Sunday, 29 March 2015

Altar of Freedom: First Manassas

Throughout the fall I've been gathering a force of 6mm American Civil War miniatures. At the club we've so far used these miniatures to play several games using Black Powder and Longstreet rules. Though both rule sets are excellent, I don't really want to use Black Powder for both Napoleonic and ACW gaming (that would be too repetitive). Longstreet is an excellent game, but I was also interested in playing the larger battles of the war, for which these rules aren't suitable. After some searching, I found the Altar of Freedom rules which have received some praise and seem to fit my gaming style really well (not too complex, fast playing and concentrating on the essential command and control problems rather than micromanagement).

Some of my Union troops based for Altar of Freedom
As our second test game of the rule set we chose to play the battle of First Manassas (First Bull Run). This was the first major battle of the war, which pitted two eager but inexperienced armies led by generals that had rapidly been promoted way above their capabilities.


The objective of the Federal general, McDowell, was to force a crossing over the Bull Run river and defeat the Confederate army. The Confederate aim was to secure the river line, defeat the Federal army and capture the village of Centreville deep in the Federal rear.


In this scenario, the Confederate player (myself) had to deploy his forces first south of the Bull Run river. The Confederate army organization was quite weird, as it consisted of two disproportionate but quite large divisions. The larger "division" - the Army of the Potomac commanded by general Beauregard - had 8 brigades and 3 batteries. The force was clearly too large for the micromanager Beauregard (who called himself "the young Napoleon") to command, especially as he was also acting as the army's CiC. The other force at my disposal - the division-sized Army of the Shenandoah - was more conventional with four brigades, a small force of cavalry and one battery, all commanded by the far more competent general Johnston.

My intention was to hold three of the four crossings over the Bull Run with Beauregard's division, which I had divided into three separate detachments (see map below). This would not overtax Beauregard's command abilities and keep his forces relatively close together in the north-west corner of the battlefield. Meanwhile I would employ Johnston's better-led division further south to block the fourth crossing and, if possible, deliver a flanking counter-attack that would tie down Federal forces from crossing further north.

As can be seen from the map below, the Federal deployment was quite balanced, with one division threatening each of the four crossings. The Federal army was more balanced and easy to wield in terms of the structure of their divisions, but their main problem was that the commanding general, general McDowell was not competent enough to handle such a large force and thus the divisions could not be given simultaneous commands (they would have to be activated piecemeal).

General McDowell, forced to attack by his political masters, surveys the battlefield with bewilderment in his eyes.
The north flank of the Confederate line, with three of Beauregard's brigades holding the Stone Bridge against Hunter's and Heinzelman's Federal divisions:

The centre and southern sections of the line. Two of Beauregard's brigades backed by massed artillery hold the central ford whilst Johnston's division (with several brigades further back in reserve) holds the southern crossing:

Johnston's HQ (used in the game as a rallying point for broken brigades) and three of his brigades:

Massed artillery ready to make a Federal crossing very costly:

Turns one and two (8am - 10am)

The first turn began with the allocation of priority points to each sides divisions and to control of the turn clock (which determines who has the initiative). The Confederates were determined to seize the initiative and, after bidding high, got control of the turn clock. The turn essentially consisted of the three northernmost Federal divisions advancing towards the corresponding three crossings. After seeing Hunter's division heading north, Beauregard committed his reserve to secure that crossing. 

By controlling the pace of events and putting on an intimidating show of force, the Confederates forced McDowell to react with a series of hastily issued commands. As a result of this confusion, the southernmost Federal division (Tyler) failed to understand the poorly drafted orders and did not advance as planned. (In game terms the Confederate side controlled the turn clock so they were able to force the turn to end before all four federal divisions had activated). 

The northern sector of the battlefield. Heinzelman's division advances to threaten the Stone Bridge whilst Hunter's division moves to outflank from the northernmost crossing:

Beauregard's reserve makes a forced march to secure the northernmost crossing:

Turn three (10am - 11am)

The second turn saw more action along the line. Beauregard's northernmost brigade (Detachment C) got the drop on Hunter's cavalry, which had raced ahead of their infantry to secure the northernmost crossing. Meanwhile a fire fight erupted over the two central crossings whilst Johnston's division began crossing the Bull Run in the south.

Johnston's division crossing the Bull Run. Stuart's cavalry and Jackson's infantry lead the way.

A view of the battlefield from the south-east

Fire fights erupt over  the two central crossings. The Federal brigades are pushed back due to heavy shelling.

The Confederate assault in the north, took the Federal cavalry by surprise before their infantry support could come to their aid. Jone's brigade lead the charge and, after a short firefight, the Federal cavalry was routed.

A fire fight also broke out in the south, as Tyler's division finally advanced to meet the Confederate threat. Caught in a tricky situation where only half of their force had crossed the river, the Confederates were lucky that the Federal fire was ineffective.

Turn 4 (11am - 12am)

The third turn saw the Federals yet again attempting to force their way across the two central crossings. However the Confederate artillery disrupted the attacks sufficiently to prevent any serious crossing attempts. Meanwhile both sides consolidated their positions in the north and a fire fight broke out between Beauregard's three brigades (Detachment C) that had crossed the river and Hunter's division, which had been transformed from an outflanking force into a flank-security force.

The Confederate centre holds - largely thanks to their massive concentration of artillery

Firing lines form up in the north as both sides consolidate their position
However, the fiercest piece of action took place in the south. The Confederates made this sector their highest priority and thus acted before Tyler's Federal division. Headed by Jackson's brigade, the Confederates charged their blue-clad enemies and drove the would-be oppressors back.

Jackson's charge was so brutal that, after driving back the first Federal brigade his elated men pushed through the smoke into a second Federal brigade. Despite having dangerously outpaced their supporting brigades, Jackson's men went on to defeat this second brigade as well, which promptly retired.

