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updated 09/05/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/05/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

CIVIL WAR: THE FIERY TRIAL

IRONCLADS: THE MONITOR AND THE MERRIMAC

Understatement may be the best way to approach any history of the Civil War, so appallingly destructive and charged with emotion were its four years. These two tapes, both produced by the same outfit, may over do the underplaying. Civil War gives a reasonable introduction to the conflict—or as reasonable as you can get in 30 minutes—but it's flat. Peter Gilbert's script, while it touches on most major personalities and battles, is prosaic, and it's read listlessly by TV commentator Edwin Newman—a rare abuse of the language by someone who usually treats it so lovingly. The primitive visuals include a crude map of the crucial Maryland-Virginia area and sketches, paintings and photographs, though too few of them. The potential of computer graphics to depict troop movements is hardly exploited. Ironclads, not having to cram so much in its half hour, is livelier, thanks partly to interviews with historians discussing the world's first battle between ships covered by armor plating. There are also ship models and footage of the 1973 discovery of the Monitor under 220 feet of water off Cape Hatteras, N.C., as well as period illustrations. The skirmish barely had any effect on the war. The Merrimac was called the Virginia by the Confederates, who raised the scuttled Union steam frigate Merrimac and covered it with iron plating. The Monitor, built by the Union after a series of political procurement snags that would do today's Pentagon proud, happened on the Merrimac on March 9, 1862, as the rebel ship was in the process of splintering wooden vessels of the Federal fleet off Hampton Roads, Va. The ensuing battle was a stalemate—the Merrimac was later scuttled by the Confederates, and the Monitor sank during a storm—but naval warfare had been forever changed. (Atlas, $19.95 each; 800-999-0212)

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