Sunday, April 30, 2017

Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31st 1862

In preparation for the future release of Dave Brown's Napoleonic rules General de Armee, I recently purchased his American Civil War rules (that have many of the same concepts), Pickett's Charge. It's been a while since I've set up an ACW battle, so I thought I'd give it a go. As the American Civil War has always been a smaller side project (in comparison to the black hole that I reside in called Napoleonic wargaming), I only have about 5 brigades painted up for both the Yankees and the Confederates. So, after perusing some of my Guns at Gettysburg scenario books, I settled on a nice-sized divisional battle that would fit on a 6'x 5' table, the battle of Fair Oaks (known as Seven Pines to the Confederates).

Action close to Fair Oaks Station

After studying Pickett's Charge for about a week, I then converted the OOB's in the scenario book to the new rules. Each side consisted of 4 brigades each and approximately 8,000 men. The scenario was therefore very balanced, although I selected it specifically due to the fact that reinforcements for both sides arrived at different times. One of the aspects of Pickett's Charge that interested me most was the command and control system, which was very different from most rules that I play. This scenario would certainly put this new system to the test.

I was not disappointed; Pickett's Charge is an outstanding and impressive set of rules. I found the game very entertaining and filled with uncertainty and the chaos of combat.

Background of the Peninsula Campaign

As a part of the Peninsula Campaign, the battle of Fair Oaks marked the closest distance that the Union would approach Richmond and preceded the Seven Days' battles, during which General Robert E. Lee counterattacked and forced General McClellan's forces to retreat from Richmond. Up to this point, General McClellan had marched up from the Tidewater Virginia area through Yorktown and Williamsburg, to the outskirts of the Confederate capital. On May 31st, the Confederate commander-in-chief, General Joseph E. Johnston took the opportunity to attack two seemingly isolated Union corps south of the Chickahominy river. The larger contest, of which this scenario is but a part of, saw 39,000 Confederates versus 34,000 Yankees.

The action was fierce and, although tactically a draw that was continued on June 1st, General McClellan was shaken to the point of hesitation. The battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines) was second only to Shiloh at this point of the war in terms of casualties. Most notably, General Johnston was severely wounded on the evening of May 31st and replaced by General Robert E. Lee, who would go on to make a huge impact on the entire war.

Our scenario is but a part of the larger contest, the action taking place in the approximate center of the map below:

The Historical Battle

In this section of the battle, Couch's brigade of Federals held firm against the advance of three Confederate brigades. Meanwhile, steady Union reinforcements began arriving, bolstering the Yankee line. With two Union batteries providing continuous support fire against the advancing Confederates, losses on Whiting's division were very heavy. After a tough day of fighting, Whiting's division was unable to dislodge the Yankees and the Union forces continued to hold the field and were considered the victor.

Confederate casualties were approximately 1,270 compared to Union casualties of 468. In addition, Confederate Generals Pettigrew and Hampton were wounded, while Hatton was killed in action.

The Scenario

Our scenario represents the center of the action on May 31st. In the vicinity of the town of Fair Oaks Station, Brigadier General Couch was holding a position with a Union infantry brigade near the Adams' house. Major General Longstreet sent three brigades under Brigadier General Whiting to overwhelm this position and drive the federals back. Hearing the sounds of battle, Union II Corps commander, Brigadier General Sumner dispatched a division under Brigadier General John Sedgwick to reinforce Couch's isolated position and counterattack the confederates. Unfortunately, the Union reinforcements had to cross the Chickahominy river over the Grapevine bridge, which was in ill-repair. Against the odds, Sedgwick's troops did pass over the bridge, which collapsed right after the last of the Union troops passed over it.

On our table, Couch's brigade was deployed near the Adams' house in the center of the table. The Confederate brigades of Pettigrew, Law and Hampton were deployed against it. There is wooded area and fenced-in fields throughout the table, so the rebels had some difficult terrain to move through.

Couch's brigade thinly deployed near the Adams' house

Law's Confederate brigade prepares to advance through the woods

Hampton' s brigade is deployed against Couch's right flank

Union reinforcements: Beginning on Turn 1, Gorman's brigade is available to enter the table as an on-board reserve formation. The other two Union brigades under Generals Burns and Dana will enter in maneuver columns on the southeast corner road behind Gorman.

