Vicksburg, Gibraltar of the Confederacy

30 12 2010

Vicksburg is one of the Confederate cities that obsessed Union war planners.  From the fall of Memphis in June 1862 until its capture in July 1863 Vicksburg remained the Northern most Fortress on the Mississippi river.  Along with its twin fortress in Louisiana at Port Hudson it managed to keep enough of the Mississippi river Confederate to enable commerce and supply between the eastern and western Confederacy.  With its fall, the south would be split in two, trade with Mexico would stop, reinforcements from Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and most of Louisiana would stop, the union would gain access to Red River (a major navigable avenue of advance for the union) and the Midwestern states still in the union would regain their primary route of trade.  Vicksburg mattered.

Of these two forts, Vicksburg was by far the more likely to be attacked.  This is in part because of the flow of the Mississippi itself.  Rivers move with considerable speed.  One could travel from for Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico in a matter of weeks strapped to a log.  At Vicksburg the river moves at about 3 mph.  Heavily laden steam transports of this era wouldn’t have moved much faster than 10 Miles per hour.  Given this, a ship passing Vicksburg would spend half as much time under the Vicksburg guns as they would the guns a Port Hudson.  Furthermore, a ship disabled by Confederate fire, would continue to float downstream passed that fort.  In contrast, a ship disabled passing Port Hudson would then float  BACK down stream, giving all the fort’s guns a second round.  And this while moving at the same speed as that log we strapped you to back in Illinois.  Why attack upstream when you can attack down?

An attack on Vicksburg is made all the more attractive given its location.  Port Hudson lay upstream on New Orleans and required sea transport for both troops and supplies.  The nearest rail supplied Union port lay lay in Maryland at Baltimore ,an immense distance to shuttle troops and supplies.  In contrast half of the northern states are connected to Vicksburg via the Mississippi River.  The transport of troops and supplies to that point made it the most easily  accessed battlefield of the war, or would have had it not been for the quirky topography in that part of Mississippi and the 30,000 Confederates stationed there to keep it out or Union hands.

The Mississippi Delta

Just above the city of Vicksburg, the Yazoo river meets the Mississippi.  The Yazoo flows roughly parallel to the Mississippi for nearly two hundred miles (until just below Memphis in Tennessee.)  Between the two rivers lies one of the great American swamps; The Mississippi Delta.


Too wet to march through and too dry to navigate by boat, it could only be avoided.  And at 175 miles tall by 65 miles wide it made a considerable thing to go around.  Traveling around the delta had is perils as well though.  In November of 1862, Grant marched an army through Mississippi from Memphis around the east side of the Delta only to discover that 200 miles is too far to supply troops overland.  In just a week of travel Grant’s ponderous supply line was raided by both Nathan Bedford Forest and by Earl Van Dorn leaving Grant no choice to go back the way he came on short rations.  An attack on Vicksburg would have to me made from the river itself.

The Yazoo River and Haines Bluffs

So… given that troops could not be marched overland from Memphis, the next logical approach would be landing them from the river itself.  South of the Yazoo, the land on the east bank of the Mississippi is all swamp until finally it reaches the bluff that Vicksburg itself is built on.  The Yazoo though is sufficiently navigable and far enough north of Vicksburg to be be safe from its guns.  An amphibious landing at any point along the east bank of that river would put troops within reach of Vicksburg.  An attack up the Yazoo was a seriously dicey proposition as  General Sherman and his Corp discovered in December of 1862. 

First, attacking up the Yazoo can be done but at that awesome upstream disadvantage enjoyed by Port Hudson.  An attack launched up the Yazoo would be done in plain sight of Vicksburg and at a blistering 6 or 7 miles an hour.  To make matters worse, the river is not straight but the road connecting all landings south of the river is.  It simply is not possible to surprise anyone with a naval landing along the Yazoo.

To make matters worse, the east bank of the Yazoo is a long, uninterrupted bluff upon which an assault must be staged within yards of the transports dropping soldiers off.   Think Saving Private Ryan with banjos.  The bluffs extend so far north along the Yazoo that you may have well marched overland from Memphis by the time you reached flat/dry ground.  Clearly troops must be landed south of the Vicksburg.


Passing the guns at Vicksburg

To make a landing south of Vicksburg would require troops and supplies be transported via boat past the guns at the fort city itself.  This is as bad an idea as it sounds.  Vicksburg sits at a commanding height above the river.  Not only are its guns too high to be shot at by the ships passing beneath them but shots from these guns are of the nasty “plunging” variety.

