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Final Salvo

July 2024
1min read

I’m complimented and grateful at the mention of my history of our navy in the “Correspondence” section of the February issue of American Heritage, but (and perhaps because of it) I cannot avoid adding a bit to the Merrimack/Virginia name argument.

In the old days, when captured ships were taken into the opposing navies, it was customary to retain the old name. This custom sat well with the victorious navy as well as with the losing side, for whom the captured ships were not a memory of past glory. Sometimes the captured name was bestowed on a newly built ship if the old one was too seriously damaged. Besides, sailors claimed it was bad luck to change the name of a ship. In the case of the Merrimack , there was more reason yet.

The Civil War was fought because the Federal government held that the Southern states had no right to secede and were in unlawful rebellion. For a time Confederate fighting men were even considered (by some) to be subject to the death penalty. Under this construction the South had no right to capture a Federal warship, use her in any way, or rename her—but all this was academic. No way could the North get the ship back, or prevent her use as a Confederate warship, but this did not mean the Union had to learn a new name for her as well. Forsooth, sah! ’Twere adding insult to injury, sah!

So the North never called the Merrimack (correctly spelled with a fc) by any other name than the one she was christened with. Alliteration with the Monitor was an added influence, but from the very beginning, calling the ship by her Confederate name meant one was on the side of the South, and one may ponder, if it’s important enough, what history would call the ship today if the South had won the Civil War.

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