The Dec. 28 Associated Press news article “Memorial will honor USS Monitor” contained the astonishing statement that “The Virginia was the Confederate answer to the Union’s ironclad ships.”
In fact, the first Union ironclads were built in response to the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (often called the Merrimack, after the ship’s Union name before it was scuttled and then captured). Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had created the “Ironclad Board” to explore building such vessels only after he heard about the Confederates’ efforts to construct an armored warship.
The article regarding the dedication of a memorial to honor the USS Monitor and its crew failed to mention the exciting story behind the ship’s development. Were it not for Mary Touvestre, a freed slave turned Union spy, there likely would have been no Union ironclad ready to face the CSS Virginia in early March 1862.
According to the CIA publication Intelligence in the Civil War, Touvestre worked as a housekeeper for a Confederate engineer tasked with turning the captured USS Merrimack into an ironclad ship for the Confederates. The ship was to be renamed the CSS Virginia. When Touvestre overheard her employer talking about the Virginia and realized its significance as a weapon, she stole a set of the ship’s plans and delivered them to the Navy Department in Washington. This spurred officials to speed up the Union’s building of its own ironclad, the USS Monitor. Some believe that this was a turning point in the war; without Touvestre’s intelligence, the Virginia would have been able to wreak havoc on vulnerable Union ships unchallenged for several weeks, long enough for the Confederates to receive desperately needed supplies from Europe and perhaps change the outcome of the war.
Margit Hunt Nahra,