Monday, 20 April 2015

Altar of Freedom: Seven Pines

On Saturday Antti, Samuli and I gathered at the club to play the battle of Seven Pines with the Altar of Freedom rules. This battle was fought for the control of the Confedereate capital Richmond, which was being threatened in May 1862 by a huge Federal army led by general McClellan.


After several months of retreating in the face of the enemy and with his back against the wall, Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston decided to launch a counter-attack on the slowly advancing Federal juggernaut. The time was propitious, since the Federal army had become divided by the swollen Chickahominy river. A rapid concentration of forces on the southern bank might just be enough to defeat the Federal army in detail. 

The objective of the Confederate army was to rout the Federal army south of the river and push them back - preferably so that the southern portion of the army would retreat away from the supply line and remainder of the army which was north of the river. In game terms the aim was to rout 6 brigades and gain ground.

The Federal objective was to hold their ground until reinforcements could arrive. They would win outright if they managed to break the Confederate army by routing 7 brigades.

Set-up and forces

Federal generals surveying the battlefield - "But we were supposed to be attacking!"

The Confederate army was composed of fifteen brigades in three divisions (Whiting, D.H. Hill, Anderson) plus three more brigades under general Huger which were due to arrive via an outflanking move from the south at some point in the game. The Confederate divisions of Whiting and Anderson were very big and the brigades in general of very good quality. The only minus was that the two Confederate corps commanders - Smith and Longstreet - were unreliable.

The Federal army was a bit smaller, with seventeen brigades divided into six small divisions. We misunderstood the scenario instructions and deployed five of these divisions on the board with Sedgwick's division held off-board in reserve. Historically the divisions of Hooker and Richardson (5 brigades all together) did not arrive before nightfall. However, this didn't overly unbalance the scenario, since we only played the first day of the battle and didn't give the Federal defenders fieldworks which they should have had. In game terms this meant that the action was condensed from 10 turns to 6, with the Federals having most of their forces on-board but not as strongly positioned as they should have been.

The Federal army deployed first. Their army was quite dispersed (as they were historically) in roughly two defensive lines. The Confederates placed their forces in a concentrated manner on the south-west border of the map. The Confederate plan was to place both of the large divisions on the flanks and then threatening these in succession. I was hoping that Anderson could quickly overwhelm the northern sector and draw some Federal reinforcements from the south. This success would be followed by Smith's assault on the southern end of the line - hopefully supported by Huger's outflanking division at some point. D.H. Hill's division in the centre would act as support to either flank as needed.

Initial positions

Whiting's division

D.H. Hill's and Anderson's divisions under general Longstreets command

Federal starting positions - Casey, Kearny and Richardson up front, Hooker and Couch in reserve

Turns one and two (1 pm - 3 pm) 

The first turns proceeded much as I had hoped. The Confederate generals were acting as they should and the whole line advanced. The densely forested terrain was causing some problems for the attackers as movement was greatly reduced. It was especially hard to get the Confederate artillery into positions where they could suitably support the attack (this was partly due to the terrain and partly due to bad placement).

By 2 pm (turn 2) Anderson's division was in position to launch its assault on the northern sector of the line. The assault proved a mixed success. The foremost Federal brigade under Richardson was driven back with some losses, but so were the overrunning Confederate forces. Federal canister fire proved lethal and kept the northern flank of the Union line secure. Anderson's Confederate division was becoming quite dispersed due to the action and the terrain and, as a consequence, Kemper's brigade became stranded and routed by a Federal counter-attack!

Anderson's assault in the north

Soon fighting broke out also on the southern sector of the line. Casey's Federal division had advanced somewhat hazardously and were soon engaged in a fire fight with Whiting's advancing Confederates. Assisted by some close-range canister fire, a portion of Casey's division was driven back. This left one brigade isolated to face the full might of the assaulting Confederate infantry, who promptly broke the Federal brigade.

A view of the battlefield from the south

One of Casey's brigades is overrun

Turn three (3 pm - 4 pm)

Turn 3 saw a break-down of the Confederate command structure as Longstreet failed to communicate orders to his divisions. This was due to his "unreliable" special rule, which meant that on the roll of "1" his command points couldn't be used. Fortunately general Johnston was close at hand to clarify the situation and get the ball rolling, however this meant that I had to yield the initiative to the Federal side and could do very little micromanagement that turn.

The Confederates advanced to within rifle range in the south and in the centre. The idea was to keep up the pressure along the whole front and prepare for an assault next turn. Things went fine in the south, with Whiting's boys trading shots with the demoralized remnants of Casey's division. In the centre the fire fight was quite lopsided, with Federal minié balls and canister sending D.H. Hill's lead brigades reeling back with heavy losses.

The main action happened in the north, where Anderson's division launched another, somewhat disjointed attack. Once again the casualties started to mount on both sides and Richardson's Federal brigades were pushed back even more. However, in the process Anderson's Confederates became even more strung out and vulnerable to a counter-attack next turn.

Federal reinforcements were being rushed to the front in all sectors. Sedgwick's three brigades bolstered the northern end of the Union line whilst Hooker moved his three brigades to support Kearny in the centre. These two sectors were starting to look quite imposing for the Confederates. Fortunately for the Confederates, Couch's Federal division had failed to receive the orders to advance and consequently were still a ways off from the front. This was definitely the weakest portion of the Federal line, but there was still no sign of Huger's outflanking Confederate division which was expected to strike this flank.

