Booknotes – Historical Books

One of the things that keep me running with ACW is the fact that there are so many good books on the subject. Not only is the quality of academic research very high, many of the books are also eminently readable.

TomblinOne of those is Barbara Brooks Tomblin’s Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy. While there is substantial research on African-American soldiers, sailors have for a long time been neglected. Tomblin provides a comprehensive overview on the activities of African-Americans in relation to the Navy’s war effort. Her decision to not just deal with the 18.000 black sailors that served the Union during the Civil War, but also to include the wider context, is very rewarding. She deals with the Navy’s contraband camps, with informants and pilots as well as all sorts of informal help provided by slaves and escaped slaves. It is really fascinating to see how the Navy’s policy towards African-American fugitives developed in the field. One case in point is Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont, commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, who had ties to rich Southern families and had started the war as a defender of slavery. However, when confronted with the realities of slavery, he changed his mind: “God forgive me – I have seen nothing that has disgusted me more than the wretched physical wants of these poor people, who earn all the gold spent by their masters at Sarasota and in Europe”.

In turn, African-Americans soon realised that the Navy offered them sanctuary and protection, and they help Union operations whenever they could. Tomblin’s book is full of incidents showing the determination and bravery of African-American spies and informants, pilots and sailors – and many of those incidents would make great scenarios for Sharp Practice.

donelsonTimothy B. Smith is an author I discovered when researching the Battle of Fort Donelson for my Altar of Freedom project. I’ve since read both his books on Grants operations to clear the Mississippi. Grant Invades Tennessee. The 1862 Battles for Forts Henry and Donelson deals not only with the fights for those two forts, but also with the wider context of the operations. It’s a very well written book that is characterised by a clear narrative, stringent analysis and a masterful use of source material. Smith managed to get into the details of tactical manoeuvres without being confusing or boring, and he at the same time never loses view of the big picture. And if you thought that political generals were a problem of the Union, the cringeworthy actions of Confederate Generals Pillow and Floyd will show you that stupidity, self-importance and sheer incompetence could also be found in the Southern armies.

shiloSmith’s Shilo. Conquer or Perish continues the story by describing what was then the largest battle in American history, with a number of casualties that came as a shock to the public and dispelled any lingering romantic notions of war. Again, he masterfully managed to make sense of a confusing battle fought as many separate encounters. He argues that the terrain shaped much of what was happening and also argues that the Union was not as surprised as it was made out to be in later accounts. 

Those books got me interested in Grant’s early career, so I also read The Battle of Belmont. Grant Strikes South by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr. Belmont was Grant’s first battle and a rather small affair. Unfortunately, Hughes has difficulties conveying the importance of the engagement, and when halfway into it I caught myself asking if this battle really needs a whole book. In the hands of a better author, it might have been an engaging volume, but unfortunately it falls short of the standard I’m used to by now.belmont

Still, all three books make for a fascinating glimpse into the personality of Ulysses S. Grant. As Hughes writes, “he made mistakes and took risks and got away with it”. In all three battles, he was more or less surprised by Confederate actions, but still managed to turn something that could have been a disaster into an orderly retreat (at Belmont) or even a victory (Shilo). It seems that he has learned that the battle’s not over until it’s over and that tenacity can win or at least save the day. This is best encapsulated in the famous encounter between Sherman and Grant after the first day at Shilo. Sherman initially wanted to suggest a retreat, but when he saw Grant calmly smoking a cigar in the rain, he became embarrassed and just said: “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” To which Grant replied: “Yes, lick ’em to-morrow, though.”

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On the Painting Table

Painting is still going a bit slow. I’m slowly building up my 15mm Native Americans for the ACW and managed to finish a couple more of the Union Indian Brigade. I also painted another one of the Oathsworn anthropomorphic animals.

I modeled the fur colour after the tomcat living at our place!

Some time ago, I also received Annie’s Kickstarter and I finally painted up two of the figures.

BadSquiddo

On the painting tray are even more Indians – this time, Confederates. In the end, I want to have four skirmishers group of six figures for each side.