In Pickett's Charge, any reinforcements need to be activated as on-board (or off-board, depending on the scenario) reserves, which requires an extra ADC.

Confederate reinforcements: Brigadier General Hatton's brigade will enter in maneuver columns on the Nine Mile Road (in the northwest corner of the table). This brigade will be available as an on-table reserve beginning on turn 4.

Victory Conditions: The game will last 15 turns. The side which controls more than half of the table will win the scenario.

The Game

On game turn 1, the Union infantry was outnumbered 3 to 1 against the advancing Confederates, but General Gorman's bigade was poised to enter in the southwest corner.

I think it's necessary to describe the command and control system of Pickett's Charge, which I think is one of the hallmarks of the rules. Basically, each brigade is rolled for and is determined to be in one of several states: Activated, Hesitant, or Faltering (resulting from previous routed or "whipped" units). An Activated brigade may move, charge, and fire normally, while a Hesitant brigade may not charge or move closer to the enemy. A Faltering brigade has to roll on a separate table and might even withdraw or rout from the enemy. Before the activation roll, each division commander rolls for a certain number of ADC's which he can attach to the brigades to either influence the activation roll or to perform special functions. For example, in order to activate an on-board reserve brigade an ADC is required. An attached ADC can also allow for a reroll of the activation in case the brigade commander fails the first roll. Other functions that require additional ADC's include Double Time (entire brigade gets a bonus move) or Artillery Assault (artillery batteries have increased chance for inflicting casualties at the cost of increasing fatigue). I found that ADC's became very scarce when needed and a large part of the decision-making was where to focus these limited resources to where I felt the focus of the battle needed to be. This system is a mechanism that proved to be very realistic and irritating at times.......I felt that it modelled the challenges of command in an outstanding way.

At the start of the game, utilizing all available ADC's, Law's brigade of Confederate infantry was Hesitant, while the other two Confederate brigades were activated. Couch's Union brigade and Gorman's oncoming brigade were both activated.

During the first couple of turns, Couch's brigade simply held their position and reformed behind fence rails to await the advancing Confederates. The brigade's artillery battery swung into action, causing a couple of long range casualties.  Gorman's brigade continued to advance along the road in march columns. The plan was to deploy this brigade to Couch's right flank in the woods, in order to counter Hampton's Confederates.

