Union Naval Landing Party for Sharp Practice

When the Civil War broke out, the Union navy had a mere 7.000 men and forty functioning ships. An intense recruitment program was started, often trying to lure men into service with exaggerated promises of prize money. At the end of the war, the navy had 51.500 men serving on 670 ships.

In contrast to soldiers, who generally had a rural background, sailors predominantly came from the urban working class. 45% of recruits were foreign-born immigrants, most of them Irish, but many from England, Canada, Germany and many more states. The navy also had a long-standing tradition of recruiting African-Americans and by the end of the Civil War, 15-20% of the men serving were black.

Sailor had the reputation of being rowdy and ill-disciplined, but they were also hard-working and proved to be quite able in combat. As the blockade of the Confederate coast was central to Union strategy, landing operations were conducted from the beginning on. Sailors were drilled with small weapons and regularly landed for shooting exercises. As boarding actions were very rare, they were not accustomed to fighting in close quarters. There was a least one occasion when they did attack enemy lines with close combat weapons (the ill-fated assault on Fort Fisher), but most of the time it seems that they preferred to shoot at the enemy from a distance. Admiral Dahlgren’s instructions from August 8, 1864 state that “skirmish drill” was most appropriate for sailors.

Sailors often operated together with a ship’s contingent of Marines. Marines were few in number – at the beginning of the war, there were only 1.800, and they never numbered more than 3.900 – but they belonged to the few regular troops available to the Federal government. Although they did fight in a couple of battles (most importantly at First Bull Run), most often they were employed in amphibious operations. They were also deployed as light infantry and would fight in open order. Shooting practice was encouraged and they were regarded as good marksmen.

Sailors were mostly armed with the Plymouth musket (Whitney Model 1861). The use of buckshot at short range was recommended by Dahlgren. Some .52 cal. Sharps and Hankins rifles were also in circulation, while pistols and cutlasses were used for assaults. Marines were armed with the Springfield rifle musket (M1855).

battery
Sailors working a battery during the siege of Port Hudson.

One special piece of equipment was the Dahlgren Light Boat Howitzer. Its carriage had a third wheel in the trail so it could be manhandled up a beach. A very mobile weapon, it was an integrated part of landing force tactics.

dahlgren2
Dahlgren Boat Howitzer.

Naval Landing Parties conducted a large variety of operations. An important task was scouting, especially in the maze of waterways and inlets of the South Atlantic Coast. Armed launches would be dispatched to probe a river, looking for smugglers, blockade runners and hidden batteries. They were also sent to capture and destroy Confederate ships, confiscate or destroy contraband, hunt guerillas or storm gun emplacements.

Such operations make, of course, perfect scenarios for Sharp Practice. My Force List for the Union Naval Landing Party can be found here or in the Resources section of this blog.

There are a number of figures available. In 28mm, 1st Corps offers a large variety of Marines and Sailors. Redoubt also makes landing parties.

In 15mm, Minifigs produces Sailors and Marines, although the Marines are in dress uniform which was most probably never worn in battle. QRF/Freikorp15 also offers sailors, while Peter Pig makes a very nice naval artillery crew.

sentry
Sailor standing sentry.

Bibliography

It is difficult to get detailed information on the operations of naval landing parties. I’m very grateful to Mr Chuck Veit, President of the reenactment group ‘U.S. Naval Landing Party’, who patiently answered my questions and generously shared his research. His website is a treasure trove of information, while his book A Dog Before a Soldier contains many ideas for scenarios. Very useful information on the Dahlgren Boat Howitzers can be found on Craig Swain’s blog To the Sound of the Guns.

Bennett, Michael J.: Union Jacks. Yankee Sailors in the Civil War, Chapel Hill, NC.: University of North Carolina Press 2004.

Browning, Robert M. Jr.: Success is all that was expected. The South Atlantic blockading squadron during the Civil War, Washington, DC: Brassey’s, Inc. 2002.

Field, Ron: American Civil War Marines 1861-65, Oxford: Osprey Publishing 2004.

Field, Ron: Bluejacket. Uniforms of the United States Navy in the Civil War Period 1852-1865, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History 2010.

Veit, Chuck: A Dog Before a Soldier. Almost-lost Episodes in the U.S. Navy’s Civil War, self-published (Lulu.com) 2010.

EDIT: As Andy Hall (of the highly recommended Dead Confederates blog) was kind enough to point out that the sailors in the first image are not actually US sailors, I've changed the image to one showing crewmen of the USS Monitor relaxing on deck.

