myth #2: The Ironclad Warships Monitor and Merrimack Faced Off in 1862.

Perhaps the most important naval engagement of the Civil War was fought on March 9, 1862, off Hampton Roads, Virginia. But the Battle of Hampton Roads is rarely known by its proper geographic name, since schools tend to teach it as “the battle of the Monitor and Merrimack.” These two ironclad ships fired on each other at close range for over three hours, but neither was able to sink (or even do much damage to) the other. The repercussions of the game-changing battle were felt as far away as Europe, where naval powers like Britain and France immediately abandoned the construction of wooden-hulled ships in favor of the ironclad warships that still plow the seas today.

But the only thing most people remember about the battle—the Monitor-Merrimack face-off—is actually wrong. The Union warship Monitor was there, all right. But at the Battle of Hampton Roads (seen in this 1886 chromolithograph), its Confederate opponent was clearly commissioned and marked as the CSS Virginia.

In April 1861, upon the state of Virginia’s secession, the North had tried to evacuate the USS Merrimack from the Norfolk Navy Yard, but been blocked. As a result, the Navy burned the ship and sunk it before getting out of Dodge. The Confederacy, desperate for ships, salvaged the Merrimack, added an iron hull, and recommissioned it under a new name. (The Merrimack, after all, was a river in Massachusetts. Massachusetts?!? Get a rope.) But the Union continued to use the original name in news accounts of the battle, and, history being written by the victors and all, the correct Virginia designation was largely forgotten. It probably also helped that “Monitor and Merrimack” has an alliterative ring that was clearly deemed more important than historical accuracy.

Quick Quiz: What War of 1812-era U.S. frigate was nicknamed “Old Ironsides,” even though its famously strong hull was made of oak?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.