September 22, 2012

Review of “Wilson’s Creek–The second battle of the Civil War and the men who fought it”

WilsonCreek"Wilson's Creek" could have been yet another narrative of an American Civil War battle. Luckily, the authors recognized the opportunity given by the unique features of that engagement and wrote a book that provides not only an excellent analysis of the battle itself, but also a fascinating insight into political and social reasons for outbreak of the conflict in Missouri and its neighbor states.

In first part of the book, the authors concentrate on the developments that led to the battle at Wilson's Creek. Main personalities are described in great detail, giving the reader a great understanding of how their views and actions affected the course of events. Equal attention is given to the units that subsequently took part in the battle and especially their very special relations with the communities from which they were raised. I found this part of the book especially touching - private letters and articles from contemporary newspapers are frequently cited by the authors to accentuate the "local" nature of that battle, but in extension also of the war itself.

The battle itself is described in clear, analytical and objective style. Also here, the authors take the full opportunity of the fact that Wilson's Creek was a relatively small battle when compared with later massive engagements and often describe actions of individual companies. By doing this, they provide once again an insight into "nukes and crannies" of an American Civil War battle seldom seen in other similar books. Unfortunately, same level of detail isn't maintained in the maps that are included in the book. Sure enough, there are a few of them and they are most helpful in understanding how the battle developed. However, they are completely devoid of topographical information, which definitely detracts from their usefulness.

From a wargamer's perspective, "Wilson's Creek" should be of interest for every gamer interested in ACW period. Complete orders of battle are included in the book, while narrative of the engagement can be easily used to set up at least four different scenarios - entire battle, initial assault of Lyon, Confederate counterattacks against Union positions at Bloody Hill and finally, the adventures of Siegel's flanking column. I am also convinced that one could use this book as a foundation for a very interesting campaign, especially since total number of troops that took part in battle at Wilson's Creek was relatively small for American Civil War.

September 14, 2012

Return to Logan’s Cross Roads

I am slowly but methodically working my way through “Heartland” scenario book from Partizan Press and this time around it was time to re-play battle at Logan’s Cross Roads. It’s one of those early battles where both sides were challenged in all possible manners - inexperienced troops, hopeless leaders and sub-standard weapons. In one respect, those early engagements are a lot of fun, but they also present some rather unique challenges for a wargamer.

Scenario setup and initial deployment
At first sight, battle at Logan’s Cross Roads isn’t hard to set up. The terrain is uncomplicated - single “largish” elevation, couple of houses, large wooded areas, usual bunch of fences and road network that perhaps is more complex than normally, but shouldn’t present much challenge in re-creating on the tabletop. The only unusual terrain feature is a ravine stretching through about half the width of the battlefield.

Background information about the of the battle itself is readily available on the net, so I won’t go into its details here. In game terms, a Confederate force consisting of eight regiments, supported by artillery and some cavalry, attempts a surprise attack on encamped Union force of similar size. The scenario starts with one Union brigade spread out all over the place, most of its troops in camp. Two Union brigades with artillery support arrive on the battlefield shortly after the battle is joined.

Despite equal numbers on both sides, this is an extremely hard scenario for the Confederate player. Not only is he hampered by the fact that his troops are using wet powder, he also has to contest with the fact that his alter ego on the tabletop as well as both of his brigade commanders are rather sorry excuses for officers.

This doesn’t mean however that the situation of the rebels is hopeless from the outset. As mentioned above, Union troops are spread out in camps and half of the Federal troops isn’t even on the table at the start of the game. Thus, if Confederate player acts decisively and perhaps more importantly, with speed, he may very well succeed in smashing the Union force piecemeal and gain an important victory for his cause.

The game
The actual game turned out to be a rather short and straightforward affair. H. advanced his toward the height, Zolicoffer’s brigade in front, followed by Carroll and cavalry short distance behind. Union pickets consisting of skirmishers and small cavalry detachment contested possession of the high ground for a short while, but the result of that struggle was a foregone conclusion - it took H. but a couple of rounds to sweep Unionists away and take control of high ground.

LogansCross120120914Situation at start of the game

LogansCross220120914Zollicoffer’s troops gain control of the high ground

As my skirmishers did their best to delay confederate advance, I tried my best to gather together my scattered troops and form some sort of battle line. I decided that the most suitable point for concentration of my regiments was in the middle of the battlefield, where the ravine would offer pretty decent protection for troops on my left flank.
Next couple of turns was something of a race, or rather, it would have been a race if the fate didn’t turn against H. and stopped him cold in his tracks. In other words, H. suffered rather horribly from bad luck with the card deck, either being hindered by Coffee Break cards (I play with two of them in the deck) or being hit with the effects of Political/Cautious General card, or rolling low with activation dice. Thus, when he finally managed to get his troops moving again, I was more than ready to receive his assault. Not only did I manage to concentrate troops present on the table at the outset of the game, but my reinforcements have by then also arrived and were well on their way to their position on my left flank (from where I intended to launch my counter-attack). Needless to say, I was pretty confident at this stage of the game.

