Building an ACW Earthwork

In July 1864, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers took part in a probing assault against Confederate fortifications on James Island. Together with two other regiments, they attacked a Confederate fieldwork fitted with artillery. I have found no detailed description of how this particular piece of fortification looked, so I decided to make a generic earthwork for the scenario.

Drawing of Confederate earthworks by Alfred Waud

I normally only make rough sketches for my projects, but this time, I drew the outline of the structure in the size that I actually wanted to have it on a large sheet of paper. This made it easier to determine the overall size – I wanted it to be an imposing center-piece for the table, with space enough for three guns with their crews, but I also didn’t want it to become too large.

The structure itself was based on a 1mm thick sheet of plastic. To make it more massive, I used two layers of 5mm thick foamboard to raise the whole thing a bit. I then drew the outline of the fortifications on the foamboard.


The wooden walls stabilising the inner face of the fieldwork were made out of match sticks. As always, I glued them unto a piece of paper and, when the glue had set, cut them out in the shape I needed them. This saves as lot of time and is less of a hassle than fiddling around with matchsticks trying to fit them into place individually.

On the flanks, I made raised platforms for infantry to shoot from. I also made wooden platforms for the guns. These can be seen in many period photos and were built so the guns would not sink into the earth when recoiling and could be pushed back into position easier.


The actual earthworks were then modelled with DAS Air Drying Modelling Clay. It was the first time I used this clay, which is recommended by master modeller Tony Harwood. I’ve only used FIMO Air Light before, which is much lighter and a bit softer, but also more expensive. DAS is surprisingly stiff and it takes some work to make different bits stick together seamlessly. When I had the feeling I finally got it, I was almost finished, so the parts I modelled at the beginning look a bit uneven.

Normally, I would use sand to get a surface structure, but I discovered that I had run out of fine sand, so I decided to try structural paste. I primed the whole thing with Vallejo IDF Israeli Sand Grey and then used Vallejo Dark Earth, which is the same paste I use for the bases of my figures. This was then drybrushed with GW Terminatus Stone. The wooden parts were first painted with GW Stormvermin Fur (a brownish grey), washed and drybrushed with GW Baneblade Brown and Vallejo Silver Grey.

And here it is with artillery:

It looks impressive enough to be a daunting objective for the 1st South Carolina, and I could even use it to recreate the famous charge of the 54th Massachusetts on Fort Wagner.


Building a 90-day Gunboat

In July 1861, the US Navy Department ordered 23 gunboats as an emergency measure to enforce the blockade of Confederate ports. Due to their rapid construction, those light-draft vessels were known as “90-day gunboats”. They proved to be good sailors and became workhorses of the navy, doing blockade duty as well as being deployed on the rivers.


One of those vessels, USS Katahdin, was involved in the ‘Great Naval Cattle Drive’ which I want to play as a scenario with Sharp Practice. Another fine opportunity to build a ship from scratch!

The first decision was to reduce the size. Katahdin was 48 meters long, which would amount to 48cm in 1/100 (the nominal scale of 15mm figures). Not only is this a tad too large for my smallish table, all my other terrain is reduced in scale anyway – I don’t think any of my buildings are really 1/100. Also, my ground scale is reduced by one-third. So I decided to build the ship in 1/160, making the hull 30cm long and 5,5cm broad. This, in turn, would necessitate to reduce the size of the cannons, but I think this is an ok compromise – I certainly prefer it to having to distort the proportion of the whole vessel, as can be seen in some commercially available models.

There are not many detailed images of this class of ship available. My main source was a photography available from the Library of Congress. I also found some interesting pictures in Charles Stedman’s Sketchbook. Stedman was a surgeon who served on USS Huron (and later on the Monitor USS Nahant) and who made a series of humorous sketches of everyday life in the navy.

Those images were good enough to get the proportions and a general impression of the boat. As my model was going to be a gaming piece, I wasn’t too concerned about accuracy, I just wanted to achieve an overall effect of recognizability.

The hull was built as a laminated hull, made up of layers of balsa wood glued together. This was then sanded and the gaps were filled with Milliput.


The deck was planked with strips of wood, while the planking of the hull was made out of strips of wood veneer.

The small deck construction in the stern was made out of plastic. Some other details were added and then the whole ship was painted; black for the hull and a light brown for the deck and masts. I got the small guns from a modelling shop, but I built the big pivot gun from scratch, as the commercially available guns were too large. The guns look tiny in comparison to the crew, but that’s a compromise I can live with. The crew is from Peter Pig. I know that the rigging is complete fantasy, but it’s supposed to give an impression while, at the same time, not get in the way of placing the figures.

It was really fun building this ship and I’m looking forward to getting it onto the gaming table!


Gibbons, Tony: Warships and Naval Battles of the US Civil War, Limpsfield: Dragon’s World 1989.

Hill, Jim D. (ed.): The Civil War Sketchbook of Charles Ellery Stedman, Surgeon, United States Navy, San Rafael, Ca.: Presidio Press 1976.

On the Painting Table

I’ve made good progress with the Union cavalry and have now painted 24 mounted troopers and about 20 dismounted. However, I recently got distracted by something else: I read a fascinating book about small-scale amphibious operations by the Union navy which inspired me to make a Naval Landing Force for Sharp Practice.


