As I See It: Saga of the frigate Merrimack

Courtesy photoAn engraving showing the burning of the frigate Merrimack in Norfolk, Virginia, 1861.

“Burn her to the waterline!”

Albion didn’t like his assignment one whit. He remembered back in Boston when they named the frigate after the river he had grown up on.

“Orders are orders, Albion. Spread the tar and light the spark. The fire will roar through her rigging. Then sink her after she’s burned.”

Bad idea, as it turned out. The Confederate Navy refloated the USS Merrimack and renamed her the CSS Virginia, but the name never stuck very well. Even after she had been sheathed in two-inch thick plates of iron and only rode seven feet above the water, people still referred to her as The Merrimack.

“So now what’s her purpose?”

“To wreak havoc on the Union’s wooden ships that are blockading Hampton Roads.”

“She’s done a good job, too. Destroyed both the USS Congress and the USS Cumberland, killed over a hundred men. Such a good job that the Union slapped together that ugly vessel over there.”

“The Monitor?”

“Aye, the Monitor, damn cursed vessel.”

“Day after day we have watched the two ships lob 20 pound balls at each other to no advantage to either side.”

“But the Union Army draws ever closer. Soon we will have to withdraw up the James River.”

“I understand orders are to run the Virginia up on Craney Island and set her afire.”


“Aye, that ship is ill-fated for sure.”

“Bad luck to change the name of a vessel.”

“That’s just superstition.”

“Just the same, look at her.”

As the reporter spoke, a massive explosion tore through the vessel and large chunks of burning lumber and red hot plates of iron flew through the air like pieces of paper.

“Watch out! Watch out! There she goes!”

The Merrimack sank out of sight only to have salvers pick over her bones and sell them for relics for years after the war was over. .

Yet she was doomed to go down as a participant in the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimack, with all concurring that the Battle of The Monitor and the Virginia just wouldn’t sound right in the history books.

But the die had been cast. The Merrimack River’s era of trade and shipbuilding had come to a rapid end and once wealthy cities like Newburyport would have to find new uses for their valuable river.

Bill Sargent is a North Shore science writer and contributing columnist. His most recent book, North of Boston, Living on the Edge of a Warming World is available in local bookstores and through, and at

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