Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

NOVA Online (click here for NOVA home)
Lincoln's Secret Weapon

Deck The virtual USS Monitor docked at New York.
Remaking the Monitor
by Michael Burz

In 1995 my studio initiated a project to digitally recreate the battle between the Civil War-era ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. We set out to examine an event that had become a well-recognized but not deeply understood symbol of the Civil War. Our goal was to present a detailed and accurate historic recreation of the ironclads in order to more fully appreciate their significance. We wanted the computer screen to serve as a window into 1862, a virtual time machine.

It took six months of research into the history of the battle and Civil War-era ironclads, and eight months of digital modeling, to reconstruct the two ships in precise detail. (Only the Monitor reconstruction appears here.) The challenges were enormous. There are only eight known photographs of the exterior of the Monitor, and none of her interior. No known photos of her construction exist either, probably because no one save her designer John Ericsson expected her to actually work or survive. Her brief existence did not provide many photo opportunities: She sank in a storm only nine months after her initial battle.

Captain's Cabin A view from the captain's cabin to his stateroom. We worked hard on aspects of light, from the candle and its reflection at left to the shaft of dusty sunlight streaming down from a skylight in the stateroom.

The team that created these models consisted of talented artists from both Hollywood movie studios and San Francisco's "Multimedia Gulch." They had to become historical engineers as we worked out, using period engineering drawings, how the ship was constructed. First we had to gain an understanding of arcane mechanisms, then model and install them into the ship. We created a complete working digital model of the turret rotating mechanism, from the gears below deck in the galley area, to the donkey engine that powered them, to the control levers in the turret. We also reconstructed Ericsson's steam engine in operation, its configuration carefully worked out and its action taken from the inventor's patent model.

In Tour the Monitor, you see one part of all this effort—the animated panoramas of the Monitor. Details to look for in the virtual rooms include light shafts streaming down from deck-mounted portholes; the tools and gauges in the engine room; the working parts of the massive Dahlgren guns in the turret; and the safety lanterns on the berth deck. On deck, look on shore for the large shed, a reconstruction made from a photograph of the actual shed in New York in which the Monitor was built, and the ship's boats, which we meticulously modeled from original Navy drawings.


Officer's Cabin This is a view of Keeler's cabin. The letter on his desk contains an actual extract from one of his letters to his wife Anna.
The team crafted interiors with great care as to color, lighting, textures, and historical artifacts. Most of our guidance came from just two sources: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies During the War of Rebellion, an extraordinary 26-volume compendium of every memo ever written by the Union and Confederate navies, and the remarkably detailed letters of William Keeler, who served as paymaster aboard the Monitor (see Eyewitness to the Battle. As a tribute, you can visit Keeler's cabin, complete with his writing desk, bunk, and one of his letters to his wife.

The Monitor's captain, Lt. John Worden, had two rooms to himself as befitted an officer and a gentleman. Worden's cabin and stateroom are accurate as to their configuration and furnishings, though we did take license with their decoration. The desktop, for instance, contains a map, a model of a cannon, and other artifacts, which are conjecture. The shaving equipment and sword are of the period, however.

For textures, colors, and environmental effects in the engine room, we paid a visit to the USS Jeremiah O'Brien. The last surviving D-Day troop ship, now a museum in San Francisco, her steam engine was based on one designed in the late 1800s and thus provided us with the right atmosphere.

Wardroom We lavished detail on the officer's wardroom, from the fine gilt chinaware to the swirling grain of the wooden table.

The most elegant of the simulations is the officer's wardroom, complete with dinner service and candles. Zooming in, you can see the gilt decoration of the plates, which, Keeler tells us, Ericsson paid for out of his own pocket. This room stands in sharp contrast to the crew quarters (berth deck), which also served as a mess and storage area.

In attempting this historical recreation, we were fortunate to have the assistance of a fellow enthusiast, the naval historian Colan Ratliff. We were also grateful for the generous and valuable support of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary through Ms. Dina Hill. The Sanctuary supplied us with many documents, including a book of Ericsson's drawings lovingly prepared by the late U.S. Naval Historian Capt. Ernst Peterkin. We would also like to thank our spouses and partners, who supported us during this endeavor. I especially want to acknowledge my wife Christi, who provided much-needed support and guidance throughout this project.

We, the team that rebuilt the Monitor, hope you enjoy your tour.

Ron Cobb, Art Director
Mitch Suskin, Digital Effects Director
Sean Wagstaff, Chief 3-D Artist
Craig Lyn, Senior 3-D Artist
Evan Pontiero, Senior 3-D Artist
Emmanuel Shiu, Senior 3-D Artist
Brian Flora, Backgrounds
Steve McEntee, Interface Art
Michael Burz, Producer, Chief Engineer


Tour the Monitor | Behind the Scenes
Eyewitness to the Battle | Steam Machine | Resources
Transcript | Site Map | Lincoln's Secret Weapon Home

Editor's Picks | Previous Sites | Join Us/E-mail | TV/Web Schedule | About NOVA
Watch NOVAs online | Teachers | Site Map | Shop | Search | To Print
PBS Online | NOVA Online | WGBH

© | Updated May 2003

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site

Mail Shop Site Map Search NOVA Lincoln's Secret Weapon Site Map