LogansCross320120914Situation before Confederate assault on main Union position

As it turned out, for once my confidence was well-founded. H.’s regiments advanced slowly toward my battle line... and stalled yet again, this time at the most inopportune moment, just as they came within close range of my artillery. Flailed mercilessly by grapeshot and musket fire, the rebels paid in full for their indecisiveness for a couple of rounds. Nonetheless, despite severe losses and their exposed position, only the rightmost of Zolicoffer’s regiments broke and run away, leaving a gap in the middle of confederate line. Remaining troops of his brigade drifted into rough terrain to their left, in search of cover, and continued to slowly advance toward my battleline.

LogansCross620120914Confederate advance stalls, while Union reinforcements arrive on the left flank

Meanwhile, on the other flank, Carroll provided the highlight of the day. Somewhat to my astonishment, his troops actually managed to close the distance and charged my position, with their brigade commander heroically leading one of his regiments in person. Unfortunately for the rebels, it was a gallant but vain effort. Weakened by losses suffered during their advance, the confederate regiments turned out to be too weak to make any impression on the blue-clad line and were decisively repulsed. To add insult to the injury, Carroll payed the ultimate price for his heroism.

LogansCross720120914Carroll’s valiant charge…

LogansCross820120914…and its results

Once we caught our breath after all this excitement, both H. and I were in agreement that there wasn’t much point in continuing the engagement. Three of rebel regiments were broken, one more was defeated and it was only a question of time before my counterattack force consisting of four regiments would smash into H.’s rather weak right flank. H. issued the order for general retreat and yet another Confederate defeat at Logan’s Cross Road was a fact.

LogansCross920120914Situation at the end of the game, seen from extreme Union left flank

LogansCross1020120914Confederate perspective, seen from the high ground

Musings after the battle or wargamer’s dillema
Engagement at Logan’s Cross Road presented me with two distinct problems. The first of them is rather common to our hobby - the historical ‘setup’ provides a rather unbalanced game, in this case mainly because of disparity in quality of commanders. Union troops were commanded by George Henry Thomas, future ‘Rock of Chickamauga’ and green but competent brigade officers.. Confederates were under control of George B. Crittenden, who was incompetent to such a degree that he was cashiered shortly after the battle by Bragg on what seems to be trumped up charges of drunkenness. His sub-commanders had almost no military experience - Zollicoffer was a newspaper publisher, Carroll was a plantage owner. Zollicoffer was killed at Logan’s Crossroads, Carroll shared Crittenden’s fate and was never allowed to lead troops again.


LogansCross1220120914Two ACW buildings I bought recently from Total Battle Miniatures.
Damn cute if you ask me.

It is easy to see that with commanders like that, the rebels are at severe disadvantage by default. Thus, this engagement is a good example for what can be called ‘a wargamer’s dilema’ - should one follow the historical parameters and play a potentially dull game or fiddle with the facts to even things out and end up with an scenario that doesn’t represent the historical situation in any shape or form?

Being a ‘historical’ wargamer, in this case I decided to take the ‘strict’ approach. I made Crittenden a cautious commander, while Zollicoffer and Carroll became ‘political’. To even things out, I kept Thomas at ‘human’ level and designated him as ‘professional’ (this being the beginning of the war and all that). Also, during the game, I allowed Crittenden to pass on his turn to one of the subordinates  when he was afflicted by ‘Political/Cautious’ card (which happened with unnerving regularity) as long as they were within his commad range and let them act without restrictions of that card. The ruleset doesn’t actually define whether it is allowed or not, but it does feel ‘fishy’. In this case however, I thought it would be a neat way to even things out. Also, if I didn’t make that concession, I don’t think the Confederate army would be able to move at all.

In the end it didn’t matter much, as the abysmal quality of Confederate commanders still managed to decide the outcome of our game all on their own. H. suffered greatly from shortcomings of his officers and never managed to gain the momentum necessary for Confederates to win this scenario. Luckily, he’s a very good-natured chap who enjoys the game for game’s sake and took all the reverses with good humor. Nevertheless, I doubt he will regard that game as one of the highlights of his wargaming ‘career’.

Somewhat odd setup of Logan’s Crossroads, with one of the Union brigades scattered all over the place and with weak detachments acting hopelessly outside of their commander’s range created another issue. The simple fact is that ‘They Couldn’t Hit an Elephant’, which assumes that elements of a brigade stay close to each other, doesn’t handle such situations very well at all. I was vaguely aware that this would present a complication, but didn’t make any plans for how to handle it. In the end, I had to ‘shoot from the hip’ as the game progressed and was probably too generous in allowing individual Union regiments to move too quickly and too freely. I will have to give this problem some thought before playing this scenario again. Adding some friction to movement ability of Union troops at the beginning of the game could go a long way to make it a much more balanced game, perhaps even turning Logan’s Crossroads into a real nailbiter.