Plunging fire sucks.  Ships are built under the firm belief that only other ships will fire at them.  99.9% of the time, this is a good bet.  Cannonballs shot in flat trajectory at an unarmored ship will typically pass through the ship only harming what is hit by the ball itself or the splinters created by striking a wooden ship’s sides.  Ships don’t like this but they can put up with a certain amount of it.  Ships are only seriously sunk by shots that land below their waterline.  This is tough place to put a cannonball given how much water decelerates shells.  Plunging fire would not be aimed at the side of a ship however, It would be aimed at the deck.  Cannonballs would, again, pass straight through the ship and exit the opposite side.  This time however, the opposite side of the ship is the bottom of the ship.  Bad.

Ironclads faired little better.  Armored against fire from enemy ships, Ironclads rarely had enough deck armor to hangout overlong under the high sited guns of a river fortress.  Those that did have good deck armor tended to have sloped armor that would reflect shot and shell up and over the ship.  This slopped armor (see picture below) was purposely angled under the assumption the fire was coming in flat.  Plunging fire would hit sloped armor straight on and do more damage than level fire.


I should also point out that fortress guns tended to be big…

Oh… and the river in front of Vicksburg hairpins…. If ya don’t get sunk the first time… no worries… try again!

South of Vicksburg

So, having passed Vicksburg…. somehow… the Union commander would be faced with a similar problem that he faced on the Yazoo.  The land south of Vicksburg was either swampy and unsuitable for landing or bluff covered and well guarded (or both).  Any landing near to the fortifications would bring out a ton of Confederates to prepared positions along the east bank of the Mississippi.  The outer defenses of Vicksburg extended quite effectively for over dozens of miles down river.

Once you get past the defenses of Vicksburg a number of rivers empty into the Mississippi (the Big Black and Bayou Pierre.) These rivers, while too small to navigate, are too big to cross.  The land around them is also quite swampy and altogether unsuitable for armies.  You could land south of them but to get to the bridges across these rivers you have to go inland 50 or 60 miles.  Trekking this far inland creates  a variation on same problem that made the march from Memphis such a challenge!  Supply marched this far inland would be perilously vulnerable to raids and partisan attacks.

So… Vicksburg can quite literally only be approached by an army from the east.  The Delta, swamps, bluffs, forts, and 30,000 Confederates all conspired to make the Fortress of Vicksburg the mother of all tough nuts.

In the summer of 1863 U. S. Grant solved the problem of Vicksburg.  And he did it without inventing paratroopers… Stay tuned!



24 12 2010

Civil war battlefields were dominated by their hills.  Gettysburg, Fredericksburg and, my favorite, Champion Hill we all battle sites chosen for advantages conferred by their high ground.   Holding higher elevation did not always translate into easy victory.  In fact, Pemberton and his Army of Vicksburg lost the battle of Champion Hill despite holding higher ground.  Nonetheless, generals of the period sought out hills and ridges for both the tactical and strategic advantages they afforded.

Troops stationed on a hill had the following advantages:

Battlefield intelligence – Generals could easily see the movements of enemy troops from atop a high hill.  Conversely, troops just over the sloop of a hill or crest moved virtually invisibly.

Visibility – Troops stationed at higher elevations than their target would have an easier time seeing their targets.  This seems like a no brainer but the advantage here is quite staggering.  Weapons of this era had theoretical ranges in the hundreds of yards and could shoot with accuracy for up to a mile.  On a flat surface it might not be possible to see for more than a couple of hundred yards and therefore the not use their weapons to their full potential.

Overlapping fire – Troops can’t shoot through friendly troops.  Well… not without irritating them.  The sole exception occurs when one unit is at a higher elevation than the other.  It was a common tactic during the war to place infantry on the facing slope of a hill or at its base while placing cannons on its crest.  This provided very good mutual protection for both artillery and infantry.

Hills for McPherson and Revenge will will confer a range bonus to units at a higher elevation than their target and a range penalty to units at lower elevations than their target.  There will also be rules for firing over infantry with artillery.

My hills came in a box.  I bought them about 10 years ago.  They were manufactured by a Portland company called Geo-Hex and are cool enough that I don’t feel too much pressure to make new ones from scratch.  This is the only terrain element I will not be scratch building.

The hills are six sided polymorphic and have about a 2” slope.  The fully hexagonal pieces are 1 foot across.  I can use the various pieces to produce quite a few useful shapes but it requires a bit of practice to use.  The main advantage of these hills is that, given the quantity I have, I can produce a facsimile of most battlefields without resorting to opening a jug of glue.  The downside is that it’s a bit too generic to do really distinct hills and it takes an hour or two to set up.

