Currently Reading

For our Gettysburg Battle Day, I read a couple of books on the battle. One of them was Edwin B. Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign. A Study in Command from 1968.

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This is, in some ways, a book that shows its age. Published eight years before John Keegan revolutionized military history by writing about the experiences of the common soldiers in The Face of Battle, Coddington firmly concentrates on the higher levels of command and on the decisions of the commanders. He is also quite judgemental, voicing his opinion about who made which mistake and how it could have been avoided. However, it still is a very good and rewarding reading. Coddington presents a clear narrative, making it easy to follow the action and his analytical approach helps to clarify many decisions.

The one thing that impressed me most however, was the ending, specifically the last sentence of the book. Usually, you expect from an ending a wrapping up of the whole narrative, a closure that gives the whole thing a meaning and makes you feel that something has been achieved. He describes how General Warren, after Lee had crossed the Potomac back into Virginia, sent a message to the War Department ordering maps of the Shenandoah Valley. And then he ends with the sentence: “And so the war went on.” No closure, no wrapping-up or bestowing meaning – instead the sobering, even bleak reminder that Gettysburg, something that today is remembered as a highly significant turning-point, at the time was just one episode in a war that was far from over.

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Ronald S. Coddington’s African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album is a very different book. It presents 77 photographs of African-American soldiers from Coddington’s own collection. Each image is accompanied by a short biography of the soldier depicted. This is quite an achievement all by itself, as it is not easy to get biographical information about men who, in many cases, had been illiterate slaves who left no written evidence by themselves. One of the great things about this approach is that it puts the individuals, their choices and their actions into the foreground. This provides a much-needed contrast to the stereotypical description of African-Americans even by well-meaning white officers like Thomas Higginson. All the variety can’t, of course, conceal the common experiences. Most of the men were scarred by slavery and the war and few grew old. But one of the saddest thing was their treatment after Reconstruction: time and again, you read how in the late 1870s and 1880s, when white suprematist groups crawled back out of their holes after Union occupational forces had left the South, African-Americans were driven from political offices and terrorized, many of them ending in an abject state of poverty.

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Touching on the subject of African-American experience, Brian McGinty’s The Rest I Will Kill is a short and dramatic retelling of an astonishing event that happened early in the war: In July 1861, a U.S. ship was captured by a Confederate raider. The prize crew wanted to sail the ship to Savannah, where it would be sold off. The ship had a free black cook named William Tillman, whom they planned to sell into slavery. What happened next took them by surprise, though: Tillman, aided only by a German sailor named William Stedding, overpowered the prize crew and single-handedly sailed the ship back to New York. At the time, Tillman became a celebrity and was hailed as a hero in the Northern press. The book is an easy read, telling an exciting story while also providing background on the political situation as well as on the biographies of the people involved. It clearly shows the desperation, but also the courage African-Americans showed in the face of a regime that treated them as chattel.

And now for something completely different, as they say. I’ve also read a lot of science-fiction and fantasy lately, but most of it left me rather disappointed. I have to say that I’m wholeheartedly sick of the whole ‘dark and gritty’ thing. Not only is this a childish view on life (it’s laughable how people think it is ‘realistic’), it’s also full of rather disturbing torture porn – seriously, what is it with those people and sexualized violence?

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Fortunately, I hit upon some real gems. The first pleasant surprise was Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld. Imagine a classical D&D-like fantasy world where adventuring parties are treated like 80s rock bands. This is basically the analogy Eames bases his story upon and to my surprise, it worked really really well. It’s the well-known story of an old hero and the effort to, one last time, get the band together. It seems Eames couldn’t decide if he wanted to write a funny book or a tragic one, but both facets actually work equally well. Of course it’s overdone and sometimes corny and a bit of a lad’s story, but hey, so’s glam rock! Certainly the most captivating, most original and most fun fantasy novel I’ve read for a long time.

Chambers

 

For science-fiction, the same is true for Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I know I’m late to the party with this one – I’ve seen it before, but I was always a bit apprehensive as I usually enjoy action-oriented sci-fi. Now I finally started reading it and wow, it’s good. There is almost no shooty stuff, but the story is still captivating and exciting. A lot of original ideas and about as far away from dark and gritty as you can get. It’s a feel-good novel about community and tolerance and living together despite being different. Highly recommended!

