Clearing out the Rebels – Sharp Practice AAR

At the moment, I’m playtesting a series of scenarios for Sharp Practice. My intent is to have them eventually published in some shape or form, but before this can happen, they have to be researched, written up and playtested. All of them depict historical actions of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, one of the first African-American regiments of the American Civil War.

The objective of this scenario was for the Union to clear out the Rebel pickets and burn huts so as to establish a defensive perimeter. K. played the Union, while I took the Confederates.

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The first two Union groups deployed in line at the center, no doubt intent on heading straight for the central building, which also served as the Confederate secondary deployment point. K. also sent a group of skirmishers to her far left flank. To counter the thread in the middle, I deployed two groups in line behind the fence so as to defend the house. Two other groups marched along the road at my left flank.

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I also sent both of my skirmishers to protect my right flank, where K.’s guys were running towards the house with spirits & tinder box. They managed to check the Union advance. However, K. then deployed her regimental chaplain, who rallied all the shock, bringing the skirmishers back into the game.

However, an even more dramatic turn happened on the other flank. K.’s second group of skirmishers worked their way around the flank of my second line of infantry, which was taking up position to blaze away at the Union center. I had to detach one group to chase away the pesky guys. At first, they duly fell back.

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However, before my guys could react, they turned around and charged them! The Rebels, who had unloaded muskets at the time, were pretty surprised – which must have been the reason for the disastrous result of the melee: The group lost by a margin of 4, fell back and broke, taking the Rebel commander with them.

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The lone Confederate group on the road was now in a bad spot. I made my biggest mistake by deciding to get them behind the fence in the center, were they could join the other Rebel leader. However, I somehow overlooked that to do this, they would cross the line of fire of a Union formation which had not yet fired a shot. A controlled volley later, and those Confederates were also running.

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The Union skirmishers were now free to advance towards the leftmost building and set it ablaze.

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There was still an intense firefight – with lots of smoke! – going on on my right flank, but K. was starting to divert one of her center groups to this action and my Force Morale was at 2 while hers was at 8, so I conceded.

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A very enjoyable game with some unexpected turns! This was actually the second version of the scenario. The first proved to be far too hard for the Union, but this was quite balanced. It’s never easy as the attacker in Sharp Practice, especially if there are objectives to be fulfilled. But we both agreed that the scenario offered plenty of options how to attack and how to set up a defense.

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Sharp Practice at the Club

Shortly after we’ve moved into the new flat, I discovered that one of the few (if not the only) wargaming clubs in Vienna is right around where I now live. Naturally, I wanted to check it out. This week, I finally had the opportunity as Virago wanted to inaugurate his newly painted FIW force. He had scheduled a game of Sharp Practice against Annatar and I dropped by to watch. Sigur and several others were also there and after setting up the table, we watched the guys play the Escort scenario from the rule book.

They both used 18mm Blue Moon figures on a standard 4×6 table without modifying the distances. This looks very good and I’d like to try it out with my own 15mm miniatures.

Annatar’s British deployed in open column, with the grenadiers escorting Lady Katharine in the middle. Their provincial rangers rushed ahead to secure the right flank.

Suddenly, two groups of milice canadienne appeared in the woods in front of the British rangers. At the same time, a line of marines marched out of the woods on the other side of the river and opened fire on the column.

The British commander ordered his first two groups to wheel to the left and check the French marines. Oblivious, his grenadiers marched on only to discover that they had left the column behind. Fearing that their mitre caps might make a good target, they headed into the brush beside the road. Meanwhile, the rest of the British formed line to engage the marines, which were still firing into them. The British gave back enthusiastically – in fact, they were so caught up in the smoke and noise that their commander couldn’t make them stop. A firefight developed across the river.

The French commander feared the massed firepower of the British line and retreated his marines behind a hill. Meanwhile, two groups of Indians were rushing through the bushes to hit the British from behind. On the way, they met the rangers which they promptly massacred. The sneaked up behind the British line… but the British commander had finally managed to get his men under control. Smartly ordering them to “right about face”, they turned around and poured a volley into the noble warriors. At first they were only stunned, but then they realised that their chieftain was hit badly. In fact, he was only knocked out, but his men got panicked and decided to fight another day.

As it was getting late, we called it a day and ended the game at this moment. The French would probably have retreated and the Indian chieftain would have been picked up by the British, who could have continued on their way to wherever they were headed.

Being the person with the most experience with the game, I did some rules counselling. However, having never played with anything other than ACW forces, we had to look up some of the characteristics of FIW troops. I didn’t envy the players when four people were shouting rules interpretations and tactical advice at them!

This was a fun evening. I was impressed by the club facilities – there are lots of tables and a nice selection of terrain – and the people I met were friendly and welcoming. I’m looking forward to going there again.

And thanks again to Sigur for providing most of the images!

Wall’s Bridge – Sharp Practice AAR

This scenario is based on a historical skirmish which took place on May 1 1863 during Grierson’s raid through Mississippi.

The historical situation

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Grierson’s troopers around Baton Rouge near the end of the raid.

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 game

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.

setup

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.

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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.

Rallying

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.

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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.

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I know it’s the wrong gun, but I couldn’t find my other model…

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.

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Analysis

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.

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.