Below are are pictures of my hills set up for the champion hill scenario.  Note my image of the battle field sitting on the table itself as my guide.  It’s not a perfect match but I should be able to recreate the important nooks and crannies of the battlefield for my game.

Core Values, Part 1

17 12 2010

Games, like people, have a set of principles that they hold most dear.  While playing games, principles reveal themselves through the options they give their players and through the strategies that prove effective.  Most games hold as their highest principle that their players be lucky.  Craps, for instance, has not a single other trait.  How would you lose craps on purpose?  Bingo?  Roulette?  No strategy works (or fails)  for any of these games.

Others games reward players for maintaining the largest number of options the longest.  Gin is a good example of this.  Chess is as well.  The act of placing a player in “Check” in Chess, a usually bad place to be, restricts an opponent to only moving pieces that get them out of check.  Not having any options is to lose the game.  Checkmate.

Scrabble (a game I am truly terrible at) believes that people people should have a large vocabulary and be very good at spelling.  Players do draw letters at random, but this hardly matters in the end.  Low scoring letters are easier to use and high scoring letter are harder, but well… higher scoring.  Knowing a word that contains the letter ‘j’ and that has an ‘e’ three letters after an ‘r’ will win you a bunch of games.

War-games tend to have a couple of high level values in common:

  • Historical strategies should work – A war-game should confirm the strategies and tactics of their era.  For sure there are things that generals would have benefited from in hindsight but there are reasons why things were done the way they were.
  • Challenges faced by commander’s of the era are reflected in the game  – Generals struggled with thorny problems during battle that should be appreciated after playing a good simulation.

Without these core values, a game is just historically themed.  It doesn’t simulate its era at all.  McPherson and Revenge aims to get this right by remembering the following:

Good Things Happen to Good Generals” – Any Civil War narrative is a story of its Generals.   Perhaps this is a romanticizing things a bit but that’s the way this conflict is embedded in our history.  Fredericksburg and “The Crater” are recorded as General Burnside’s failures.  General Howard saved the day at Little Round Top.  For decades following the war, accounts of virtually every event in the war was recorded in the memoirs of one of its various generals.  Often, in the south, political power was bestowed upon ex-soldiers based on how many degrees they were removed from the unerring hand of Bobby Lee.  And for a generation following the war to be president one had to have been one of its Union generals and later one of its combatants in much the same that a president prior to the war had to have spent some quality time in a log cabin.

Generals will be the control focus of McPherson and Revenge.  A general will be required for any bold action.  For instance, convincing units to advance into enemy fire will require a general to give an order.  If this general happens to be a good general… well… that will make doing the tricky all that much easier.  Generals will not only find it easier to to do things, they will find it easier to do more than one thing.  In the course a battle an officer may find that he will need to give different instructions to different units.  A good General will do this better than a bad one.  Furthermore, generals will also carry with them a degree of luck.  If something bad happens then a general might be able undo it, or prevent if from ever having happened by either quick thing or careful planning.  Good generals will be luckier than less good generals.

Control disintegrates over time” – At the beginning of a battle troops know their roles.  Commanders have good idea of what is about to happen.  In short, everyone knows what they are doing.  From the first fired shot this begins to change.

For units in the field, a battle is a confusing and demoralizing place.  Prolonged exposure to battle will eventually result in the breakdown of cohesion.  In McPherson and Revenge units will be required to test their morale, that is to verify that staying in the fight is something they are willing to do.  These tests will be easier on units that have achieved veteran or elite status through fighting elsewhere.  These tests can occur as a result of taking casualties, witnessing other units breaking and of being forced to withstand assaults.  Units that fail are forced become unsteady.  Soldiers will have begun to flee but other still stand their ground continuing the fight.   Further collapse will send all running pell-mell  to the rear.  These troops may recover order and may even rejoin the fight, but will not be as effective for the remainder of the fight.

The control of units is brought about by Brigade and Division commanders and their considerable staffs.  When this group is well informed and well coordinated much control can be exerted and complicated things can be done with relative ease.  As the battle wears on officers will become casualties, and, worse, officers will become misinformed giving orders that cannot, or should not be followed.  McPherson and Revenge will allow for disintegration of command.  With each order will come the possibility of a permanent downgrading of command capability.  The likelihood of this downgrading will grow the nearer the enemy.

