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.

Battle of Bean Ridge – Sharp Practice AAR

Having finished my new modular hills, I looked for an excuse to get them on the gaming table. Inspired by a napoleonic scenario I found in an old issue of Wargames Illustrated, I devised the following situation.

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Bean Ridge (at the Western edge of the table) is a strategically important position, as it covers the flank of the Confederate marching column. To secure the location, pickets have been posted on a small wooded hill (at the Northern edge of the table) and in Henderson’s orchard (at the Southern table edge). However, the Union advance guard is already approaching – will the Confederates be able to hold their position long enough for their reinforcements to arrive and to drive back the Yankees?

I played the Confederates and initially had one group of skirmishers each in the orchard and on the hill. My main deployment point would appear at the beginning of turn 5 on the road at the Northwestern corner of the table. K., who played the Union, had two deployment points at the Eastern table edge.

Each of the objectives – the orchard, the small hill and Bean Ridge – was worth 5 points, defeating the enemy was also worth 5 points. Whoever was last in possession of the objective would get the points at the end – so you don’t have to stay there, you just have to make sure the other force doesn’t occupy it after you left.

To give the attacker an edge, I let K. chose between three supports: an additional group of skirmishers, a group of cavalry or one light gun. I would know which she took when she deployed them.

Due to the close distance between my pickets and the Union deployment points, the game started right into the action. When K.’s line of three groups entered, my skirmishers on the hill immediately started firing. A lucky bullet hit the Union’s Sergeant, killing him instantly. An inauspicious start for the boys in blue! My guys in the orchard shot at the other Federals, which didn’t enter in formation but as individual groups. One of them was driven back by the skirmishers’ withering fire.

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However, the Union Leader calmly brought his line into position, made them present arms and then ordered them to concentrate their fire at the skirmishers on the hill. When the smoke had cleared, the poor rebel Sgt. stood alone on the hill – his whole group was wiped out!

Inspired by this success, the second group of Union skirmishers (that’s what K. chose as support) charged towards the orchard. The Confederates decided to fall back – I didn’t want to lose my other group of skirmishers in a bloody and unpredictable melee. However, I was losing heart and hoped that the reinforcements could turn the situation around.

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Union skirmishers driving in the Rebel pickets.

The Confederate Leader marched the majority of his men in column along the road to get into a blocking position. Two groups were sent up the small hill, which had meanwhile been occupied by the Union skirmishers.

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Up and at them, boys!

When confronted with cold steel, the Union skirmishers fell back and the hill was again in Confederate hands. Also, the Confederate Leader had formed his men into a firing line and opened up on the advancing Federals. Things were definitely improving for the Rebels!

My intent was now to pin the Union line with my line and work the groups on the hill around the Union’s right flank. After a first controlled volley, I let them fire at will, hoping that the faster rate of fire could counteract the more precise shooting of the Federals, which were still manoeuvering into position. The exchange of fire between the two lines soon became a stalemate and a contest of attrition. For a while, each line stubbornly stood its ground.

However, after the initial shock of the determined Confederate counterattack K. quickly stepped up her game. First, she sorted out her left flank, which hung in tatters since my skirmishers had forced one of the groups back. She decided that those fellows were beyond help and concentrated on her still intact group, attaching it to her line. This in turn enabled her to detach one group from the right end of her line, which moved into position to block the Rebel groups advancing down the hill.

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Swift and determined action saves the Union flank!

As her skirmishers also formed a screen, my groups now faced two Union groups. I decided to pull them back to the small hill, where they at least had cover from the wooded area – after all, it would be enough to deny the Union this position.

However, the Confederate counterattack was stalled and the momentum changed back to the Union. Suddenly, “inspired by their volley and convinced the enemy is done for” (as it says in the random event that now happened), my line rushed forward. Unfortunately, they never reached the enemy line, getting bogged down in rough ground. This was the Union’s chance: with a crashing volley, they made the Rebels reel back.

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A crashing volley tears into the Confederate line.

