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The American Civil War battle of the ironclad warships which took place on the Elizabeth River in Virginia has several common names. One way which it is commonly referenced is as simply the "Monitor vs. Merrimack". In Hampton Roads there is even a bridge tunnel named after the two ships (Monitor Merrimack Bridge Tunnel).

It makes sense why the USS Monitor is included in the name, because it was commissioned for use by the Union Army in the American Civil War.

The USS Merrimack on the other hand was a United States frigate commissioned before the war which was sunk and later used by the Confederacy as the hull for the CSS Virginia given the south's limited industrial resources during wartime.

Though technically both were present in the battle, why isn't the battle more commonly referred to as the "USS Monitor vs CSS Virginia"?

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The Merrimack was renamed the Virginia only after many months of work on the ship. Having called the ship the Merrimack for so long even after it was in Confederate hands, the shipyard workers and crew continued using that name even after the ship's name was officially changed, something I learned at the Monitor Center at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News last year. The Wikipedia page on the Virginia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CSS_Virginia) says, "After raising, restoration, and outfitting as an ironclad warship [my note: that is, after about 10 months], the Confederacy bestowed on her the name Virginia … the names Virginia and Merrimack were used interchangeably by both sides." My opinion as a writer and editor is that the alliteration of the two names Monitor and Merrimack both starting with an M probably also contributed to people referring to the battle that way.

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There is a bit of a theme with American Civil War battles where they tend to have two names; a northern name and a southern one. You will notice that the North liked to name battles after nearby bodies of water, while the South tended to be partial to nearby place names. For example, the Bull Run battles were known in the South as Manassas, and Antietam (named after a nearby creek) was called Sharpsburg in the South.

One other thing you may note from the above discourse is that when there are different names, it is generally the North's name that won out. Probably the simplest explanation for that without going into a lot of gory details is that the North won the war, so they got to write the history books.

That is why I believe the name "Merrimack" tends to be used (note that Wikipedia currently has "Virginia" in parentheses afterwards). From the North's point of view, the Merrimack was a US Navy ship, effectively stolen and modified by rebels.

Merrimack was still in ordinary during the crisis preceding Lincoln's inauguration. Soon after becoming Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles took action to prepare the frigate for sea, planning to move her to Philadelphia. The day before the firing on Fort Sumter, Welles directed that "great vigilance be exercised in guarding and protecting" Norfolk Navy Yard and her ships. On the afternoon of 17 April, the day Virginia seceded, Engineer in Chief B. F. Isherwood managed to get the frigate's engines lit off; but the previous night secessionists had sunk light boats in the channel between Cranes Island and Sewell's Point, blocking Merrimack. On the 20 April, before evacuating the Navy Yard, the U.S. Navy burned Merrimack to the waterline and sank her to preclude capture.

So as far as northerners were concerned, the ship was the Merrimack.

As to why it isn't known by a location name ("Battle of Hampton Roads"), that's likely just popular culture for you. The duel between those two specific ships is far more interesting to people than the location it happened to eventually occur at.

It probably doesn't hurt that from the North's perspective the duel ended in a technical win for them (the Confederate ship was the one that retired from the scene). If you look at the entire action, including all ships involved, the Confederates did considerably better.

  • I was aware of the difference in the naming of battles, normally I associate that more with the battles on land as opposed to naval battles, but that was one reason which crossed my mind why I thought they may have varied names. To me it seems odd though. Indeed a fascinating battle. – John Sep 23 '15 at 19:13
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    I asked a friend who lives in Hampton Roads and it is the Battle of Hampton Roads to him. Period. And the CSS Virginia was the South's finest ship. :) His son was taught in school, however, exactly that, the Southern Rebels illegally modified a US Navy ship called the Merrimack and had their butt's kicked over it. – CGCampbell Sep 23 '15 at 19:18
  • I actually got my undergraduate in Norfolk which is part of Hampton Roads, which may be why I had a particular interest to the details of this battle. I heard it called The Battle of Hampton Road frequently but also the Monitor vs. the Merrimack nearly just as frequently, among other names like the battle of the ironclads etc. – John Sep 24 '15 at 13:35
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The reason why it is so called is that this was the first battle between the armored steamships. For this reason it is famous everywhere in the world not only among historians of the American Civil war.

  • Only one problem with that: the duel between the Monitor and the Virginia was only one part of the battle, and not even the most important part. From the standpoint of naval history, it was the Virginia's effortless destruction of the Congress and Cumberland that was important. – Mark Sep 25 '15 at 0:23
  • That doesn't answer the question. – Mark C. Wallace Aug 8 '18 at 20:45
  • At that time, both Monitor and Virginia were ironclad warships that didn't have sails, making them very unusual. At the time, the destruction of Congress and Cumberland was perhaps more important, but they aren't what's historically important. – David Thornley Aug 8 '18 at 20:58
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The legal and official name of the Merrimack was the Merrimack. That was the only name it was ever legally given.

The Confederate sates of American was a criminal organization and never had any legal right to do ANYTHING, which includes naming a ship Virginia.

If the Confederacy had won and gained independence and become a legal government, the things it did AFTERWARDS would (mostly) have been legal, but even that would not have made the things the Confederacy did BEFORE gaining independence, such as naming the Merrimack the Virginia, legal.

Therefore it is proper to refer to the ship as the Merrimack, not the Virginia.

  • That's a... debatable point. 700 thousand people died debating it. If this is the reason for the North to prefer the name Merrimack, fine but citation required; also, it doesn't address why the battle came to be known this way. – user4139 Nov 22 '15 at 13:58
  • Because the South didn't write the histories of the Naval War, having lost virtually every engagement they fought and tied this one. – Oldcat Dec 5 '15 at 1:04

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