The recent issue of Wargames, Soldiers & Strategy magazine contains a special feature on raiding actions during the American Civil War. One of the article was penned by me!
It’s on a subject I’ve been interested in for a long time, namely the Combahee River Raid. I’ve written a three-part scenario for Sharp Practice, which can be played as a series of successive games or parallel on a club evening.
Guy Bowers did a great job with the graphic design and the article is illustrated with very nice pictures of 28mm figures. Those, however, are not from my collection, as my photographic skills are not up to producing publishable images – something I really should work on.
So, here are some images from our playtesting:
I have to say that I’m a bit proud to have published something in what is, in my opinion, the best wargaming magazine around. Guy Bowers is always interested in things off the beaten path and the magazine really puts gaming into the foreground. If you are interested in the ACW, check out this issue – it has a number of fascinating articles and great ideas for scenarios!
In the latest issue of Wargames Illustrated(#365), there is a rules- and period-agnostic ambush scenario by Mike Bradford. It sounded fun and like it would work well with Sharp Practice, so K. and I set up a quick game.
We imagined our skirmish taking place very early in the war, with untrained troops bumping into each other at an important crossroads. Both sides had troops from the early force lists, with the Confederates fielding one unit of Zouaves and both sides having cavalry as reinforcements.
The game started with my skirmishers rushing towards the hill (which was one of the objectives) while K. marched her column along the road.
My skirmishers took some pot shots at the Rebels and even hit some, but my main aim was to secure the hill before K.’s skirmishers came in.
In their zeal, K.’s column had marched quite far ahead. When my infantry suddenly turned up, they immediately formed line and delivered a volley, giving quite a shock to the Rebels.
At the same time, K.’s Zouaves rushed forward and charged right at my skirmishers on the hill. They tried to evade but were caught. However, in the following melee, they had luck and got off cheaply, with both sides falling back without taking too many casualties.
And then came the time when the trap was sprung! Out of nowhere, my cavalry appeared and charged right at the Confederate column. I was lucky and had four command cards after they deployed, so I immediately activated them again, hoping to give the already shaken Rebels the rest. Alas! Things did not go as intended. The Rebels stood firm and gave my troopers quite a licking. They broke, skedaddled and never were seen again. What a blow to the Union Force Morale!
The Rebels decided they had seen enough, turned about-face and marched off, blatantly ignoring my line, which was firing wildly without doing much damage.
Deftly, K. brought her Zouaves around to screen her retreat, while I couldn’t get my shooting troops under control in time to chase her. I got off one or two volleys, but couldn’t stop her from bringing her boys out safely.
The Rebels had evaded the ambush and won a victory!
What a fun little game this was! It was surprisingly quick for a game of Sharp Practice (we played for around an hour), but full of unexpected turns. In this scenario, you don’t know beforehand who will get reinforcements and therefore who will be the ambushing player, which contributes greatly to making it interesting. Also, the victory conditions change for the ambushed player, as bringing at least half of their troops out will also achieve a victory – an option K. chose to take.
The game also had a decidedly early war feeling to it, with undisciplined and half-trained troops all around, the cocky Confederates marching a bit too far forward and the impetuous Union cavalry botching the ambush by recklessly charging the column. Of course, this was my main tactical mistake – I would have badly needed the cavalry for the pursuit of K.’s retreating troops. I was sure I could beat the already shaken Rebels, even if I know that ACW cavalry is not made for shock tactics. I dearly hope that I have finally learned my lesson!
While I like painting and modelling, what I love most about wargaming is designing and playing scenarios. Now those scenarios don’t necessarily have to be historical – it’s great fun to devise games set in a fantasy or sci-fi world. But for some reasons, I’ve become very interested in the American Civil war and I really enjoy researching the period. Fortunately, for the ACW, there is an abundance of sources available online – not only the indispensable Official Records, but also numerous autobiographies and regimental histories (many of them accessible through the Internet Archive).