View of the battlefield from the south

Anderson's second assault strikes the northern end of the Union line

Richardson's division is pushed back, but with Federal reinforcements arriving and the Confederate brigades too far to support each other the situation is dangerous.

The centre, moments before D.H. Hill's men are sent reeling back by canister and rifle fire

Turn four (4 pm - 5 pm)

With Federal forces poised for a counter-attack in the north, I assigned a large number of command points to ensure that the Confederates would get their formation in order before the onslaught would hit them. This worked, and the line was fixed just before Richardson's and Sedgwick's divisions assaulted. The assault was checked with heavy losses on both sides and a few of Richardson's brigades were near breaking point.

Thin grey line

Results of fighting in the north

On the opposite flank Whiting's division continued to apply pressure on the Federal position. I was hoping to push them sufficiently back in order to be able to outflank the Federal position in the centre. However, the advance was greatly slowed down by the forest and there was still no sign of Huger's flanking force!

As I had expended most of my command points on the flanks, the centre was less of a priority and consequently I failed to activate them before the turn ended. My Federal opponents had also expended most of their efforts in the north, but were also able to get their remaining reserves into position in the centre and in the southern sector of the battlefield.

Stand-still at the centre

Whiting's division advances in the south

Turn five (5 pm - 6 pm)

The Union continued their assault in the north and assigned this great priority. The assault succeeded in driving the Confederate forces back, but in the process several Federal brigades advanced too far and became overextended. The Confederates used the turn to reorganize Anderson's brigades, including Kemper's brigade which had managed to rally after being routed early in the afternoon (turn 2). Anderson's division was poised for a decisive strike on the last turn.

The confused northern flank after the Federal assault has been resolved

In contrast to the north, where the Union was most active, the Confederate side put most of its efforts into the central and southern sectors of the battlefield. In the south Whiting's division advanced like an unstoppable avalanche. This sent the last two brigades of Casey's division stampeding to the rear and drove Couch's division back as well!

The southern end of the line - Casey's Federal division is no more and Couch's division has been pushed back

The Confederate assault in the centre was less glorious. The Federal III corps (Kearny's and Hooker's divisions) seized the initiative and got their line together before the Confederates launched their assault. Despite this setback, I decided to launch the assault anyway and ended up getting more of a bloody nose than the blue coats.

The centre

View of the battlefield at the end of turn 5

Turn six (6 pm - 7 pm)

With dusk approaching, there was time for one last push. Three out of the required six Union brigades had routed, which meant that breaking the Union army was within my grasp. The best means of accomplishing this was in the north, where several Federal brigades had been left exposed and severely fatigued by the days fighting. Further opportunities were available in the south, whilst nothing could be gained by a Confederate advance in the centre.

In a last flurry of energy, general Johnston issued his orders. High priority was given to Anderson's division in the north and a somewhat lower priority to Whiting's division in the south. A.P. Hill was ordered to maintain his position (given no command points). The tactic paid off, as I got to go first on both flanks.

General Joseph E. Johnston surveys the final assault

Anderson's assault was well coordinated and powerful. Despite some harassing fire from the Federal artillery, the large division steamrollered the overexposed Federal brigades, of which one was routed and the other forced to fall back with heavy losses.

Whilst the action in the north was raging, Whiting launched a second assault in the south aimed at capturing some Federal guns. Unfortunately, despite good support, this assault fell just short of the mark and resulted in a draw with both sides retreating. The remaining Federal actions did not make any great impact on the battle and, with that, the battle came to a close.

The results of our re-fight were inconclusive, as they were historically. The Union army had got the worst of it, with four brigades broken in comparison to zero broken Confederate brigades (one routed earlier on but was rallied later). However, the Union army had not been defeated nor had it been forced to yield much ground.

Whiting's last assault on Federal artillery

The battlefield at the end of the game


Another hard-fought and fun battle. Our game was a bit off the mark due to our misinterpretation of the Union reserves and field works, but in the end this didn't unbalance the game too much. In my opinion, even if not actually winning, the Confederates did perform better than their Federal counterparts. A major reason is that I was able to act first at critical points in the game. These included moments where I needed to regroup my own forces before being assaulted by Federal forces or, conversely, where I was able to attack isolated Federal brigades before they had time to reform into support range with other brigades. This task was greatly aided by my larger divisions, which made it easier to concentrate forces.

I also realized the importance of maintaining some command points for end of turn micromanagement. In Altar of Freedom such points enable you to move individual brigades at the end of the turn (but not to engage the enemy). This is quite crucial in terms of regrouping dispersed divisions before an expected assault.

I think that the Federal players could have acted more aggressively in the centre, where they had more men than I did. Also they could have exchanged space for time by withdrawing in the south and thereby minimizing their losses. However they did manage to set up strong defensive positions which were well supported by artillery and difficult for me to assault. Conversely, my use of artillery to support the assault was poor. I was somewhat lucky in only managing to have my generals acting unreliably once in the game. On the other hand, Huger's division never arrived on the Federal flank, so things could have gone better too.

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