A Dog Before a Soldier was written by Chuck Veit, president of the U.S. Naval Landing Party, a living history group depicting Union Sailors and naval officers during the Civil War. The book, which is very well written and meticulously researched, describes a couple of obscure operations of the Union navy, among them such jewels as the ‘Great Naval Cattle Drive’. This is not only entertaining, it also sheds light on the important day-to-day contribution of the navy to the Union war effort. Furthermore, it offers plenty of inspiration for Sharp Practice scenarios. Of course I now need a landing party, a boat and a herd of cattle!


The boat will be a Unadilla-Class gunboat, also called 90-day-gunboat as they were rapidly produced at the beginning of the war. I went for a laminated hull, made up of several layers of balsa wood. The scale is slightly reduced to about 1/160.


The landing force will consist of sailors and marines. I’ve already painted a couple of sailors and two groups of marines some time ago, so they just needed reinforcements. My first batch was from Freikorp15, while those are from Minifigs. I actually prefer the Minifigs figures, they are nicer sculpts and the poses are a bit more varied. The marines are just normal Union infantry painted with white trousers and crossbelts. Unfortunately, Peter Pig doesn’t offer armed sailors, but they make a very nice naval artillery crew.

Union landing parties often had the support of a Dahlgren light boat howitzer, a very versatile gun which had a special carriage so it could be manhandled up a beach. As no one offers such a gun in 15mm (or 28mm for that matter), I decided to build one from scratch using spare wheels, a paper clip, parts from a plastic model kit and a broken knitting needle. I’m quite chuffed with the result, if I do say so myself.

Finally, the boat needs a crew. I’ll use the Peter Pig naval artillery crew for this, supplemented by a couple of figures from the Colonial range, where they offer a nice ship’s crew. The uniforms are not perfect matches, but they’ll be close enough.

As I didn’t like the look of my normal ‘earth’ bases on the boat’s planks, I decided to make my own bases using wood veneer. I glued strips of veneer to a piece of papers and then glued washers on the paper. As the veneer is very thin, the washers can easily be cut out with scissors. I’ve already cut the figures from their original bases with the hobby knife, so the next step will be to glue them unto their new bases.

This is a fun little project and I’m already thinking about how to design the landing force for Sharp Practice.

The Raft will make a short break and will be back on 7 January. I wish all of you happy holidays!

Building an ACW Observation Balloon

Some time ago, I read a very enjoyable book by Charles Evans, War of the Aeronauts. It deals with ballooning during the American Civil War, especially with Thaddeus S. C. Lowe’s Union Balloon Corps. It’s an interesting story which again shows that, if the Civil War was the last napoleonic war with regards to the tactics employed, it was also the first modern war when it came to trying out technological innovations. The book is also full of ideas for scenarios, especially for small scale skirmish games like Sharp Practice.

So why not build an observation balloon in 15mm?

I used an 8cm diameter styrofoam sphere for the balloon part. The smaller Civil War balloons were about 10m in diameter, so at a scale of 1/100 this is pretty close. To hold the balloon and connect it with the base, I used a 4mm thick rod of acrylic glass with a length of 35cm. The styrofoam is soft enough that you can push the rod in, using glue to hold it in place.


To model the gas vent, I used tin foil – it’s very light, can easily be pushed in shape and when covered with paper looks like fabric.


As you can see on the picture, I also covered the clear acrylic rod with cling film to prevent it from getting dirty during modelling and painting.

The styrofoam and tin foil was then covered with thin strips of tissue paper which were soaked with thinned down PVA glue. I was careful not to get too many creases, but as I’m generally a rather sloppy worker I couldn’t avoid them all. Fortunately, I’m not a perfectionist!

I first tried to paint the balloon in a drab brownish colour, as this seems to have been the colour of the fabric, but it looked kind of boring. Fortunately, some Union balloons were painted in garish colours and adorned with portraits of George Washington. I’m not up to painting a portrait on a sphere (or elsewhere), but painting the balloon in a blue hue definitely made it look more interesting.

The ropes for the basket are made from string and are fixed in a hole I drilled at the top of the styrofoam sphere.


The basket is made of a cheap table mat I once bought to make wattle fence. It’s got a nice texture and is easy to cut and glue together. I made two baskets, as I wanted to also model a crashed balloon. Don’t forget to make a hole in one version so you can thread it into the acrylic rod!


The basket was again painted blue, as this was the colour used by the balloon corps. The observer is a dismounted staff officer from the Freikorps15 range. I cut off his base to make him fit into the basket.


Now for assembly. I made a small ring out of wire for the rigging, which I threaded into the acrylic rod, followed by the basket, which I carefully glued in place. Before working on the rigging, I put the whole thing unto a base. A stable base is important to keep the model from crashing on the table during play, so I used two 5cm steel discs and a couple of steel washers to add weight. The acrylic rod was glued into the holes of the steel washers and the whole thing was covered with some bark and filler to create a scenic base.

For search and rescue scenarios, I also wanted to make a crashed version – there were incidents when balloonists were stranded behind enemy lines after their craft had gone down.

I again used tin foil to make a structure that looked like crumpled fabric. After glueing it to a base, I covered it with paper tissue soaked in thinned down PVA glue.


The basket was added to the base, the whole thing was painted and then adorned by some loose string so as to suggest tangled ropework.

And that’s it – an ACW observation balloon:


I made some mistakes rigging the basket to the balloon, which resulted in some of the strings looking twisted. Apart from that, I’m pretty happy with the result. It looks nice and will add an original objective to our games of Sharp Practice.