It’s not possible to know everything” – It’s very easy to create a game where units move and cause damage at a constant rate.  Looking down on a table of miniatures knowing where everything is, how far everything moves and when everything moves will create a very chess like game.  In reality, much would have gone on out of site of each sides generals.   For instance:

  • It might not be possible to know the identity and condition of soldiers across the way.  It may not be a possible to know the condition of your own troops.
  • It would not be possible to see troops moving beyond line of site.  It would happen all the time that troops would literally “suddenly” appear.
  • It would not be possible to know how quickly orders would be complied with.  Messages go astray and many an order was given that were lost, did not fit the situation by the time they where received or where discarded.
  • Units that were disorganized or scattered could take quite a bit of time to recover enough to be (re)committed to the fight.

McPherson and Revenge will ensure a fog of war by:

  • Not absolutely defining the movement range of units
  • Using a randomized system for determining what order that units move in
  • Providing a mechanism for issuing orders and determining if those orders are successfully followed.

How many minis is too many?

12 12 2010

When do you know you are done with a miniature project?  It’s very easy to buy a manageable hand full of figures and paint them not knowing you don’t have enough to play any kind of game.  Simultaneously, it’s also easy to buy EVERYTHING.  You can whip out the plastic and buy a few thousand hours worth of painting without realizing it if you aren’t careful.  Before sitting down to paint or purchase you need a plan .

A really good strategy for buying and painting the correct amount of lead is to find a battle you want to recreate.    This not only makes a guide for buying and painting troops but will provide a template for creating terrain for a game as well.  At a regimental scale, a 6 foot by 5 foot table (2 by 1.6 miles of simulated terrain) can fit 3 or 4 divisions (about a Corp) a side.  What I need is either a medium size battle or a section of one of the larger ones (such as the Hornets Nest at Shiloh or Picket’s charge at Gettysburg) to use as a starting point for my project. 

As we have already established, I like General McPherson.  McPherson saw action during the battles of Fort Henry, Fort Donaldson, and Shiloh but as a commander of engineers, not as a commander of troops.  Bummer… Shiloh would rock.   McPherson served as a Corp commander during the Vicksburg campaign and as a Army commander during the Atlanta Campaign.  An Army is way to big for my table so it looks like I need to find my battle during the Vicksburg Campaign.  The Vicksburg campaign consisted mostly of a great big siege and a lot of very small battles.   There was one medium size fight however at a crossroads in Mississippi called Champion Hill.

The Battle of Champion hill was fought on May 16th, 1863 between Union elements of James McPherson’s XVII Corp and John McClernand’s XIII Corp and the Confederate Army of Vicksburg commanded by John Pemberton.  Below is drawing of the battle field created in 1882.


While the Union could ultimately muster greater forces than the Confederates could apply to the battle, throughout the day confederates controlled many very defensible positions including, <wait for it> a hill.  The fighting that actually occurred on that hill was intense.  Over 2500 union soldiers where killed or wounded taking that hill while 3800 confederates where killed our wounded in its defense.  The disparity in casualties is explained by the fact that the Union forces managed to outflank the Confederate position and crush it in detail.  Southern forces eventually were routed and most returned to Vicksburg to prepare for a long siege.  (I plan of spending some time digging into this battle and the Campaign around it in later blogs but for now I need to get us back to organizing my project or I will be here all night.)

In order to better study the battle I am reading a book on it by Timothy B. Smith (entitled Champion Hill – Decisive Battle for Vicksburg).  This book, besides being a corking read, has many Maps!  Huzzah!   The Maps in the book focus in far better than the period map above, have much cleaner terrain guidance and are at a constant scale to each other.  This is wicked cool.  Because all the maps in the book have a similar scale I was able to create a jig of my table printed on a piece of overhead projector sheet that I can superimpose over each of the maps in order to work out how I want the battlefield to appear on my table.  (I created a grid of 600 yards by 600 yards squares in the same mileage scales as the map.  Each of these squares is a foot on my table.)   I eventually I settled on the following view…

From my Book

Now… its cool I can do this but not convenient.  I can’t do what I need while holding the jig to the book. I need a representation, not only of this map that I can not only fold up and put in my pocket but that contains a representation of the components of this map that I intend to recreate using my table.  I created  the following drawing as a terrain guide:

My Map

Based on this, my table will need:

  • Hills in the above bizarre shapes
  • About 10 square feet of forest
  • about 14 feet of road including forks and an intersection
  • about 7 or 8 feet of rivers with forks
  • 5 Farms including fences and planted crops.  (each farm complex is represented by a non descript black square.)
  • Not included in the map but certainly included in the battle: Hasty works!