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In the foreground, you can see some mounted Indians. They have been standing there for a while and I’m pretty stuck with those at the moment. They are from 15mm.co.uk and are not the best sculpts and castings, so painting them is a bit of a hassle. I’ll give them one more chance, otherwise I’ll put them away. The snakey guys you can see in between are 28mm serpentmen from EM4. They will be used for our Sellswords & Spellslingers games.

Last week, I suddenly had the desire to build something. I found a nice photograph of the Hilton Head post office during the Civil War and spontaneously decided to model this building. As always, I made the shell out of plastic sheet and added cardboard strips for the weatherboarding. It’s not yet finished, but it’s been a fast and smooth build so far.

house3

Last but not least, I got myself some pine trees. I’ve been thinking about those for a while now, as many of the ACW actions I’m gaming were fought in or around pine woods, and I finally caved in and got two packs. Let’s see how they look on the tabletop. The tiny animals will also add some detail to the 15mm landscape.

trees

Review: Lee’s Invincibles

I recently discovered a series of board wargames called Blue & Gray. They are published by Worthington and cover a range of American Civil War campaigns. Now I always wanted to play a more operational-level game, but – as you probably know – wargames of the hex-and-counter variety somehow put me off.

Those games looked nice, quick and simple, though, so I decided to pick up a copy of Lee’s Invincibles, the game that covers the Gettysburg campaign.

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The game uses point-to-point movement, so no hexes! Instead, there are places connected by roads or railroads. The playing pieces are blocks. Each block represents one corps for the Union and half a corps for the Confederates. Each player also gets cavalry, which can be used for screening actions and a commander.

The game is rather simple: Spending action points, each player may activate and move a certain amount of blocks each turn. If a block moves to a location occupied by the enemy, a battle is fought. There is a simple battle resolvement mechanic, basically consisting of rolling dice and inflicting hits on the opponent.

We’ve now played two games. For the first, I stepped into the shoes of Lee and failed miserably. I managed to get split up pretty early and K. defeated me in detail. In a final epic battle at Baltimore, she managed to surround the rest of my army and obliterate them.

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In the second game, I took the Union. K. advanced swiftly and managed to cross the Potomac pretty early. However, as the Confederates have to split up to gain victory points, this time I could defeat her in detail. We ended the game when it was clear that the Confederates would have no chance to achieve their victory conditions.

The game is nice, but I’m not completely taken by it. First, it seems to be really hard for the Confederates to win, but this may be down to us being inexperienced in the game and not applying the right strategy. What irks me more is the more or less constant fighting: as far as I can see, for the Union it pays off to attack as much as possible. This leads to battles at every corner, which does not seem to be very plausible historically. Changing the ‘to hit’ roll to 5+ instead of 6 might be worth trying, as it would make battle more decisive and players would have to be more careful about entering a fight. Also, we both agreed that the cavalry screening action seems too weak; we may add +1 to the screening value of the cavalry.

Still, Lee’s Invincibles is a nice and compact game and great if you fancy something simple in between. We’ll certainly keep trying out strategies to win with the Confederates.

ACW Vignettes

I’ve recently made some terrain vignettes for the ACW. The first one is a smithy. I didn’t do much research, I just looked at images from 19th century American blacksmith shops and then built a simple hut.

Smithy2

The blacksmith figures are from a medieval blacksmith set from Donnington Miniatures I’ve had lying around for years now.

 

As always, I made the building out of plastic sheet and covered it with match sticks. The chimney is sculpted out of green stuff. I’m not completely happy with it, but it looks ok.

The other vignette is a small scene that links to the topic of friction.

Limber1

A limber broke down on a road and the crew is working (more or less) frantically to replace the wheel.

Limber2

As always when such things happen, two guys are actually working on the problem while the rest is standing around and doing other – certainly important! – stuff.

Straggler

A straggler is chatting with the horse holder.

Stop

A sergeant is stopping the traffic and securing the scene of the accident…

Officers

… while the officers are, well, officering.

The figures are a mix from different manufacturers, mostly from Peter Pig, but the straggler is from Essex, who make a nice pack of soldiers at rest. The limber is from QRF.

 

This will be a good objective for a game of Sharp Practice or just a background scene to enliven the table.