Common Myths and Misconceptions
There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of sources published on the American Civil War; only a small percentage of these are dedicated specifically to the subject of the Naval War. Perhaps because the subject is not as well understood, or because of a function of the smaller pool of documents from which to draw to create these sources, there have been a great many myths and misconceptions published as legitimate facts in published discussions of saidsame aspect of the conflict.
Some of these facts are reflected in open access documents that one might expect to be less than perfect (like this, and other 'Wikis"), while others are professionally produced books on the subject that should probably have received better proofreading or fact checking.
This page exists as a repository for the collected "Errata" from these sources. The information here represents misstatements, incorrect assertions, and blatant falsifications. Rather than assigning blame for these, I've sought instead to discuss the truth of the matter, when known. This list will grow over time.
"USS Alligator was lost with all hands/with heavy loss of life/etc."
Repeated in a handful of sources on the subject. However, the period reports of her lost don't seem to indicate any actual loss of life.
"Alligator was not the first USN Submarine. That honor actually goes to David Bushnell's Turtle."
While the Turtle was certainly used in the cause of American independence, she was never officially adopted by the fledgling United States Navy, or its precursors, during her service. In fact, Alligator WAS the first submarine to be formally commissioned into the United States Navy.
"CSS Columbia was never commissioned."
Simply false. Was both commissioned and saw service, albeit briefly.
"CSS Hunley was the first American submarine."
Hardly. She was only the latest in a series of experimental ships going back to the days of the American Revolution. While her service was laudable, and required incredible bravery, she was not the first of her kind,
"CSS Hunley' was the first US Navy submarine."
Again, incorrect. Hunley was never commissioned into the US Navy, and has never been considered a US Naval vessel. She was a vessel built and commissioned by the Confederate States Navy - a hostile power. While some US ships have even subsequently been named in her honor, let me repeat: Hunley was a Confederate vessel, never a USN vessel.
"USS Monitor was the first Union ironclad to see service during the American Civil War."
Repeated so much as to be believed to be true by the majority of Americans who have read anything on the subject. In fact, records indicate that members of the "City" class of ironclads actually engaged Confederate forces a few months prior to the appearance of the Monitor at Hampton Roads.
"CSS Pioneer has been recovered and is on display in the Louisiana State Museum."
This often reported 'fact' is based upon bad archaeology and bad historical research. When the wreck of the Bayou Saint John submarine was recovered, it was widely believed that she was, in fact CSS Pioneer, or even the American Diver. In the early twentieth century, it was even announced that a positive identification had been made as such. The identification was disputed, but kept in many sources until the earlier part of the current century, when a study of the Bayou Saint John submarine confirmed that she was significantly different from Pioneer. Sadly for those with interest in the subject, Pioneer remains unrecovered, though some remain optimistic that she may yet be retrieved, in relatively good condition.
"Virginia was never referred to as the 'Merrimac/Merrimack in Confederate service."
Actually, period sources state otherwise. She was informally referred to as Merimmac or Merrimack in a number of military after action reports, newspaper accounts, and personal correspondence, on BOTH sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. It is perhaps better to say that she was "officially" referred to as Virginia, but even members of her crew called her the "Merrimac" or "Merrimack."
"Virginia was the first Confederate ironclad to see service during the war."
CSS Manassas was both commissioned and in service prior to Virginia firing her first shots in anger.
The Battle of Plum Point (10th May, 1862)
"CSS General Sumter had her boiler/boiler room penetrated, an action which blew the ship to pieces."
Often repeated in one version or another of various discussions and published wargaming scenarios regarding the engagement at Plum Point. However, Unionists among us will be disappointed to learn that CSS General Sumter survived the battle, despite the penetration to her boiler room, and had in fact been fully repaired and returned to full service within the month.
TheUnion Bombardment of Fort Sumter (April 7th, 1863)
"The Charleston Squadron played no active role in the engagement."
Often repeated as fact. A common historical error, but one that cannot be confirmed. Sources from both sides claim that Confederate ironclads did, in fact, exchange fire with the Union fleet under Rear Admiral DuPont. Sources from both sides also assert, however, that the Confederate ironclads present at Charleston "were neither seen nor heard from" during the bombardment. So, the reality of the matter is that we really can't say for certain.