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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Over the Hills…

As far as I know, Games Workshop (back in the day when they still used the Citadel brand) has produced three pieces of terrain that are useful even if you are not playing one of their games. There is the Gaming Mat, a large grass mat that goes for crazy prices on ebay. Going for even crazier prices is the Realm of Battle Gameboard which was recently used by Richard Clarke to great effect (after he covered the silly skull pits). And then there is the Modular Hill.

I’ve wanted a large modular hill for some time now and although there are some good tutorials for making one, I wasn’t sure they would work for me. Maybe I was just lazy. Fortuntately, I managed to get two of the Citadel hills for a very reasonable price.

This is how they looked when they arrived. One pair was painted and flocked, the other was completly untouched. Naturally, I wanted them to fit in with my terrain, so I soaked the flocked one in warm water and rubbed the flock off with a brush. This worked ok, albeit not perfectly – I couldn’t get the layer of glue off. Nevermind! All four parts were then primed and painted in the colours I normally use for terrain: beige brown with a greyish drybrush for the ground and several shades of grey for the rocks.

This is how the hill looks now:

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Although made for 28mm, it works very well with 15mm figures. And for my small table, it is really massive: If put together, the hill is 80cm long and 40cm wide. As my gaming mat is 80cm x 100cm, it can be used to block the whole table. It can also be taken apart and used to make two ridges at the edge of the table, so one could play a holding action in a valley. Or one ridge and a hill protruding into the center of the table. As you can see, I really like the possibilities.

I’ve already found scenarios in the Grant volumes and in Neil Thomas’ book for which this hill will come in handy. Looking forward to trying it out!

On the Painting Table

Not only am I a lazy painter, I’m also conservative and don’t normally change a technique if it works. Nonetheless, I have recently become a bit dissatisfied with my very limited set of skills. Basically, what I do is apply two layers of basecoat, paint the details, apply a wash, varnish. That’s it. This works ok for 15mm, but with 28mm figures, it tends to look a bit sloppy. However, reading about all this fancy shading and highlighting stuff always left me intimitated and being a bit colourblind, I often can’t even tell the difference between photographs of different stages of the painting progress as seen in glossy magazines!

Fortunately, my mate Sigur is a real wizard with the brush – in fact, he’s so good he runs his own figure painting studio, Battle Brush Studios. Two weeks ago, he offered to drop by for an afternoon and give me some basic hands-on introduction into miniature painting. He ended up spending several hours showing me how to layer the colours, how to apply highlights and shading and how to do tricky bits like black surfaces or hair. I have to say that several lights dawned on me when I watched him! Things are so much more comprehensible when someone actually shows and explains them and when you can ask questions. Sigur is a great teacher – maybe he will start to offer workshops. I for one would certainly attend.

This fox from the fantastic Oathsworn Miniatures range was started by Sigur and finished by me. The tunic, the bow, the quiver and the arrows were my first attempts at painting highlights and I think it looks ok.

I’ve slowly started trying the new techniques on some spare Mexican figures. It’s slower than my usual routine, but it’s also fun and rewarding, even if the result is not always as good as I’d wish it to be.

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I’m also going to try it on some 15mm figures – there are some more crewmembers for the ship I want to paint.

I’m a gamer at heart and my primary objective has always been to get stuff ready for gaming. I certainly have no ambition to become a first-rate figure painter. It is, however, nice to add new skills to my repertoire and to be able to actually choose what to do (instead of having to default to the one thing I’m capable of). I don’t have to paint highlights, but now I feel I can if I fancy doing it.

Thanks again Sigur for showing me some techniques. Sometimes, old dogs do learn new tricks!

Apart from the painting, I’ve done some quick terrain building for our ACW games. I’ve made two decrepit huts and started to build an emplacment for a large gun guarding the coast or a river.

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Building an ACW Blockhouse

The current issue of Wargames, Soldiers & Strategy magazine contains a very nice scenario for Sharp Practice featuring a fort, so naturally, I wanted to build one. For the ACW, a fortified blockhouse seemed to be the most appropriate version.

During the American Civil War, blockhouses were widely used to secure lines of communication, such as railroads. The were massive constructions: the walls were often made out of two layers of logs and the foundation was covered with earth. The rooms were at least 9 feet high so as to faciliate loading the muskets.

I decided to make a two-storey construction with the second level built at an angle. My model was based on an illustration in the Osprey volume on American Civil War Railroad Tactics:

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After drawing a simple plan, I cut all the wall elements out of thin plastic and glued them together. This was easy, as the whole structure consists basically of two square boxes. For the logs, I used 3mm wooden dowels which I roughened up with a rasp to give them some structure.

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The dowels were cut into the appropriate length with secateurs (the best tool for this kind of work) and glued to the walls. As the lower half of the ground level was supposed to be covered with earth, I attached bits of blue foam – I would create the earth mound later with modelling clay. Like all my buildings, this one is reinforced inside, as I want it to withstand rough handling at the hands of wargamers old and young (I always ask myself: Is it robust enough for my nephew?).

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The base for the outer fortifications was also cut out of plastic sheet. I used matchsticks for the woodwork and air drying modeling clay for the earth mounds. The modeling clay shrinks when drying, but the gaps will be covered during the next step.

Copious amounts of PVA glue were applied to the ground parts and everything was covered with sand and grit. After this has dried thouroughly, I washed the whole structure (including the buildings) with thinned down PVA glue. This makes the sand stick, seals the wood and makes it easier to apply paint.

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Now the second level had to be attached to the first – but how to align it properly? I marked the centre of area of both parts and then drilled holes. A short piece of wire (actually a piece of a paperclip) was used to fasten the two levels together.

Now the upper part is in the exact centre and can be povited so that its corners project over the middle of the walls of the lower level.

The next step was to make the roof. The shape of the roof is a pyramid which I wanted to cover with wooden planks. The easiest way to do this is to make a paper cut-out model of the pyramid and glue the strips of wood unto the paper. Their edges don’t have to fit, they will be trimmed afterwards.

With a sharp knife, the wood can now be trimmed along the edge of the paper. Fold the paper and voilà, you’ve got a pyramid-shaped roof! The same technique was used for the half-pyramids of the lower level corner roofs.

I decided to keep the main roof removable. This was mainly for storage reasons (I found a box that fits perfectly, and building terrain to fit your storage space is always a good idea), but it also allows to put figures into the upper level.

The whole thing was primed with Vallejo Surface Primer IDF Israeli Sand Grey. I wanted to give the wood the look of freshly cut logs which had the bark removed, so I tried to get a brighter, more yellow-brownish hue. The wooden parts were first painted with Baneblade Brown and than washed with an mixture of Nuln Oil (2 parts), Seraphim Sepia (1 part) and Agrax Earthshade (2 parts). I applied three layers of drybrushing, first with Vallejo Gold Brown, then Vallejo Yellow Ochre and finally a very light drybrush of Vallejo Silvergrey.

The earth was painted to fit in with my mat and the bases of my figures, namely with a layer of Vallejo Beige Brown drybrushed with Terminatus Stone.

On the top of the roof, I applied a flagstaff made of steel wire and a flag – I’ve made two flags, one Union and one Confederate, so the blockhouse can be used by both sides.

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This was a fun and not too complicated project. I’m not sure about the colour of the wooden parts, for my taste it doesn’t ‘pop out’ enough and is a bit too similar to the colour of the earth – maybe next time, I’ll stick to my tried and tested grey hue for old wood.

I’m really looking forward to using the blockhouse on the gaming table!