Monday, April 6, 2009

Gaming Chancellorsville

Jennifer and my daughter took a long weekend trip to New York City and left me here with the dogs. I enjoy solitude so this doesn’t bother me. By coincidence, on Friday I got in the mail a new wargame I ordered recently. HPS Chancellorsville, the latest in John Tiller’s Civil War Battles series. I spent much of the weekend tending to dogs, mowing and weed-eating, taking some pics and playing this game.

This particular game is a computer wargame. There are all kinds of wargames. I have played wargames since I was a teenager. Mostly, these have been board wargames. See my friend Matt’s blog for an understanding of board wargames. My favorite board wargames include OCS Case Blue, Red Star Rising, Ukraine ’43, Prussia’s Glory, SWWAS Midway, and Thunder at the Crossroads. I favor wargames regarding the War Between the States and East Front of World War Two, just as I favor these subjects in my military history reading.

I own a lot of computer wargames. Almost the entire Tiller Civil War collection. The games have specific rules that more or less mimic historical formations - line, column, disorder, rally, defensive fire, and assault. Each unit has a quality rating which is how the game represents veteran troops from recruits that have little battle experience. As long as you play another human (or yourself) and not the computer (these games have dumb AI’s usually) these computer games can be very exacting in simulating the conditions of a given historical battle.

I play them just as much to learn about military history as I do for the joy of the game.
In this case, the battle is Chancellorsville, Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory which came at the price of his most brilliant subordinate, Stonewall Jackson’s death. The battle was a disaster for General Joe Hooker’s brief career as head of a Union army.

The Tiller game is scaled on the regimental level with each strength point representing 25 men. Artillery is represented as batteries of individual guns. It is critical to your performance to maintain a chain of command from the brigade commanders to the division – corps – and ultimately the army leaders – in this case, Lee for the South and Hooker for the North.

In Jackson’s flanking attack he is “detached” and on his own as far as leadership is concerned. In this case that’s a good thing because Jackson has excellent command ratings. He will hit the Union right flank. Firing and assaulting into a regiment’s flank or rear multiples the force of the attack and increases the chance of routing the enemy.

At the regimental level many regiments can rout, often simultaneously. It is rare (but possible) to rout an entire division, however. Your goal in playing the game is to drive your enemy and take geographical objectives which are scored in victory points, it is a game after all.

All the basic mechanics of 19th century warfare are represented in the game. When you play you get a real feel for the issues involved. Regiments can force march, run low on ammo, recover from fatigue, etc. In the Tiller games a regiment’s fatigue level often determines its ability to fight and change formation without disorder. To me it is in some ways better than reading a book about the battle. Or I should say, the games greatly expand my appreciation of my reading.

Anyway, these games take quite an investment in time to play the large full battle scenarios. I played the smaller scenarios mostly. A small map 10-12 turn scenario can be played in less than two hours. I played the historical sideshow fight at Salem Church a couple of times to renew my familiarity with the rules of this particular system.

This shows the navigation display for the game. It reflects the historical situation at Salem Church during the Battle of Chancellorsville. I have highlighted the Union corps commander John Sedgwick as he readies a Union division to attack the Confederate position. This is a small map scenario in the game.

Then on Sunday I played the opening 2 hours of Jackson’s historic attack. I managed to rout most of Howard’s division, though – playing also as the Yankee – I was bringing over reinforcements and Howard himself was in command of his last remaining organized brigade, attempting to hold the line with lesser quality troops against the II Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.

This is several screen shots stitched together. The larger battle scenarios are huge and take many hours to fully play. This accurately reflects the audacity of the smaller Confederate army splitting itself in a (successful) attempt to surprise the larger Federal army at 3pm on May 2, 1863.

Some additional screen shots of play follow. The game features three different zoom levels, depending upon what you wish to view. 2D Normal, 2D zoom-out, and jump map which is an extreme overview of the entire map. There are 3D levels but the graphics are so bad I never use them in play. Each “hex” represents 125 yards of actual terrain. The maps are highly accurate.

This is the jump-map, an extreme zoom out of the whole battlefield. Each blue dot is a Union regiment. Each red a Confederate. Hooker has smartly maneuvered his army behind Lee forcing him to change facing, if not retreat. It was a good strategy by Hooker. This is the situation at 2pm on May 1.

By 3pm the next day, Jackson has moved his entire corps behind Hooker without being detected. This is largely due to the heavily wooded terrain and the lack of good roads for either side to use. Lee and Jackson benefited from the assistance of local citizens to find a way around Hooker. Jackson proceeded to drive Hooker. Confederate troops would shoot Jackson accidentally and kill him in the twilight of the evening. Jeb Stuart would take command of the corps on May 3 and successfully continue the attack.

I always keep my books close by when playing these games. Of the Battle of Chancellorsville E. Porter Alexander, whose memoirs are among the most insightful of the war, wrote: "Had Gen. Lee been present on the left, during the Sunday morning attack, and seen Stuart's energy and efficiency in handling his reserves, inspiring the men by his contagious spirit, and in the cooperation of artillery, with the infantry, he might have rewarded Stuart on the spot by promoting him to the now vacant command of Jackson's corps. Ewell, who did succeed Jackson, was always loved and admired, but he was not always equal to his opportunities, as we shall see at Gettysburg. Stuart's qualities were just what were needed, for he was young, he was not maimed, and he had boldness, persistence, and magnetism in very high degree. Lee once said that he would have won Gettysburg, had he had Jackson with him. Who so worthy to succeed Jackson as the man who had successfully replaced him on his last and greatest field?" (Military Memoirs of a Confederate, page 360)

Another of the plethora of "what-ifs" about the war. As an aside, Alexander would be criticized when his memoirs were published for critiquing General Lee's decisions throughout the war. The suggestion that Lee made any mistake whatsoever was a touchy subject at the time (and remains so today in certain quarters).

One aspect of the game that shows how it recreates the conditions of warfare at this time can be seen in the fact that victory is often as brutal on the victor as on the defeated. A case in point is to look at the condition of two brigades that were involved in the beginning of Jackson's attack.

Doles Brigade of Georgians flank attacked von Gilsa's brigade. After three turns of the game, the Yanks are routed. The Confederates, after taking heavy fire from it, also managed to capture a battery of artillery. I have stitched together the individual regimental displays for all the troops involved so you can see the results in gaming terms. There is a lot of information available. Notice that the routed units are in column formation, that is, they cannot form a line of battle until they are rallied. All other units are in line. Notice also that the "victorious" Doles has his hands full with only one regiment left still organized to fight. In wargame terms, as in real life, it is time to bring up the reserves to follow-up on this initial assault.


Among the Confederate reserves yet to be brought forward is one of finest brigades in either army, the one Stonewall Jackson used to command. Fresh, top quality troops.

I get a lot of enjoyment out of these games. They keep my mind active, offer some recreation from the activities of work and home, and - as I mentioned - they add greatly to my reading and study of military history.

1 comment:

bryan adrian said...

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