Friday, December 29, 2023

West Virginia, Lee's First Civil War Campaign

Many famous Civil War generals stumbled early in their careers, learning lessons the hard way. Robert E. Lee’s 1861 campaign in West Virginia is one. His hair hadn’t yet gone all grey. His travails in this campaign may have hastened the change, for he was all grey by 1862.


Secessionist sentiment was strongest in areas with large plantations, where the enslaved human property were the majority of the population. The small farmers of the West Virginia mountains weren’t in such a place. Many didn’t see why it was necessary to leave the Union. The locals were pro-Union or at least lukewarm about secession. Also, the Confederate command was divided. The Kanawha Valley command was spilt between two politicians turned amateur generals, John Floyd and Henry Wise.


Floyd had ample reason to fear being tried for treason if captured. As Secretary of War under the Buchanan administration before Lincoln, he was accused of shipping weapons and munitions down south, and splitting army units there into small detachments, the easier for Confederate militias to snap up when the crisis came to a head. He had also left office under a financial cloud. To round off the package, he lacked both military skill and bravery. In 1862 he would be defeated by U. S. Grant before abandoning his troops.


Henry Wise had been governor of Virginia (as had Floyd before him) and now shared command with Floyd. Wise was no great military leader. After the West Virginia campaign his forces were defeated on the North Carolina coast by Ambrose Burnside in 1862. He would in time improve into a middling quality brigade commander. Wise and Floyd despised each other, minimizing the chances of them effectively combining their forces.


In overall charge was Robert E. Lee, who had difficulty getting his fractious subordinates to work with each other or to follow his orders. Compounding this was the hostility of the local population, who instead often aided Union troops with information about roads and enemy movements.


The Kanawha campaign saw a bunch of amateurs stumble around leading green troops. Confusion reigned and casualties were low, unlike what were then considered heavy losses at Bull Run.


The Union troops were led by George McClellan, who had charge of his entire department and didn’t have to fight a rival from his own side. Union troops slowly prevailed as a result.


McClellan had some success, in large part due to his subordinate William Rosecrans. Little Mac was sent to Washington to command the Army of the Potomac, lately routed at Bull Run. Rosecrans replaced him in command in West Virginia.


After much frustration Lee finally got troops together for an attack. Like most commanders in 1861, he drew up a very complex plan. It involved six columns to drive the Union from Cheat Mountain. Amazingly, all the columns got into place as ordered. This would be a feat in the age of radios. The battle was supposed to start when the lead brigade attacked. In the rugged and wooded terrain, the lead brigadier didn’t see that the others were in place. Facing a strong position and feeling isolated, he got cold feet and didn’t attack. The other five columns waited for him to start. And waited. That and some skirmishing was the “Battle” of Cheat Mountain.


After more indecisive mucking around, Lee was recalled to Richmond. West Virginia went firmly into the Union camp. Loudly tooting his own horn, George McClellan decided that he was a military genius and Confederate inactivity was due to Lee’s caution. He continued to believe the latter until Lee proved otherwise in front of Richmond in 1862. The “Young Napoleon’s”  faith in his own genius remained, despite all evidence to the contrary.


Lee had been bested by the hostile local population, poor supply, unruly subordinates, his own overly complex plans and the Union army. Confederate troops called him “Retreating Lee”. His next task was overseeing the building of fortifications along the southern coast. Resenting hard labor deemed work for slaves, enlisted men working on the forts called him “the King of Spades”. As his hair went grey, they added “Granny Lee”. In 1862, Joe Johnston was badly wounded in front of Richmond; Davis gave command of the army to Lee, who had learned much from his sojourn in the Kanawha Valley. Soon, the uncomplimentary epithets ceased.


I have a vague idea of writing about the debut of some other Civil War generals. There may be a follow up, there may not.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Quatre Bras III - Bloody Big Battles (or mid-sized)

Here’s the tale of our third game test for our Quatre Bras scenario. Third time’s the charm.


Jay missed our last meeting. He got a crack at our new scenario in a hastily arranged game with Bill as his chief of staff. Jay had the reins but relied on suggestions from the less engaged Bill. It was a better command arrangement than the divided command of our last game. Jay decided before to take the role of Wellington. The French deploy first, so they were already set up. We started just before 10:30. Bill was delayed searching for a parking spot. He arrived shortly after the battle began. Allied units are in Italics. Yellow discs = disruption, blue markers = spent units, yellow arrows = retreats, red arrows = attacks and exploitation. Stars = objectives, red for allied held, blue for French held.


