Monday, 15 December 2014

Fredericksburg Counterfactual...

The hard pressed defence of Skinker's Neck ford is holding...
This Sunday at the Hall of Heroes Campbelltown, we had an absolutely hoofing game of Black Powder! Organised by Bryan and Philip, who also umpired, based around a 'what if' scenario, the resulting game was one of the most exciting and enjoyable wargames I've had for a long time! 
Looking SE along the Rappahanock at Fredericksburg
So what was so special about this game? Was it because I was on the winning team? Well, that would be telling! Was it because of the great company? Nothing unusual in that, I'm privileged to regularly play with great blokes, some of whom travel a long way in - Jim from Canberra and James from way back O' Bourke just for a start!

Rebel defences opposite Fredericksburg
No - it was that Sunday's games had all the ingredients of what makes a great game for me - a well thought out scenario, some real tactical planning to be done, the pressures of real time command and control when working with a large team in trying to out guess and out smart a set of hard playing opponents - and, rarest of all, some real time reconnaissance on which to base our plans. Of course it helped that the game outcome went right down to the wire until the very last throw of the dice!

Looking WNW from Skinkers Neck to Fredericksburg in the background. Gunboat in foreground, pontoon in midground.
Terry did us proud as usual with a great looking table - 26 x 6 foot!

Killing ground - Rebel redlegs have prepared a crossfire above the Fredericksburg ford....
This is the third year in a row we have played a Fredericksburg scenario. The first one was pretty dire - Marye's Heights, and a bit too 'battle of the Somme' ish for the Union players, butting our heads against larger forces in prepared defences! Last year we toyed around with a counterfactual, which I reckon was tweaked to perfection this year...

The second Union brigade crossing the Pontoon
So historically, we know that the Union commander Burnside hesitated and delayed so long in attempting to force a crossing over the Rappahannock that the Confederates had ample time to prepare a warm welcome from thoroughly prepared defences, leading to a blood bath on Marye's Heights....

Pushing up to the swamp above the pontoon - will it bog down the advance?
So our counter-factual was base on the 'what-if' that the Union commander instead decided to strike while the iron was hot, and before the Confederates had time to dig in and bring up all their reserves.

Our table represented the area within the Green rectangle.
Of course this equally meant that the Union only had sufficient bridging train for one pontoon bridge, as well as the option of using both fords, below Fredericksburg and at Skinker's Neck...To keep the game balanced, we also assumed that Jackson's hard marching Corps would arrive a few days earlier than he actually did...

Is there no end to the Dark Blue river crossing the Rappahanock?
Allow me to cut and paste from Philip's scenario to give you a flavour:
·         The Union Army only had one pontoon bridge, but there were some Union gun ships in the area near Burnside’s preferred crossing point at Skinner’s Neck (sic) and Sumner wanted to cross the river near the ford upstream of Fredericksburg.  Therefore, the Union army will cross the river at three locations: (1) Upstream of Fredericksburg via the ford; (2) Downstream of Fredericksburg at Skinner’s Neck (sic) via boats (Supported by Gunboats); and, (3) At a point in-between Fredericksburg and Skinner’s Neck (sic) by the single pontoon bridge.

Union infantry braves the killing ground...
  • The Confederate Army still does not know where the Union Army is planning to cross the Rappahannock River.  Therefore, it will be required to deploy first (Less Jackson’s Corps) before the Umpire places the objective markers and the Union Army identifies the pontoon crossing point (Note: The Union Army Balloon Corps was observing the movements of the Confederates so the Union side will be able to see the Confederate deployment before picking the crossing point).  The Confederates should be relatively spread out across the heights overlooking the river from Fredericksburg to Skinker’s Neck.
Establishing a firm bridgehead at the pontoon?
  • The Umpire will place the objective markers at the start of the game.  The Union side will secretly select two groups of two (with each pair representing a pathway through the Confederate lines) as their real objectives.  Potential objectives might include:  (1) Fredericksburg; (2) Marye’s Heights; (3) Exit point of Railroad on Confederate side of table near Prospect Hill; (4) High ground near Skinner’s Neck (sic); etc.   Ideally, there should be at least ~1 objective marker per brigade on the table at the start of the game (i.e. ~10 objective markers).
A feint, or the real thing?
  • The real objectives will not be obvious to the Confederate side until partway through the game.  At the start of turn “Y” (halfway point based on proposed number of turns or game time), the Umpire will remove all of the false objective markers from the table.  The Union players wins if they control either pair of the real objectives at the end of the game – They have forged a path through the Confederate lines.
Rebs force march across the field to seal off the Union Bridgehead...
1.     One Union player is allowed to return to the gaming area to view the Confederate deployment from the Union side of the table for a short period.  This represents observation by the Union Balloon observers.