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Review: Class Wargames

In 1977, the French artist, political activist and founder of the Situationist International, Guy Debord, published a game called The Game of War. The game was a derivative of chess insofar as it was played on a checkered board and managed without a random element. However, in setting the game in a specific period, namely horse-and-musket, and including a whole set of differentiated troop types, Debord incorporated elements of the then-popular board wargames. Nevertheless, the success of the game failed to materialize and while the political theories of Debord have influenced generations of leftist activists, his wargame has been sneered upon or ignored.

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The aim of the group Class Wargames and the book at hand – which, at the core, is a report of the group’s activities – is to explore what this game meant for Debord and what wargaming in general could mean for contemporary political activism. Class Wargames is a collective of leftist artists, academics and activists, many of them old-time wargamers like Richard Barbrook and Mark Copplestone. Since 2007, they stage wargames in galleries and at art festivals. Apart from Debord’s game, they have played a miniature wargame by Chris Peers set in the Russian Revolution, a couple of specially developed scenarios for Command&Colors: Napoleonics and games of H.G. Wells’ classic Little Wars.

The book is a sort of companion to these activities: It provides a history of Guy Debord’s Game of War and of the political left’s tradition of wargaming, it presents the story of Class Wargame’s own activities, it gives historical background to the battles fought and finally develops a theory of the function of wargaming for leftist politics.

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Class Wargames in action.

So what’s in there for the hobbyist wargamer? Readers interested in the history of wargaming will be fascinated to learn that there is a veritable tradition of leftist wargaming and of games and toy soldiers in art galleries, ranging from the early 20th century avant-garde to the 1960s penchant for performances and pop culture. The historical background to the games is interesting, albeit it won’t present much new to the historically keen gamer.

Where the book shines is in its numerous reflections. Barbrook continually explores the meaning of the games the group stages and draws attention to the narratives they produce. For example, in 2008 they staged a Russian Revolution game at the very place where an important moment of the Revolution happened, namely the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg. Using miniatures by Mark Copplestone, Reds vs. Reds presented a critical rereading of what has become the official Russian version of this history. Games such as this, Barbrook argues, can show that historical developments we take for granted were once fiercely disputed. Similarly, the Command & Colors scenario for the Haitian Revolution sheds light on an episode of the Napoleonic Wars that is often neglected. By making the insurgent slaves the heroes of the game’s story, it challenges our perspective on history.

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C&C: Napoleonics in the Haitian Revolution.

Even though I wouldn’t subscribe to all the theoretical analyses brought forward, I enjoyed the plethora of ideas and references. In fact, the only criticism I have is that Barbrook perhaps packs too much into the book’s 330 pages as I sometimes felt like losing the thread. On the other hand, the varied content also makes for fascinating discoveries. And it is never a dry read, as Barbrook succeeds in combining the thrill of intellectual curiosity with the joy of playing a wargame. Highly recommended if you fancy something out of the box.

This review was first published in Miniature Wargames with Battlegames 382.
A digital version of the book is available for free on the Class Wargames homepage.

Time Machine

When I was about 10 years old, I discovered a curious book in my local bookstore. It had a mean looking dinosaur on the front cover, which I immediately identified as a Tyrannosaurus Rex – I was that kind of kid (mind you, that was way before Jurassic Park, when liking dinosaurs was still the mark of being a colossal nerd). I got excited because the book looked like it was a story – not just a popular science volume – revolving around dinosaurs. My excitement grew when I found out that I could influence the story by taking decisions at certain key moments! I bought the book, headed home and finished my first game book that same day.

For some reasons, I never read many game books and the big titles like Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy never caught my eye – perhaps because I wasn’t really into fantasy at the time, being more a sci-fi kind of guy, or perhaps because the bookshops I frequented didn’t carry them. However, I did read several volumes of a series called Time Machine, translated as Merlins Zeitmaschine into German. Search for Dinosaurs (Im Land der Ungeheuer) was the second book of the series. The premise was that you were a time traveller looking for proof that birds evolved from dinosaurs by finding and observing an Archaeopteryx. I liked the concept of a game book and enjoyed the story very much. There was even a clever meta episode hidden somewhere: You can meet another time traveller and accidentally accompany him jumping into the present – where you end up in a bookstore, as the other guy hadn’t bought his book! The clerk makes you pay for the book again and throws you out, so you have to start all over again.