My movement dice lit up and everyone fell on Picton. He disrupted Bachelu’s advance but failed to stop the veterans from closing. Badly outnumbered and shot up by offensive fire, Picton fell back spent. Things looked grim for the Allies. During this extremely busy turn, I wandered into the kitchen to check on lunch. I had a unit that could exploit but didn’t think it could affect an assault that wasn’t yet resolved. When I returned, Jay had consulted the rules and found that exploiting units can indeed do so. This was yet another of Picton’s woes. I returned the gentlemanly assistance a bit later but don’t recall which rule was specified or what turn I it was. On the right of the photo the Guard light cavalry can be seen hunkering in a valley to avoid being artillery targets. There are restrictions on their use since Napoleon had warned Ney not to get them shot up. But they did a reasonable job of covering my right flank since Jay wasn’t interested in moving forward and releasing elite cavalry.


We broke for lunch. Jay and Bill hadn’t seen each other in a while; it was a leisurely lunch. Then we discovered that Bill had somehow missed Warren Zevon, so we went to the PC and played some of Zevon’s work. Then we resumed play. The Brunswick horse and foot arrived and put in a smashing counterattack, aided by Kruse.

Again, decent movement dice allowed me to put together a fairly coordinated attack and Brunswick was sent to the north edge of the table, spent. Bachelu attempted to take Quatre Bras on the hop but was bounced by Best’s Landwehr. Soye chased off Dutch-Belgian artillery.


The center fell into stasis; there aren’t many French infantry and many of them were battered.

Jay always plays with victory conditions firmly in mind. I am a tad blood-thirsty and channeled Ney. This would cost me.


Alten and every unspent unit charged in the center and sent the French reeling back. In the upper left hand corner of the photo, Cooke’s artillery can be seen firing into the flank of Wathiez’s chasseur brigade. They got a hit and dispersed the brigade. Should have kept the cavalry back. Sigh.


My artillery returned the favor against Merlen’s Dutch cavalry. Reille can be seen on the left most objective, sans escort. Another dicey idea. But wait, there’s more.

Alten’s attack nullified Bauduin’s zone of control, allowing the Brunswick cavalry to ride into a spot deep in my left center. I figured my cavalry would swat them away. Alten had a modest win but the real damage was done before the assault was resolved.


I thought I’d taken photos of turn 7 but apparently not.

On my French turn, Baudin supported by Picquet’s cuirassiers attacked Alten. Guiton’s cuirassiers rode out to strike Alten’s flank but were shot down by musketry from Best and flanking artillery fire from Brunswick artillery, a foolish mistake. Bauduin’s charge was halted by musket fire. Hubert’s chasseurs charged the Brunswick cavalry but were repulsed. Reille was alone in the woods at the objective in the Bois de Bossu, another mistake. On the Allied turn, the Brunswick cavalry had a healthy movement roll. They rallied off the disruption from the cavalry fight and got a full move. They marched into the woods, captured the objective and overran Reille. Night fell after turn 7, ending the game.


French losses were 6 infantry bases, 2 ran off, 2 cavalry, 2 ran off, and Reille for 7 Allied points.

Allied losses were 7 infantry, 2 ran off, 2 cavalry, 1 ran off and 1 artillery, 1 ran off for 7 French points.

The French held Gemioncourt for 1, plus 7 = 8 points.

The Allies held Quatre Bras and Bois de Bossu for 2, plus 7 = 9 points and the razor-thin win.


My rough estimate of losses, French lost 3,000 infantry, 500 cavalry and a corps CO.

The Allies lost 3,500 infantry, 500 cavalry and 12 guns.


It took us about 4 hours to play 7 turns, but we weren’t in a hurry and returned to the rule book a few times, clarifying rules not often used, like the exploitation into a standing assault and others.


We had a fine time. Jay was very happy with the scenario. He also found a couple typos, including one where the Marshal was spelled Nay. I think it’s a fun scenario and doesn’t use more than a couple Napoleonic rule mods. It’s ready for prime time with just cosmetic changes.


It occurs to me that more assaults strike home in early periods since fewer attacks get stopped by small arms fire. Amazing how the obvious can hide in plain sight.