However, this material can also become an impediment. Let me explain why. When I research a historical action, I try to find out as much as possible about what happened that day: which units were involved, what was the state of the troops, what was the terrain like, who was commanding, what did they plan to do, what did actually happen and so on.
The problem is that it is easy to get lost in those details. You may end up with a very detailed representation of the historical action, but nonetheless with a scenario that does not capture what it was all about. The reason for this is that scenarios are not static models. To work as games, the have to be dynamic, open-ended processes.
Of course, the historical action was also a dynamic, open-ended process. The people involved did not know what was going to happen, and it was their decisions and actions that determined the outcome. Fortunately, modelling this is what wargames are good at. Wargames – at least the good ones – model the decisions involved in warfare. In one of the Lardies Oddcasts, Richard Clarke remarked that his games always aim at recreating the command decisions faced by commanders in the field. For this, it is important to decide what level of command you want to represent: A regimental commander has other worries than a corps commander, and to mix those levels up is a sign of bad game design. Completeness – trying to model as many decisions as possible, so that you have to micro-manage a regiment’s formation while at the same time decide the deployment of your reserve division – does not actually contribute to a more ‘realistic’ depiction of historical events.
This, I think, is equally true about scenarios. Replicating everything you know of the historical event on the table top may produce a fine diorama, but it will not result in an exciting and dramatic game. To capture what a historical action was all about, it is important to try to recreate the perspectives of the opposing commanders. What was their aim? What did they know? And what were the specific circumstances that shaped their decisions (such as terrain features or the expectation of reinforcements)? It’s important to remember that the commanders in the field had a very limited outlook, not only in the literal sense – most of the time, they didn’t see the deployment of the enemy and his movements – but also in a more general sense: They didn’t know what the enemy was up to and what he knew of their own intentions and aims. Rule sets like Sharp Practice or Longstreet have already built-in mechanics to model this fog of war. But I think it can sometimes be important to integrate such a limited perspective in the design of the scenario itself. Usually with scenarios, both players know not only their objective, but also the other side’s aims. They also know the troops involved, the reinforcements that will turn up, the terrain and so on.
Paradoxically, to accurately recreate the perspective and the decisions of historical commanders, it may be necessary to leave out details or to modify the deployment, the troops involved or even the terrain. Bolstering one side to create more balanced forces, for example, is not always a boring ‘gamey’ trick to make a scenario more interesting for both players.
When a Union raiding force was attacked by Confederates in June 1863, the Rebel commander didn’t know he only faced 60 soldiers. In a scenario based on accurate numbers, the Confederate player could just charge ahead, knowing he will steamroll the Union force. But this does not capture the uncertainty of the historical commander and the cautious advance that characterized this specific action.
Historical research is great fun and an important prerequisite for designing historical scenarios, but it is not an end in itself. When the research is done, it is important to try to reduce the situation to its core: What was it all about? What was at stake for the commanders? What shaped and what limited their outlooks and decisions?
The real challenge is to translate historical facts into a game that is not only exciting to play, but that also replicates some of the command decisions faced by the historical commanders. This may involve fiction, but nevertheless – or even because of that – it may also produce those cherished and fleeting moments when, during a game, you suddenly feel a jolting connection with the past.
This scenario is based on a historical skirmish which took place on May 1 1863 during Grierson’s raid through Mississippi.
The historical situation
Since April 17, Union cavalry under Col. Benjamin Grierson had been moving through Tennessee and Mississippi, destroying railroads, burning Confederate stores and freeing slaves. The Confederates had dispatched several detachments to hunt down the raiders. Around noon on May 1, the Ninth Louisiana Partisan Rangers (Major J. de Baun), while on their way to intercept Grierson’s men, halted at Wall’s Bridge. As always, Grierson had sent his scouts ahead, which were nicknamed ‘Butternut Guerillas’ because they wore Confederate uniform. When some of the scouts confronted a Confederate officer, carelessness led to a shot being fired. This alarmed the Rangers, who took position to ambush the Union troopers.