I later bought all the other volumes of the series that were available in German. There was a medieval one, one with Samurai and one taking place in the age of pirates. And then there was this:

The cover is a bit wacky, with the sinister looking Rebel and his strangely positioned tiny cannon, but this is the book that sparked my interest in the American Civil War. However, despite the title, most of the story of Civil War Secret Agent (Spion im Bürgerkrieg) actually takes place a bit earlier. Your mission is to investigate the fate of a slave named Thomas Dean. You have to join the Underground Railroad and meet Harriet Tubman to achieve that goal. In between, you also visit several key events of the Civil War.

When I recently re-read the book, I was surprised about how much it teaches about slavery, abolitionism and the Civil War. There’s none of that revisionist Neo-Confederate nonsense in there. Telling the story from the perspectives of the fugitive slaves make it abundantly clear that slavery was at the core of the war, that the South was a society based upon that institution and that there was nothing noble about the Confederate cause.

However, at the time, what really stayed in my memory was this image:

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It’s the battle of Hampton Roads! In the book you end up on the USS Minnesota and witness the fight between the Monitor and the Virginia. I remember gazing at the image, fascinated by the strange shape of the ships. When I had finished the book, I immediately got a popular history book on the American Civil War from my library.

The Time Machine books were a key contribution in establishing my love of history. Even more, they also laid the foundation for my love of role-playing games and perhaps even for wargames.

Several of the Time Machine series of books are available in English as pdfs from ANNARCHIVE

Currently Reading

Summer’s coming, we’re getting settled in the new house and the whole family is working in the garden. What better time to bury oneself in books?

I’ve decided to start a small new project I’ve been thinking about for a long time now: The French and Indian War. Several of my wargaming chums have started collecting and painting FIW miniatures for Sharp Practice and, what’s even better, they are doing it in 15mm! How could I resist? So, apart from getting a couple of the nice Blue Moon figures, I bought Empires at War by William Fowler.

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Fowler aptly gives an overview of the conflict, setting it firmly into the context of European power politics while still dealing fairly detailed with the actions in North America and Canada. He outlines the quarrels between the different colonies, the role of Native Americans and even the impact of events in Europe, the Caribbean and in India. There are moments when his style almost becomes ironical, but considering some of the whimsical events of the war one can easily understand the temptation and it makes for an entertaining read. Highly recommended if you want a first overview of the FIW.

My main reading diet is still the American Civil War. Having recently finished Noah Trudeau’s excellent book on Gettysburg, I looked for other titles from the author. Trudeau writes very well, he builds up a narrative and tension without getting carried away by his subject. In Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, he manages to tell an engaging story while still keeping an analytical distance – not something that can be said from all authors writing on battles in the ACW…

 

Trudeau has written a couple of other books, all of which look interesting and most of which can easily be found at second-hand booksellers. I’m now finishing Out of The Storm, an account of the last weeks of the Civil War. Starting with a fairly detailed retelling of the events that lead to Lee’s surrender at Appomatox Court House, he presents several episodes, among them famous events such as Lincoln’s assassination and the capture of John Wilkes Booth as well as less famous but equally dramatic affairs like the sinking of the steamboat Sultana. The book is a bit episodical as there is no real overarching story. However, Trudeau manages to capture the atmosphere of an epoch ending very well, not the least because he is very apt at chosing quotes from contemporary sources – something he also showed in Gettysburg. I’ve already ordered his book on black soldiers in the Civil War.

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In contrast, Earl Hess’ new study Civil War Infantry Tactics looks like a rather dry and scholarly affair. I haven’t had chance to read it yet, but my cursory browsing nevertheless left me looking forward to delving into it. Being very much interested in how small units operated, I hope to finally learn all about the intricacies of infantry drill and formations.

I read most of my science fiction books on my e-book reader. Sometimes, however, I’m in the mood for a ‘real’ book. A trip down to the bookstore got me Andrew Bannister’s debut novel Creation Machine. Although I follow forthcoming sci-fi books on the excellent tor.com blog, this one seems to have escaped my attention. At the moment, I’m about two-thirds through and like it very much. The world-building is great, with some grand and at the same time whimsical ideas, and the main protagonist is engaging.

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The evil guys may be a bit too much over the top for my taste, but the story is developing nicely and I’m curious to find out what’s going on with the strange setting. In some of its ideas and in the general approach, it reminds me a bit of Charles Stross’ early space operas, which for me are still among the most imaginative of the genre. Highly recommended if you fancy a sci-fi adventure with an original background.