My scenario will begin at 11:00 AM on May 16th 1863.  (This is the position illustrated in the map with my funky jig).  There are a TON on Union troops on that map (30 regiments Plus 10 batteries of Artillery!)  That’s perfect!  Sadly there are only 15  Confederate regiments.  (Fear not! More southerners are on the way though.)  So that I can paint two roughly equal forces, I will be adding the confederates that arrived later (by 2:00 PM historically). 

Neither side used Calvary in the fight but I really want to paint Cav.  To do this I will add 5 Battalions of cavalry (sadly at random) that plausibly could have been in Mississippi at the time assigned to each of the armies so that I can have those units available for other games.  Based on this, here is what I must paint in order to fight the battle of Champion Hill:

  • 30 Union Regiments
  • 31 Confederate Regiments
  • 10 Union Artillery Batteries (5 Smoothbore, 5 rifles)
  • 10 Confederate Artillery Batteries (5 Smoothbore, 5 rifles)
  • 5 Union Cavalry Battalions (mounted and dismounted)
  • 5 Confederate Cavalry Battalions (mounted and dismounted)
  • 11 Union Generals (1 Corp Commander, 3 Division commanders, 7 Brigadiers)
  • 9 Confederate Generals (3 Division Commanders, 6 Brigadiers)

and here are the Orders of Battle for each of the forces I intend to paint….


Union Order of Battle


Confederate Order of Battle

Anatomy of a war-game

4 12 2010

War games are two things; games with a war theme and simulations of conflict.  Now, I could paint a pachinko machine grey and blue and call it a “war themed game”.  That’s easy, and, if it’s a good pachinko machine, and you like pachinko, it’s a good war themed game.  Simulating conflict is trickier (but manageable.)

One way to develop a simulation is to think of what a battle might have been like for an individual soldier and extrapolating this to units of several hundred.  An individual can walk, run, and crawl.  He can use a weapon and be harmed by one.  He can bravely advance or run away.  Units of men would have these same abilities and restrictions so a simulation, at a minimum, must handle Movement, Combat and Morale.  It’s a bit tempting to list these three items as the table of contents for your rules and to start writing.  The problem is that battles are not quite fought at the individual level. 

To simulate an army in combat, particularly the organized armies of the nineteenth century, you have to take into account the way they managed their affairs.  At each level of an army hierarchy, there was a commander and his staff that struggled to understand what was going on around them, to get soldiers to do what was wanted and to coordinate with other units to be sure their flanks were protected and that support would be available when needed.  The key word here is “struggled”.  Rarely did this go well for officers during the Civil War, even when they weren’t being fired at. 

  • Officers frequently imagined giant bodies of troops that didn’t exist or did not see formations that were very nearby.  Based on these misconceptions, orders would be given.
  • Orders where carried by adjutants on horseback, many of whom never arrived with their instructions either being lost of killed.
  • Units frequently did things without being told and did not do things despite being told to. 

You can imagine that a game that only bothered to provide rules for Movement, Combat and Morale would have players moving around units, always at full speed, stopping in the best possible cover and launching brilliantly coordinated attacks.  The winner would be the player that did the best in combat (invariably measured by rolling dice).  What we need to simulate warfare in this period are rules that will prohibit us from moving units when and where we want to. We should NOT know everything happening during the battle.  We need a way to simulate NOT doing things.  Collectively this is known as Command and Control and is core to a simulations of this era.

To this we must add a little Chrome.  Chrome are those rules added to a game to provide period flavor.  Civil War chrome would include some of the following:

Improvised cover – Soldiers of this period, when not moving , shooting or running for their lives, tended to chop down trees.

Officer Casualties – Officers died at an alarming and disproportionate rate during the civil.  Battles frequently turned on an officer’s misfortune.

Period weapons – Rifles rocked.  Shotguns rocked too if you got close enough.

Officer Quality – Some officers were clueless while others could see through walls.

Formations – Units fought in different formations based on the situation.  Sometimes men where formed to do as much damage as possible, move as quickly as possible or not get shot as much as possible.

Artillery – Cannons of the period came in basically two varieties; smoothbore and rifled.  Both had advantages and disadvantages.

…and much more.

Simulating conflict is tricky and requires some thought.  Having said that, it does me no good to create a good simulation that is a bad game. I have played many games that were tedious or frustrating but must have been very realistic.  They had to be… they sucked as games.  I do not consider simulation to be more important than gameplay.  In fact, I would far rather play a mediocre simulation that was fun than an accurate simulation that was not much of a game. 

Next time…  Painting pachinko grey and blue!