Skip to main content

Final Salvo

March 2023
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.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "May/June 1988"

Authored by: Peter Andrews

In 1904 the Olympics took place for only the third time in the modern era. The place was St. Louis, where a world’s fair was providing all the glamour and glitter and excitement anyone could ask. The Games, on the other hand, were something else.

Authored by: John Maass

Whistler named his most famous
portrait Arrangement in Grey and Black . Here, for Mother’s Day,
are notable arrangements by various artists of their first loves.

Authored by: Bill McCloud

That was the question an Oklahoma high school teacher sent out in a handwritten note to men and women who had been prominent movers or observers during the Vietnam War. Politicians and journalists and generals and combat veterans answered him. Secretaries of Defense answered him. Presidents answered him. Taken together, the answers form a powerful and moving record of the national conscience.

Authored by: Edward Sorel

In Clare Briggs’s cartoons nobody got chased by twenty cops, nobody broke a plank over the boss’s head, nobody’s eyes popped out on springs. People just acted the way people do, and as a result, the drawings still make us laugh.

Authored by: Garry Wills

The distasteful questions we ask our presidential hopefuls serve a real purpose

Authored by: Joseph Fox

It didn’t last long. But we never got over it.

Authored by: Thomas Fleming

Early in the century a young American accurately predicted Japan’s imperialism and China’s and Russia’s rise. Then he set out to become China’s soldier leader.

Featured Articles

The world’s most prominent actress risked her career by standing up to one of Hollywood’s mega-studios, proving that behind the beauty was also a very savvy businesswoman. 

Rarely has the full story been told about how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.