Sunday 17 February 2019

Battle of McDowell 8th May 1862

Following the First Battle of Kernstown, in the opening moves of Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign, Confederate forces were advancing towards McDowell, a small settlement on the banks of Bull Pasture River. Union brigade commander Milroy decided to hold the line at McDowell and await the arrival of Schenck for support.

Schenck, following a hard march, had his forces in place by 10 AM. As senior officer on the battlefield, Schenck decided to limit the Union action to one of striking against the head of the advancing Confederate column and then pulling back before the Confederates could concentrate force against them.

This post owes its existence to a Battle of McDowell replay that Jon B put up on his rather fine ‘Grymauch’s Solo Wargaming’ blog a few days ago, which he played out in 6mm, with all the flavour and precision that Jon brings to his table. The compact nature of the battle took my fancy. There is a link to his blog post is in the resource section below - it is recommended reading. Jon based the scenario on Book Four in the Guns at Gettysburg system.

My replay is based upon a conversion to hexes and is played using my Two Flags - One Nation rules.

Please use the ‘read more’ tab for the rest of this post.

In addition to picking the bones out of Jon’s AAR, I have looked at period maps (thanks Google), consulted Wiki and dug out my copy of Shenandoah Valley 1862 by Clayton and James Donnell and Published by Osprey Publishing, pages 48 - 53. I am particularly grateful to a spreadsheet put together that shows weapon type and the size of units at the Brettschulte website (link below). Collectively these have me giving the scenario the following characteristics.

At this time, Jackson’s relationship with Taliaferro was somewhat uneasy. So to reflect the potential for a fractious command, in the game the Confederate battlefield commander (Johnson) will not be deployable to assist any unit from Taliaferro’s Brigade.

Sitlington Hill has steep sides, with difficult ravines and the woodland on the lower slopes was dense, hexes F5, G6 and G7 will be treated as heavy woods, giving cover to small arms fire and counting as difficult terrain for movement. All Sitlington Hill hexes count as difficult terrain and any unit on a Sitlington hill hex that is charged by a unit not on a hill hex claims cover due to the excess steepness. Units on the hill cannot claim cover against fire.

The Union leader Schenck (acts as Divisional Commander) was a political general, not a West Point graduate. We will reflect this by not allowing him to be automatically available each turn for deployment in the Command Phase. Instead roll a D6 and only on a 1 - 4 will he be available for deployment that turn.

Except for the three heavy wood hexes mentioned above, the woodland on the table is classed as light. It does not provide cover against any fire, but does count as cover against charging units and it is a line of sight obstacle for any fire beyond 1 hex (see artillery below for exception). It does count as difficult terrain for movement purposes.  

Limbered artillery can enter light woods and move up Sitlington Hill, but it would largely have to be manhandled, so each time an artillery piece attempts to enter such a hex, roll a D6 and on a result of 5 - 6, the artillery cannot move into the hex that turn and immediately ends it’s movement in its current hex though counts as having moved!

The river is shallow, fordable, with large pebbles underfoot. The banks have fairly heavy scrub. Infantry and cavalry can cross the river, but upon entering the waterway their movement ends and the unit becomes automatically disordered. Artillery must use the bridge to cross this waterway.

Artillery can ignore the woodland as a line of sight obstacle if firing onto a hill. If firing onto Sitlington Hill from ground level, the guns, due to the steep elevation of the hill, had to have the rear of their carriage dug into the ground to increase the gun elevation, as a result all such artillery fires from ground level onto Sitlington Hill are made with 1 Fire Dice less.

Jackson refused to send his artillery up Sitlington Hill as he was concerned that the difficult terrain would make it too difficult to extract should the Union overrun the position. On the Random Event Table, there is a chance that Jackson will change his mind and release an artillery battery.

The Random Event Table may cause Confederate reinforcements to be delayed and may allow a Green Union unit that has taken casualties to gain veteran status.

Schenck’s men (Commanded by Lee - 55th Ohio, 82nd Ohio, 5th Virginia) are tired after a hard march. At the start of play, roll a D6 for each regiment, on a result of 5 or 6 they start the game with one casualty marker already allocated to them.