2.     Before returning to the gaming area, the other Union players confer with the Balloon observer and advise the Umpire of the following decisions: (1) the position of the pontoon bridge crossing (This must be more than 4 feet from the ends of the table); (2) the two pairs of real objective markers (representing the planned paths through the Confederate lines); and, (3) the Grand Divisions allocated to each crossing point.  Whilst the Union players are conferring, the Confederate side sets up Jackson’s reserves on a side table (subject to availability of miniatures).

3.     Union players return to the gaming area and, if necessary, move their troops so each Grand Division is placed on the side table near their respective crossing point.  They then place the pontoon bridge, deploy their first brigades from the first wave (as below) and then have first turn.
The high tide mark of the first Union wave off the pontoon...
Not only did the Union players have some real command appreciations to conduct - halfway through the game the Rebels had to identify what they believed to be the primary and secondary Union main effort - and their reinforcements would only come on at these two points!

Log jam at Skinker's Neck!
As Craig, pictured above looking thoughtful, was the last Union player to arrive, he 'volunteered' to be the Balloon observer! He estimated that whilst Skinker's Neck and the heights above Fredericksburg were well defended with the bulk of the Confederate forces, their centre was relatively denuded. They were probably relying on a large area of low lying ground identified in the scenario as 'possible' swamp - it would be a 50/50 dice roll for the first troops to get there.

Throwing the guns in to hold the bridgehead.
With bitter memories of the previous two years games painfully struggling and flailing around below Marye's Heights, I persuaded my team mates that we should lay the pontoon bridge adjacent to the Skinker's Neck ford, and use these two mutually supporting bridgeheads to break through, as far as possible from Marye's Heights. Another key factor in our decision was that the high ground held by the Rebs was bisected by a couple of deep and wild ravines, which should thoroughly slow their lateral movement if and when they identified our main effort....

Halfway through the battle - soon the Rebel reserves will arrive to fill the empty field....
The one thing I had forgotten, though, was that last year the crossing at Skinker's Ford hadn't exactly been a carefree stroll either...

Here comes the first hard marchers of Jackson's Corps....
Over by Fredericksburg, because we didn't have time to redeploy Sumner's Corps, Vic would do the best he could to persuade the wily Rebs that his was the main effort - but given the killing ground that Craig had correctly identified, I wasn't holding my breath for poor Vic and his troops...Especially as he was facing the terrible duo of Jim and Cameron - the wisdom of a retired Australian Army regular officer and the enthusiasm of a schoolboy - a lethal combination! Anyway, I will leave the captions to tell the tale of the action:

But the second Union wave is closing on the objective...
Jackson's first division relieves the defence of Skinker's Neck
The Union is keeping the pressure on around Fredericksburg....

The Confederate centre is wavering...This lone Rebel brigade has kept the two halves of the Confederate army linked right until the very end - Richard played out of his socks!

The Union masses are stalemated at Skinker's Neck - again!
Longstreet's second division appears on the hill....
So did the Rebel team guess the Union intentions correctly? As near as dammit! Of their 3 reinforcement divisions, they allocated two to Skinker's Neck, which was one of our crossing points, albeit one that was going nowhere fast, and the remaining one to face Vic right over at Fredericksburg, probably more in tribute to his dogged determination to keep going that in any real fear of his breaking through. So Richard and Conrad were left to hold the Rebel centre with little in the way of reinforcements...

But the Confederate centre can't hold for much longer...
Which, despite the swamp indeed reducing all movement by half, was looking like a probable Union breakthrough - although at literally the last Confederate through of the dice, James led a daring cavalry raid which came within an ace of seizing the undefended Union pontoon bridge, thus rendering the now successful breakthrough void!

Union Breakthrough - On to Richmond!
But he failed to get the Command throw required! The Union Lines of Communication were safe once again and the advance on Richmond was on!

An outstanding game, played in great company, against a really challenging set of opponents, and a very, very close result! Wargaming at its best!


  1. Great looking game with a beautiful table, Rapahannock river is really impressive!

  2. Wow, what a nail biter! Brilliant looking game and the reinforcement conditions seemed to keep the action on a knife edge. I thrilled at taking part in last year's effort but this one looks even better. Well done Philip, Bryan, and the team!


  3. Thanks mate, you were missed!

  4. Great stuff and nice to see the Blue Bellies get one back.

    von Peter himself

  5. It's grand to see a big game so well thought out, and a very nice looking game at that. I would give at least one eyetooth for the chance to play in a game like that. Great bat rep.

  6. That game really looks great. I've been considering Fredericksburg and this might just push me to do it.