Battle of Bean Ridge – Sharp Practice AAR

Having finished my new modular hills, I looked for an excuse to get them on the gaming table. Inspired by a napoleonic scenario I found in an old issue of Wargames Illustrated, I devised the following situation.

setup

Bean Ridge (at the Western edge of the table) is a strategically important position, as it covers the flank of the Confederate marching column. To secure the location, pickets have been posted on a small wooded hill (at the Northern edge of the table) and in Henderson’s orchard (at the Southern table edge). However, the Union advance guard is already approaching – will the Confederates be able to hold their position long enough for their reinforcements to arrive and to drive back the Yankees?

I played the Confederates and initially had one group of skirmishers each in the orchard and on the hill. My main deployment point would appear at the beginning of turn 5 on the road at the Northwestern corner of the table. K., who played the Union, had two deployment points at the Eastern table edge.

Each of the objectives – the orchard, the small hill and Bean Ridge – was worth 5 points, defeating the enemy was also worth 5 points. Whoever was last in possession of the objective would get the points at the end – so you don’t have to stay there, you just have to make sure the other force doesn’t occupy it after you left.

To give the attacker an edge, I let K. chose between three supports: an additional group of skirmishers, a group of cavalry or one light gun. I would know which she took when she deployed them.

Due to the close distance between my pickets and the Union deployment points, the game started right into the action. When K.’s line of three groups entered, my skirmishers on the hill immediately started firing. A lucky bullet hit the Union’s Sergeant, killing him instantly. An inauspicious start for the boys in blue! My guys in the orchard shot at the other Federals, which didn’t enter in formation but as individual groups. One of them was driven back by the skirmishers’ withering fire.

pic4

However, the Union Leader calmly brought his line into position, made them present arms and then ordered them to concentrate their fire at the skirmishers on the hill. When the smoke had cleared, the poor rebel Sgt. stood alone on the hill – his whole group was wiped out!

Inspired by this success, the second group of Union skirmishers (that’s what K. chose as support) charged towards the orchard. The Confederates decided to fall back – I didn’t want to lose my other group of skirmishers in a bloody and unpredictable melee. However, I was losing heart and hoped that the reinforcements could turn the situation around.

pic5
Union skirmishers driving in the Rebel pickets.

The Confederate Leader marched the majority of his men in column along the road to get into a blocking position. Two groups were sent up the small hill, which had meanwhile been occupied by the Union skirmishers.

pic6

pic7
Up and at them, boys!

When confronted with cold steel, the Union skirmishers fell back and the hill was again in Confederate hands. Also, the Confederate Leader had formed his men into a firing line and opened up on the advancing Federals. Things were definitely improving for the Rebels!

My intent was now to pin the Union line with my line and work the groups on the hill around the Union’s right flank. After a first controlled volley, I let them fire at will, hoping that the faster rate of fire could counteract the more precise shooting of the Federals, which were still manoeuvering into position. The exchange of fire between the two lines soon became a stalemate and a contest of attrition. For a while, each line stubbornly stood its ground.

However, after the initial shock of the determined Confederate counterattack K. quickly stepped up her game. First, she sorted out her left flank, which hung in tatters since my skirmishers had forced one of the groups back. She decided that those fellows were beyond help and concentrated on her still intact group, attaching it to her line. This in turn enabled her to detach one group from the right end of her line, which moved into position to block the Rebel groups advancing down the hill.

pic10
Swift and determined action saves the Union flank!

As her skirmishers also formed a screen, my groups now faced two Union groups. I decided to pull them back to the small hill, where they at least had cover from the wooded area – after all, it would be enough to deny the Union this position.

However, the Confederate counterattack was stalled and the momentum changed back to the Union. Suddenly, “inspired by their volley and convinced the enemy is done for” (as it says in the random event that now happened), my line rushed forward. Unfortunately, they never reached the enemy line, getting bogged down in rough ground. This was the Union’s chance: with a crashing volley, they made the Rebels reel back.

pic11
A crashing volley tears into the Confederate line.

This well-timed blow broke the stalemate between the two lines and sealed the Confederates’ fate. The Rebel line fell into disarray. The last remaining Confederate skirmishers were destroyed by another volley, which enabled the Union skirmishers to advance unopposed to the foot of Bean Ridge.

pic12
The end is at hand.

My Force Morale was at 2, while K.’s was still at 7. With both groups of skirmishers lost, my firing line broken and individual groups withdrawing I knew I had no chance and conceded defeat. I still had the hill, so that was 5 points for me, but K. had the orchard, Bean Ridge and she had defeated me, so 15 points and victory for her!

Another dramatic game, which was made even more exciting because we both were in quite good form. For once I made no severe tactical mistakes and for a moment even felt like I had victory in my grasp. However, by coolly reorganising her battle line K. managed to stall my counterattack and with her crashing volley delivered a punch my already battered line couldn’t recover from. A well deserved victory for the Union!