Victory Conditions - The Union get 2 VP if they get any unit (max 2 VP) onto Sitlington Hill at any point in the game and they are still there at the end of the next turn, plus another VP if they prevent Confederate forces being across the Bull Pasture River at the endof the game. The Confederates get 1 VP if at the end of play, if they were the last side to have forces on Sitlington Hill and get a further 2 VP if they have at least one unit successfully fully across the river.

The game lasts for 12 turns.
The Confederates set-up first.
The Confederates are the 1st Player.

Schenck is the senior Union officer on the field and will count as a Divisional Commander.

Johnson is the senior Confederate officer on the field and will count as a Divisional Commander

The scenario details and complete orders of battle can be downloaded as a PDF from my DropBox (thank you DropBox) account as per the link in the resource section below.

This is a tough fight for the Union. The main drivers for this scenario are that;

The Union are largely green, with some small units, but plenty of rifled muskets, that may not be that useful in this terrain.

The Confederates are capable and have some large units. They are mainly smoothbore armed.

Initially, the Union out-number the Confederates and need to use that time to get onto Sitlington Hill to get those two important Victory Points. They then need to prevent the Confederates crossing the river.

An After Action report.
Setting up, the test for Lee’s brigade following their tiring march, saw each of the three regiments fail their tiredness test and each were marked with a casualty counter.

This combined with murderous musket fire from Scott’s men on Sitlington Hill, which left two Union regiments with three heavy casualty markers each, was a disturbing start for the Union. It got worse, Milroy (replaced by Gibbons) took a musket ball which killed him, causing each of his regiments to go disordered.

The first of the Confederate reinforcing brigades (Connor) arrived on the table and marched to the sound of guns.

Above - Colonel McClean (Union) took his two regiments across the bridge, intending to move up the turnpike and turn the Confederate flank.

Elsewhere, the Union line prepared to assault the steep slopes of Sitlington Hill, while their artillery put the defenders on the crest of the hill under grave pressure and in one instance pushed them back onto the reverse slope and beyond, causing them to ‘crash’ into the forward elements of Connor’s Brigade.

Above - The Confederates looked like they could become overwhelmed. The fickle hand of fate saw a sharp shooter take down Connor. His brigade was in march column and needing to shake out into line before the Union ‘were upon them’ but now, due to Connor’s death (replaced by Clark), became disordered and then subjected to further consternation as Scott’s 58th Virginia broke and fled through their position, leaving a gap ahead that exposed them.

McLean’s initial flank attack from the turnpike into the Confederate right flank was repulsed, but the Union were now firmly ensconced on the left side of Sitlington Hill, though to their right, somehow 52nd Virginia were still bravely holding their ground, despite Union numbers.

Above - 52nd Virginia fight on against the odds.
Taliaferro’s (Confederate) much needed Brigade arrived on the battlefield.

On Sitlington Hill, both sides were taking casualties and losing cohesion, with 2nd Virginia (Union) fleeing. The Union needed to judge the right moment in which to pull back to the safety of the river line. That time was approaching, but Schenck was reluctant to let go of the hard fought for hill.

Taliaferro, made good time and charged down the turnpike with 10th Virginia supported by 23rd Virginia, straight into McLean’s 25th Ohio’s developing flank attack, but Taliaferro was repulsed and then counter-attacked by 75th Ohio, who pushed his regiments back up the turnpike.

Turn 6 saw the high watermark of the Union action. The units fighting had worn themselves out and it was the on hand presence of fresh reserves that could tip the balance. In this case it was the Confederates who held the fresh reserves.

Grudgingly, the Union started an orderly retreat from the hill, but the rearward movement was too much for the badly mauled 3rd Virginia (Union), which broke and left the field. [The Union could claim their 2 VP’s for holding the Hill for two turns].

Campbell (Confederate) now arrived on the battlefield and the balance of fresh troops was irreversibly in the Confederate favour. Scott and Clark held positions on the reverse of Sitlington Hill, waiting to be relieved by the fresh troops and not at all eager to advance into the Union artillery gun line while Campbell’s support was still so far away.