Seeing his scouts bring in Confederate prisoners, Lt.-Col. Blackburn, who was in charge of the Butternut Guerillas, galloped towards the bridge, shouting to his men to come along. When they reached the bridge, a volley was fired. Blackburn and Sgt. Surby were hit while their men scrambled for cover. Pinned in the underbrush of the river embankment, they hoped that reinforcements would arrive soon.
The scenario started with a leaderless group of Butternut Guerillas (Union cavalry) positioned in cover at the river bank. A group of Confederate skirmishers were in the woods opposite the road. For the first two turns, only Leader 2 (with two units of cavalry) and two blue flag cards were in the deck for the Union side. The rest of the Union cards would be added at the beginning of the third turn.
K., wo played the Confederates, immediately deployed her infantry to block the road while her cavalry moved around the woods on her left flank, evidently trying to outflank me. I deployed two groups of cavalry on foot and had them take position at the river bank to the right of the bridge. The skirmishers sniped at my pinned scouts, but all the shooting caused a pall of smoke to hang before them (firing random event). I reckoned that this was my chance to get the Butternut Guerillas out of their predicament and rushed them back towards the other side of the river. Despite being shot at by a group of Rebel infantry marching along the road, they made it safely into cover.
Meanwhile, the Rebel cavalry had advanced to the river and was preparing to ford it. They were quite a spectacular sight and for a moment caused some unease in the Union ranks. However, when they came under fire from my dismounted troopers, a lucky bullet hit the Confederate leader, killing him instantly. Milling about leaderless at the embankment, the riders were no immediate danger for my right flank.
So, when the rest of my cavalry finally arrived, I decided to send them on a charge across the bridge. K. had deployed her infantry in single groups, so I hoped to drive them back without taking too many losses.
Regrettably, it didn’t work out as planned. The Rebs stood up against the charge and gave my horsemen a good licking. Broken, they retreated in panic. Fortunately, my Leader was able to rally them and prevent them from fleeing off the field.
Evidently, a more methodical approach would be advisable, so I dismounted my other group and had them take position to the left of the bridge. K. had meanwhile formed a line and for a while, Confederate and Union troops exchanged fire.
On my right flank, the withering fire from my repeating rifles had driven back one group of Confederate cavalry. The other group had dismounted and managed to wade through the river, intent on falling upon me with pistols and shotguns blazing.
They were, however, driven off by the concentrated fire of my dismounted troopers.
The situation was looking bad for the Confederates and it got even worse when I finally deployed my Woodruff gun.
After two shots from this light piece of artillery, the Rebel commander decided he’d had enough and retreated – with her Force Morale at 3 against mine at 7, K. conceded.
This was a bit of a mixed affair. We both hadn’t played Sharp Practice for a while and felt a bit rusty rules-wise, which interrupted the flow. Also, K. was really unlucky: her shooting was dismal and losing her cavalry leader early in the game completely stalled her counter-attack and allowed me to make my foolhardy charge without any real negative consequences. There was also a slight balance issue, as I’ve underestimated the Union cavalry’s repeating rifles – being able to deliver the double volume of fire makes them formidable enemies!
Historically, what happened was that the first group of Union reinforcements to arrive also rashly charged across the bridge, only to be repulsed by Confederate volleys. When Grierson finally arrived at the scene, he had his men dismount and advance on both sides of the bridge. They formed a skirmish line along the river bank while Cpt. Smith brought forward the Woodruff guns. When the skirmishers and the guns opened fire, the Rebel shooting started to wane. Grierson now advanced his mounted troopers, two groups fording the river on the flanks and one charging across the bridge. The Confederates broke and retreated.
In the afternoon of the same day, Grierson’s men had another close brush at Williams’ Bridge before they could cross into Union territory. They had covered over 600 miles in less than sixteen days, capturing and paroling over 500 prisoners, destroying around 50 miles of railroad and telegraphs as well as immense amounts of army stores and capturing 1000 horses and mules. Most importantly, they had created a diversion which enabled General Grant to safely land his troops below Vicksburg, leading to his taking of the city.