Gorman's brigade of infantry begins to maneuver onto the table
One of Couch's regiments, the 31st Pennsylvania attempts to counter Hampton's men in the woods
Men from Hampton and Pettigrew's brigades begin to menace the Union position
Over the next few turns, the Confederates continued to advance but found the going tough through the woods and over fence rails. When crossing rough ground in Pickett's Charge, a formation test is rolled. If failed, the unit will become Unformed (temporary disorder), although the full movement is still taken. As the Confederate regiments struggled to maneuver into attacking position, Gorman's brigade of Union infantry continued to quickly march to the support of Couch's brigade. In the command phase, the Union player was able to dispatch 2 ADC's and succeeded in "Double Timing" Gorman's troops which significantly helped the Federal situation.
Confederate troops begin to converge on the Union position
The 35th Georgia regiment of Pettigrew's brigade advances through the corn field
Gorman's brigade continues its march to support Couch's right flank
At this point, opposing infantry regiments began to open up with musketry. The advancing Confederates begin taking the worst of it, as the Union artillery added to the savage fire from the infantry. Several Confederate regiments begin to lose "fire discipline" and become Unformed.  Law's brigade, after a slow start begins to move through the woods to threaten Couch's left flank, forcing the 7th Massachusetts regiment to redeploy in support of this flank.
Attacking Confederates from Hampton's brigade become unformed in the face of Federal fire
The 7th Massachusetts is forced to deploy in defense of the Union left flank
Meanwhile, in the center, the 35th Georgia took crushing casualties while advancing through the corn field and ended up as "whipped" (basically a unit that is forced to retreat) and withdrew to the rear of Pettigrew's brigade. Hampton's troops were starting to succeed in causing casualties to the 31st Pennsylvania, causing a bit of a "pucker factor" on Couch's right flank.
Law's brigade engaging the Union left flank
Gorman's reinforcements beginning to bolster the Union right flank
Pettigrew's brigade forming attack columns to "force" the Union center
The action began to turn furious as the Confederates were threatening all across the Union line. Gorman's brigade had arrived in support of the right flank, but Hampton's men were advancing in force. At this point, the Union player began to have problems rolling for ADC's and was unable to assign an ADC for Burns' brigade, which was poised to enter the table as an on-board reserve. Burns' brigade was supposed to march to the Union left this delay caused some anxiety for the Union player as only the 7th Massachusetts was holding the flank.
Pettigrew's brigade, which had already taken heavy casualties, began forming attack columns to march back though the corn field and crush the Union center. This turned out to be a mistake as the Union battery decimated the columns (part of me wanted to see how the rules performed in this regard), rendering Pettigrew's attack a failure.
On the Union left, the beleaguered 7th Massachusetts was continuing to hold but was taking serious casualties, especially from Law's sharpshooters. On turn 9, we saw our first charge, as Brigadier General Law led the 4th Alabama against the worn 7th Massachusetts. As the Yankees saw the Rebels charge, they turned tail and were "whipped." The Union left flank was "in the air."  Fortunately for the Union, Law's brigade became Hesitant after the charge and Burns' brigade was already on the way to bolster the flank.
On the right flank, Hampton's men were causing serious casualties among Gorman's troops in the woods. Except for the center, the Union player was in serious trouble.
Union artillery was breaking up Pettigrew's attack columns
With Law leading the charge, the 4th Alabama throws back the 7th Massachusetts
Casualties began to seriously mount on the Union right flank
The Union left flank is now hanging in the air
Burns' brigade doubletiming to protect the left flank
At this point in the battle, the command and control system reared its ugly head for the Confederates. With Law's brigade having a golden opportunity to engulf the Union position, it became Hesitant two turns in a row, while the Union player rolled well and was able to "doubletime" Burns' brigade into position. Although frustrating for the Confederate player, such are the fortunes of war.
In addition, one of Hampton's regiments became "whipped" due to casualties, causing a Falter marker to be placed on the brigade.  On the next turn, the brigade was forced to retire from their position in the woods. Gorman's brigade gained a welcome break, as these troops were barely holding on due to casualties.
The last of the reinforcements for both sides were on the table, with Hatton's Confederate brigade marching to the center and Dana's Union brigade just entering the southwest road.
The Union forces beginning to solidify a nice defensive line
Due to the Confederate struggles with command and control, this breather allowed the Union forces to form a nice defensive line, and with Dana's brigade marching onto the tabletop, there was defense in depth. But Brigadier General Law was having none of it. Replacing the worn 4th Alabama, the 2nd Mississippi advanced to charge Burns' lead regiment, the 106th Pennsylvania. The Mississippians were victorious, forcing the Pennsylvanians to retire, but then ran smack into the 72nd Pennsylvania regiment, which knocked them back.  
The 2nd Mississippi was initially successful in its charge against the 106th Pennsylvania....
....But was thrown back by the 72nd Pennsylvania, along with their supports, the 4th Alabama
It was Turn 14 in the battle, and besides a half-heartened attempt at threatening the Union artillery in the center (which failed), the Confederates were hurting. With Dana's brigade bolstering the depth of the entire line, the left flank was secure and Gorman's troops were advancing on the right flank. Hatton's Confederate brigade was still forming up in the center and Pettigrew's brigade was "Tuckered out" and thus more difficult to Activate. The game was called at this point; the Union position was very strong and they controlled the field.
The Union enjoyed a strong defensive line at the end of the battle
The battle was considered a Union victory. Not only was the Federal line very strong at this point, but they controlled slightly over half of the table. In addition, Confederate losses were much higher than their Yankee opponents. All in all, the battle mirrored the final results of the historical fight. Confederate casualties were 1,560 (historical 1,270) compared to Union casualties of 480 (historical 468).
Pickett's Charge proved to be an incredible game. The mechanisms for firing, combat, and command/control seemed right on target. The unique command and control system not only provided opportunities for strategic decisions, but provided a large amount of drama. The battle swayed back and forth, and while the Confederates had a couple of golden opportunities to collapse the Union flanks, several horrible command rolls on the Rebel side allowed the Union player to jump right back into the game. I can't wait to jump back into another ACW battle with these rules. I was incredibly impressed and highly recommend Pickett's Charge !

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