Dungeons & Dragons

Role-playing has now become a regular thing for us. Apart from running the occasional game for the nephew, the group that started out almost exactly a year ago still meets. However, we recently changed from Dungeonslayers to the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

81zgv2hxg-l

This move was motivated mainly by watching Critical Role. For those of you who never heard of it, Critical Role is a series broadcast by Geek&Sundry where you basically watch a bunch of voice actors play D&D. This is surprisingly fun and after listening to a couple of episodes, K. and I got completely sucked into the story. Highly recommended if you want some background to your painting!

cuigj24uaaa3t1e

Critical Role is also a great advertisement for D&D, as it shows the system at its best: engaging characters with clear profiles, dramatic stories and exciting battles. Fortunately, my mate Alex also liked what he saw and had already started to buy the books. After a quick deliberation, the group decided to take the plunge and we converted our Dungeonslayers characters into D&D characters.

Now the first thing I realised is that RPG books don’t come cheap! The next time someone complains about the price of wargames rules, I’ll point out how much one of the D&D books costs. Mind you, I don’t think RPG books or wargames rules are overpriced. Considering the amount of work that goes into them and, more importantly, the amount of gaming you get out of them, I actually think the price is fair.

And the production value of the D&D books is very high. They’re nice hardcover volumes with a clear layout and lots of inspiring illustrations. The rules are presented in a well structured and concise fashion and they even have an index.

10320560_10152396043671071_4524827311232386104_n

There are several things I especially like: For one, I like how they incorporate diversity without making a fuss about it. The illustrations show male and female characters, the latter clad in sensible clothing, and they also show characters with different skin colour. Second, the rules stress the importance of the narrative and of story-telling. Take the Dungeon Master’s Guide’s advice on running a campaign, for example: Instead of presenting a semi-educated treatise on how to model the economy of the country your campaign is set in (something that was abundant in my roleplaying youth), it gives clear and concise hints about how to structure and develop the narrative of the campaign. In a word: it gives you the information that matters for playing the game, not for inventing a world for its own sake. I also like character creation. The addition of a background is a great thing to give your character profile and it really encourages role-playing.

10313383_10152396043486071_5167317756165026174_n

We’ve now had a couple of games and while we are still a bit shaky with some of the rules, it’s been great fun for all. We’ve even been joined by two new gamers. I’m looking forward to having many more games of D&D!

Command & Colors: Ancients

After my somewhat disparaging comments about hex wargames, Virago and Sigur decided to teach me wrong and invited me for a game of Command & Colors: Ancients. This game has been a recurring topic on the Meeples & Miniatures podcast, and as Neil Shuck and his mates seldom err, I decided to give it a chance.

cover

I have to admit that I was highly sceptical. I had once tried the online version of the WW2 variant, Memoir ’44, but I was bored very quickly. However, I wasn’t sure if the boredom was due to the fact that I generally get bored by computer games or because of the game itself.

Virago set up the scenario for the Battle of Dertosa, fought in 215 BC by the Scipio brothers against Hasdrubal Barca, brother of Hannibal. For the first game, I got the Romans, which have quite an advantage in this scenario. Sigur played the Carthaginians.

The rules were quickly explained. They are simple and make sense, something I like. At first I had some trouble sorting out which units could do what, but thanks to Sigur and Virago, everything became clear soon enough. Learning a game from mates is always the best and easiest way!

My Romans won the first game due to brute force and extraordinary luck with the cards and dice. We changed sides and now Virago took the Romans. Playing the Carthaginians, I realised that cunning was called for. Although I could hold off an attack on my right flank for a time, I soon got steamrolled by the might of the Roman infantry.

I have to admit that I’m very impressed by the game. As I’ve said, the rules were easy to learn and never got into the way of playing the game. The games were quick – also something I like – but it still felt as if tactical decisions mattered.

My main scepticism had concerned the card system: I feared that it might be too ‘gamey’ and that decisions were too much dependant on the cards instead of the situation on the battle field. However, it was the other way round: The cards are a great way of modelling command and control, but it always felt as if they were tools for achieving certain battlefield objectives.

I also like the look of the game. I know that some people play it with miniatures, but the wooden blocks actually look really nice. I guess I can live with hexes as long as there are no counters!

Joking apart, C&C:A might actually be the way to make big battles interesting for me. I’ve never been captivated by big battle games and all my efforts in this direction were aborted sooner than later. C&C:A is easy to learn, quick to set up and play and it’s scenario based – it might just be the game I was looking for to fulfill that particular niche.