Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

The Vision of Battle

A long discussion on the Repique Rules Yahoo! Forum started me reflecting on one of the curious aspects of wargaming-the mind’s eye. We all agree that a historical wargame should in some way, in addition to being a fun game, provide an observation of what happened in battles. It should provide a satisfactory “illusion” to the gamers of observing a battle. We are all together on that concept, except, having said that, we have a wide range of opinions about the nature of battle in a given period, and one man’s mind’s eye sees a far different picture with different hues, focus, and perspectives. I dare say if we put a dozen Napoleonic or ACW wargamers in a room that the range of what they think of as “historically correct” would provide twelve different views of the battle. To be sure several would overlap, but the range of divergence would be pretty wide!

I think this is counter-balanced by a certain tendency for groups of gamers to come to a “consensus” view of battle that they all generally agree is accurate, and then they want the rules they play to look like their vision. Great, except what if that vision is more consensus than history?

One of the great truisms of the ACW is that the commanders on both sides tried to fight in the Napoleonic style, only to find out that it was a pretty deadly way to conduct war. The changes in weaponry made the Napoleonic tactics pretty inefficient and the battlefield very lethal. The war is a history of troops unofficially dispersing from their rigid formations, earthworks and trenches being thrown up, and terrain cover becoming the soldier’s best friend. By late 1863 the Napoleonic tactics were pretty firmly discredited, but many troops-especially the green ones and the new commanders probably fell back on the “Book.” until their first battle when they more closely observed the actions of their more veteran compatriots.

I think wargamers have done the same! The tactics encouraged by many ACW wargame rules owe more to Napoleonic forms, Currier and Ives prints of glorious attacks, and movie romanticizations of ACW combat than to the more lethal reality that forced the real commanders back into dispersed tactics and trenches. Rules allow the “fiction” of the gallant upright attack in firm lines leading to the melee that allows the victor to stream through the enemy line. In short, the rules play to the romantic fantasy of ACW battle that wargamers really want to believe in. This sort of nonsense is especially favored by the Confederate gamers and their alter-ego reenactors who desperately want to invest this terrible war with some form of honor and glory. I think reenactors are equally guilty of really WANTING their little pageants to look like the Harper’s Weekly woodcuts with their pretty little lines of troops, and not look too closely at why frontal attacks were usually bloodily repulsed; why the column gave way to the line, and then to the loose line and finally to the dispersed line, the virtual disappearance of effective cavalry charges and pursuit, and why the trench and hasty earthwork eventually came to dominate the ACW battlefield.

After the battle, I’m sure the description of “gallant” actions and trim lines advancing was a common one, but few soldiers tell the whole truth about their behaviors, and we keep seeing indirect references to going to ground, troops lying prone in the sun for hours not daring to lift their heads, and advancing lines being described as skirmishers, when maybe they were just a line that was reflexively dispersing in order to survive.

The typical wargame and many wargamers are as stuck with as false an understanding of ACW combat as their historical counterparts, and equally incapable of giving up the Napoleonic vision. One of my goals with Zouave is to correct that image and reward actions that mimicked what I believe the troops actually ended up doing given the pragmatic realities of the battlefield, and not the Napoleonic vision and going “by the book.”

Reality bites. Pickett found that out, can wargamers?