This well-timed blow broke the stalemate between the two lines and sealed the Confederates’ fate. The Rebel line fell into disarray. The last remaining Confederate skirmishers were destroyed by another volley, which enabled the Union skirmishers to advance unopposed to the foot of Bean Ridge.

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The end is at hand.

My Force Morale was at 2, while K.’s was still at 7. With both groups of skirmishers lost, my firing line broken and individual groups withdrawing I knew I had no chance and conceded defeat. I still had the hill, so that was 5 points for me, but K. had the orchard, Bean Ridge and she had defeated me, so 15 points and victory for her!

Another dramatic game, which was made even more exciting because we both were in quite good form. For once I made no severe tactical mistakes and for a moment even felt like I had victory in my grasp. However, by coolly reorganising her battle line K. managed to stall my counterattack and with her crashing volley delivered a punch my already battered line couldn’t recover from. A well deserved victory for the Union!

Naval Raid – Sharp Practice AAR

I’ve finally finished painting the Union Naval Landing Force for Sharp Practice. More on the force composition in another post – this game was supposed to be a playtest of what I’ve come up with until now. There is still some more research and playtesting to be done…

The scenario featured Union sailors and marines of the USS Katahdin landing to raid a Confederate ammunition depot. The depot was guarded by a motley crew of Guerillas, while Rebel regulars who had spotted the ship’s approach were on their way. The Union’s objective was to get to the barn, plant a fuse and skedaddle before everything exploded. Planting the fuse would be a task of 11.

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The Union had two deployment points on the beach and had to deploy their troops immediately adjacent to their deployment points (this was because my beach mat is a bit small…). The Confederates had one deployment point on the road in the North-Western corner of the table and a group of 6 Guerillas positioned at the barn.

I played the Union tars and had a simple plan: Use the sailors to threaten K.’s deployment while the marines rushed to the barn and set the fuse. The boat howitzer was to support the marines.

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The sailors made good progress across the beach; the marines, however, dawdled and got stuck. K. meanwhile rushed her skirmishers forward and marched the regulars along the road towards the barn.

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She placed her smaller formation in the farmyard and took my sailors under fire. The first group of tars soon had enough and retreated, the second group got stuck in the killing zone but managed to stand its ground.

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The other Confederate formation smartly formed line and covered the beach. However, the marines had managed to get moving and got out of the line’s field of fire, advancing towards the barn in individual groups.

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The boat howitzer had shelled the Guerillas, causing a bit of shock to the rascals. Knowing they were in a tight spot, they advanced towards the marines. When one of the Union groups charged them, however, they evaded into the woods. Such is the cunning of Rebel irregulars! Confidently, the marines followed them, whereupon the Rebels suddenly let loose a volley and charged the Union boys! This was another instance when a random event created a perfect narrative: the Confederates rolled “Charge them to Hell!” on the Firing Random Events and the groups went into Fisticuffs. This turned out bad for both, but worse for the cocky Guerillas which broke and again were off into the woods.

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Master’s Mate Cadwallader Bumpus had meanwhile rallied his plucky band of Union tars. They climbed over the fence and rushed towards the Confederate deployment point, which they “boarded on the run in a seaman-like way”, as Admiral Porter once put it. Another blow to the Rebel Force Morale!

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However, the Union had also taken quite a lot of casualties and some officers had been wounded, so their Force Morale was not much better. Everything was down to the marines now: would they manage to set the fuse in time?

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They got into position and then… Chapter End!

Again a random event produced incredible narrative tension. We both knew that the deciding moment of the battle was about to happen and could imagine how everyone prepared for the final push: Muskets were reloaded, ammunition was distributed to the Rebel group which was low on powder, everyone who was not prepared to fight it out scampered away and knocked out officers recovered to rally their men one last time. And then, with three Huzzahs, the group of sailors I had kept in reserve charged and pandemonium ensued.

Alas, the sailors were soundly trounced by K.’s regulars. When another of the Rebel groups went into melee with the marines and made them run, the game was over. The Union’s Force Morale had broken, the landing party was in full retreat and the ammunition depot was safe.