Turn 8 saw Taliaferro taking a steady stream of casualties at the turnpike, but McLean was getting the worst of it and being pushed further back towards the bridge, with 73rd Ohio eventually breaking and leaving the field. Campbell’s lead units had made it to the reverse slopes of Sitlington Hill.

Above - the Confederates organised themselves out of sight of enemy guns for the push that was to drive the Union back to the river and beyond. Then just one of those lovely quirks occurred that can show up in games. Johnson’s artillery on Cedar Knob got an ‘out of ammo’ result (Random Event) that would last two turns.

This battery had been ordered to guard the bridge from its dominating position, but were now at risk of being overrun by the advancing Confederates.  They decided to limber and escape over the bridge to make into McDowell, but in the meantime, Taliaferro again charged and reached the bridge ..... the retreat path of the artillery had been cut off, they would have to retreat along the far side of the river instead. Then the battery failed a test, which meant it could limber up, but not also move in the same turn. This gave the opportunity for Taliaferro to attempt to charge up Cedar Knob and catch the exposed limbered guns, but their efforts were half hearted and the guns managed to pull away with the Confederates snapping at their heels.

At the bridge, 32nd Ohio had broken, leaving just the seriously exhausted and depleted 25th Ohio holding the nearside of the bridge. the Union position looked precarious and it was likely everything would be decided at that crossing. Taliaferro’s 10th Virginia charged over the bridge and smashed 25th Ohio, but they were too exhausted to hold the far bank. They immediately retreated back across the bridge, disordering 23rd Virginia, who were in the process of crossing the bridge.

The Union army’s rout was gaining momentum, only Lee’s two infantry regiments and dismounted cavalry were holding the river on the right, together with the two artillery batteries.

Turn 12 - it was the last turn of the scenario, the Confederates made it over the bridge and secured the other side, but further along the river, the Confederate charge into Lee’s position was devastated by close range Union artillery fire and Campbell’s regiments recoiled with significant casualties.

And so the game ended with the Confederates controlling Sitlington Hill and having at least one unit across the river. This gave them the advantage of 3 Victory points against the Union 2. It was an extremely close game with the Confederates only securing a victory on the final turn and the Union still having capacity to throw the attackers back. Not a bad result for the first outing of the scenario.

If it is felt that a balancer in needed to help the Confederates at the river, allowing the Campbell reinforcement to enter a turn earlier and disallowing the Random Event that delays reinforcements may provide a gentle advantage.

The Random Event Table brought quite a bit to the game, including some shot leaders and the re-positioning of some units that were not commented upon in the replay. The system worked to its objective of showing the degrading of troops in action while promoting the importance of fresh reserves, which suited this particular situation of a Confederate army feeding in fresh brigades.

It was also interesting the number of times that the difference between green and regular troops mattered when taking capability tests. Those border-line dice rolls brought some nice nuances.

The Union had more than their fair share of failed tests when looking to make defensive fire against Confederate charges. This was not so much because they were green, but rather that too many dice scores were in the realms of 3’s and 4’s, so what does one do with that! But it does suggest that some better (luckier) dice rolls (i.e. more average rolls) on the Union part would have put the Confederate task to greater peril and could well have made all the difference.

When we look at the losses, the closeness of the game is really apparent. Applying a rate of 5 casualties per Casualty Marker, the final losses in game terms were 275 Confederate casualties and 260 Union casualties plus 1 gun.

The Union had 7 units routed from the field, while the Confederates had just two ...... but, on the field, the Confederates had 5 units that had taken 6 or more heavy casualty markers and as such, they were not fit for action and indeed likely to deteriorate into self rout in coming turns through failed retreat tests.

Overall, this scenario worked so well that I am happy to make it available as a download without further tweaking at this time.

Resource Section.
The Battle of McDowell PDF scenario - Download this scenario which includes Orders of Battle, from my DropBox. LINK.

Jon’s replay of the battle (highly recommended) can be found on his blog at this LINK

My sister web space called ‘COMMANDERS’ is more ‘snippet’ based than here and updated more regularly LINK.

brettschulte webside, giving valuable unit information for scenario makers