Turn 5 (12am - 1pm)

With both ends of their line threatened, the Federal forces abandoned their efforts at forcing a crossing in the centre. Miles' division hung back out of artillery range and deployed its brigades and artillery for defence. In the north, Heinzelman's infantry were rushed into the northern woods to support Hunter against the attacking Confederates, whilst the artillery of both divisions were concentrated to cover the crossing in case the Confederates (Detachment B) would try to make a crossing.

This turn saw the hardest fighting taking place in the northern woods. The three Confederate brigades (Detachment C) that had crossed the river had formed up during the previous turn and now launched their assault on the Federal defenders. The bloodthirsty Confederates cleaved into the Federal defenders, routing another brigade, before their advance ground to a halt.

The three Confederate brigades that had been holding the Stone Bridge in the north (Detachment B) tried to advance across the river into the flank of the engaged Federal infantry. However they could not make the crossing due to heavy fire from well-positioned Federal batteries.

In the south, the severe fighting of the previous turns had left both sides dispersed. Johnston's Confederates managed to regroup before Tyler's division and, after some brutal enfilading fire, one of Tyler's brigades was routed and another forced to retire half a kilometre.

Turn 6 (1pm - 2pm)

By early afternoon, the attacking Federal force was struggling to secure its flanks. The turn continued much as the previous one did. There was brutal close-range combat in the northern woods whilst the Confederate infantry at the Stone Bridge (Detachment B) was once again prevented from crossing the river by Federal artillery. It was here more than anywhere else that the large size of Beauregard's division was a hindrance, since Beauregard could not be in two places at once to push his men forward (if he had been near the Stone Bridge he could have forced his men across despite the Federal bombardment).

In the south, a combination of Federal assaults and devastating canister fire pushed back some of Johnston's brigades and disrupted his formation. Though Tyler's Federal division also took heavy casualties from Confederate fire, Johnston mainly spent the turn regrouping his formation.

A significant development from the previous turn was that two Confederate brigades holding one of the central fords (Detachment A) managed to cross the river and advance towards Miles' division. Though small in numbers, this force put significantly more pressure on the flank of the beleaguered Federal defenders in the south.

The situation in the south is somewhat chaotic

Confederate infantry advance
The worn-out brigades of both sides draw back to recuperate in the northern woods

Turn 7 (2pm - 3pm)

The Federal position continued to deteriorate. Johnston's division, having regrouped, drove into the dispersed Federal brigades. Jackson (whom the men had started to call "Stonewall") led the charge and his brigade once again drove back the demoralized bluecoats. A dispirited and piece-meal Federal counter-attack failed to reverse the situation and the Federal flank was driven ever further back. Further pressure was applied by the Confederate brigades that had crossed the Bull Run further north (Detachment A), although they failed to drive back the Federal centre.

"Stonewall" Jackson's brigade drives the Federal infantry back - once again pushing far ahead of the rest of the division.

A view of the southern section of the battlefield - Tyler's division is disrupted and about to break while Confederates advance in the centre and from the south.

In the north, the fight for the woods saw significant fluctuations, with both sides driving the enemy back only to be driven back themselves. Both forces were starting to be quite spent, and only the Federal artillery covering the Stone Bridge was keeping fresh Confederate brigades from engaging the flank of the worn-out Federal infantry. Though Federal forces were holding their own, it was only a matter of time before the Confederates would overwhelm Hunter's and Heinzelman's divisions.

A view of the northern section of the battlefield

Another view of the northern battlefield

Confederate infantry attempting to cross the Bull Run at the Stone Bridge

Seeing that the situation was desperate and conscious that only his army stood between Beauregard's army and Washington DC, general McDowell issued the order to withdraw. It was only a matter of time before the northern end of his line would be overwhelmed and the southern section was already caving in, with a very real risk that his line of retreat towards Washington DC would be cut off.

Thus ended (our version) of the Battle of Bull Run. The Federal's had suffered a clear, although indecisive defeat. The Federal brigades had suffered worse than their opponents and three brigades had been routed (five would have been sufficient to rout the whole army). Worse, the Confederates had managed to cross the Bull Run and the position was untenable.

A chaotic withdrawal behind the Potomac would ensue, but Washington DC and the bulk of McDowell's army would survive.


The Confederate victory was largely due to their brigades being better set-up to support each other and seizing the initiative at a few key moments, when the Federal forces were dispersed. This was probably due to myself being more familiar with the rules than Antti and subsequently allocating my command points better. I was also lucky in getting my best brigades right where they were needed. For example Jackson's brigade was the only truly "good" brigade in Johnston's command, yet it managed to take point in most of the engagements of that division, whilst the inferior brigades acted in a supporting role.

This was the second game with the Altar of Freedom rules that Antti or I had played. As such, there was still a strong learning aspect involved. Perhaps this was appropriate in representing the skill of the opposing commanders in what was the first real battle of the American Civil War. However, the learning curve was fast and the game was fun and easy to play. The game models the command and control problems of army level operations very well. It is also easy and fast to play and very interactive, with interlocked activations and reactions to an enemy's activation.

You'll definitely be reading more about this game.


  1. Great write up! I have had Altar of Freedom rules for a while but I need to paint up the forces for First Manassas. It looks like you did a great job commanding the Confederates and pushed the Union back.
    Thanks for the great AAR!

  2. Really good AAR - thank you. I do have the forces for 1st Bull Run and the rules, I just need to set up a table and play what seems to be a really good game. More AAR's please!

    1. Thanks! It really is quite an easy game to pick up, plays fast and is nice and interactive. There's an AAR of Seven Pines on this blog and hopefully we'll be playing more games of Altar of Freedom in the near future.