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Signal the ship to pick us up!

I know I’m repeating myself, but after each game of Sharp Practice I have to say: This was one of the best games I’ve ever played! A very exciting and incredibly close fought game that could have gone either way right until the end. The random events were fun, made sense and brought the story forward. My plan was basically sound and the sailors performed well. The marines could have done better and the gun was nice but I used it rather statically – perhaps I should have moved it more (but then it would have fired even less often).

Balance wise I think the Landing Party worked well – it’s a fun force to play, very agile but a bit brittle, which is just as it should be. The light gun is powerful, but it takes two actions to reload, so it won’t fire too often. Next time, we’ll switch sides as K. is keen on trying out the tars. I’m already looking forward to seeing what a more aggressive player will do with them!

Balloon Rescue – Sharp Practice Scenario

The holidays offered opportunity to finally get the observation balloon I’ve built a couple of weeks ago on the table! Historically, there never was any real fighting for a balloon during the American Civil War. There were, however, some pretty close calls. Confederates regularly tried to shoot down Union observation balloons and one time, a Rebel scouting party stumbled upon the balloon train but retreated because they thought it would be guarded by a large force (which it wasn’t). In July 1861, Union balloonist Thaddeus Lowe by accident landed in Confederate territory. Volunteers from the 31st New York scouted to find out where he was. Lowe’s wife Leontine then disguised herself as a farm woman and took a horse and wagon deep into enemy territory, where she collected the balloonist and his crashed vessel. Such is, of course, the stuff Sharp Practice scenarios are made off!

To make the game more unpredictable, I divided the playing field into 20 sectors. On the second Tiffin Card, the balloon would enter in a randomly determined sector at the Eastern table edge where the Union troops were encamped. The balloon’s movement was determined by rolling a dice on the Tiffin Card and moving it from sector to sector. The middle sectors were the crash zone – when the balloon got there, it would land.

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I also prepared a table to determine the effect of the crash on the balloonist:

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The Union’s objective was to get the balloonist to their camp, the Confederate objective was to get him to their primary deployment point.

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In our game, I took the Union while K. commanded the Rebels. While the balloon drifted slowly over the Federal camp, the Union soldiers lingered around and paid a visit to the sutler – it seems no one had looked up and noticed the balloonist’s peril!

The Confederates were quicker on the uptake and deployed a group of skirmishers into the grave yard.

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Finally, the Union commander managed to rouse his men and deployed them into line. It became a bit crowded amidst the tents and stuff!

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Unfortunately, this chaos seems to have had a detrimental effect on the Union commander, as he started to make mistakes. At first, I had the idea of sending my skirmishers and my cavalry off on my left flank to get in position to stop the Confederates should they grab the balloonist. However, I changed my plan and shuffled the skirmishers over to my right flank soon after – another turn wasted while K. unerringly threw her guys forward towards the balloonist, who had landed in the pond.

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Ouch, I’ve sprained my ankle!

They were met by a volley from the Union boys which had taken position behind the fence. This, of course, was just what K. wanted – me waiting passively for her to march forward. Her smaller formation did take quite a beating but in the end, this was not important because her skirmishers managed to snatch the balloonist and carry him back.

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My cavalry came to be known as ‘the headless horsemen’ because they darted around without a plan until I finally decided to send them on a flanking journey and try to attack K.’s primary deployment point. This was the only action that could have been dangerous for the Confederates, and had I done it earlier, I might have had a chance. However, the galloping gawks were too late – the Rebel skirmishers managed to get the balloonist back to their commander, who would debrief him properly. Another Confederate victory!

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This was a fun scenario, although performance-wise it was probably my low point of 2016. To K.’s amusement, I never even made a serious effort to get the balloonist! Instead I settled behind the fence in the naive hope of stopping the Confederates achieving the objective. How I imagined this was going to work is beyond me…

Still, the balloon looked good and maybe I’ll get my revenge this year!