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quality posts: 14 Private Messages WootBot

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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.



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loatu


quality posts: 1 Private Messages loatu

chiieddy


quality posts: 5 Private Messages chiieddy

The Constitution, which you can still visit in the Charlestown Navy Yard in Charlestown, MA. I drive by it on my way into the city at least once a week.

TJJohn12


quality posts: 1 Private Messages TJJohn12

So, why privilege the traitor's new name for the boat they stole over the loyal Americans' name for it?

It was named the Merrimack. There is no "myth" to debunk here. It's all a matter of perspective, and I tend to take the perspective of the United States.

Cloudscout


quality posts: 3 Private Messages Cloudscout

Still wrong.

It was actually the Mortimer and the Montemack.

mndvs737


quality posts: 4 Private Messages mndvs737

I guess we could bill it as USS Monitor vs. USS Merrimack (dba CSS CSS Virgina).

Here's another nautical one for you, Ken - what is the longest ship in the US Navy?

aardwolf64


quality posts: 5 Private Messages aardwolf64
TJJohn12 wrote:So, why privilege the traitor's new name for the boat they stole over the loyal Americans' name for it?

It was named the Merrimack. There is no "myth" to debunk here. It's all a matter of perspective, and I tend to take the perspective of the United States.



So... your view is that the name of a ship should be determined by the winner of the war? What if the south had won its independence? Would it suddenly be OK to call it something else?

sssprinkle


quality posts: 17 Private Messages sssprinkle

"History is written by the victors" - Churchill: Here, in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, a Bridge tunnel, that spans the James River near the site of the battle is named the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge Tunnel - Historically inaccurate (especially in Virginia) - it drives me crazy, but then I still like the alliteration.

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

Guest Blogger

TJJohn12 wrote:So, why privilege the traitor's new name for the boat they stole over the loyal Americans' name for it?



I don't think there's really much of a "written by the victors" angle here. We're not talking about whether you should say "Bull Run" or "Manassas Junction."

If the south had just captured a Union ship and re-crewed it, there might be some argument for still using the old name. (But it would be a little weird, since all the historical references would be to two ships in the same Navy fighting each other!)

But in this case, the Merrimack had been sunk and left for scrap. RIP Merrimack. By salvaging and armor-plating it, the Confederacy had effectively built a new ship. At that point, it's pretty clearly the Virginia.

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

Guest Blogger

Cloudscout wrote:It was actually the Mortimer and the Montemack.



You're thinking of the Macgruber and the Markymark.

By the way, "Constitution" is correct for the trivia question. Well done, loatu et. al.

jawlz


quality posts: 12 Private Messages jawlz

Aye tear her tattered ensign down! And then put iron plating on her and call her something else.

Wait, am I mixing my metaphors?

subtraho


quality posts: 1 Private Messages subtraho

I would say "added an iron superstructure" instead of "added an iron hull" - the Virginia's hull below the waterline was still just as wooden as when she was the Merrimack.

jai151


quality posts: 8 Private Messages jai151
TJJohn12 wrote:So, why privilege the traitor's new name for the boat they stole over the loyal Americans' name for it?

It was named the Merrimack. There is no "myth" to debunk here. It's all a matter of perspective, and I tend to take the perspective of the United States.



Why privilege the invader's name for it over that of the owning country?

While I may not agree with the Confederacy's views on civil rights, it was perfectly within their rights to peacefully secede. The United States' refusal to allow that secession was an aggressive act of war on a sovereign country.

The real naming myth that should be debunked is calling it the American Civil War. It was not America fighting itself, it was the American-Confederacy War.

But, like they say, History is written by the victors.