Wargames I Would Play: Civil War Operational Logistics

As regular readers may remember, I’m slowly slogging my way through Shelby Foote’s Civil War, and I’m struck by how little most Civil War wargames resemble the battles recounted therein, in two different ways.

First: movements in the field were often dictated by logistical concerns: I’m at the end of a tenuous supply line, and Jeb Stuart just cut it; Vicksburg is supplied over the railroad from Jackson, and Grant just captured Jackson. Wargames usually abstract supply to ‘in supply’ or ‘out of supply’, without regard to combat and noncombat supplies. It was entirely possible for an army to have plenty of food but no ammunition or vice versa, and in fact it was frequently thus. Wagons, horses and mules, forage for same, and rations or foraging for the soldiers were daily concerns.

Nor do the Civil War wargames I’ve played fully emphasize the crucial importance of railroads and river control. A torn-up railroad in your backfield wasn’t a minor inconvenience, it was a critical problem which could derail (ha) an entire offensive. Supply dumps were important, but so were the routes by which those supplies reached the front. See also Grant’s first few moves at Chattanooga.

Second: an army commander’s interactions with his troops were almost entirely through his corps commanders. He might shuffle a division from place to place, detaching it from one corps to reinforce another, but he generally wouldn’t dictate exactly how each division was supposed to be arrayed. His communications with his corps commanders would also often be over insecure or unreliable channels—letters entrusted to couriers, telegraph lines, or runners on the battlefield. His corps commanders might misapprehend his instructions, or those instructions might be rendered irrelevant or impossible to follow by changing circumstances or bad maps.

So, could a wargame simulate some of these snags? I think so, with some combination of the following features. I might work on this some myself, or leave it as an exercise for the enterprising reader. Either way, I lay no claim to any of the ideas here.

Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg is the obvious grand campaign for a game with a logistics focus: it lasted longer than any other in the war while taking place along one of the most interesting theaters in history, the Mississippi River.

Unreliable Maps

Unreliable maps are so common in war, and such a linchpin for the other features implied by the above and laid out below, that it’s surprising that no wargame I’m aware of has done them.

The primary kind of unreliability in the Civil War is missing features: maps which don’t show certain roads or certain impassable terrain features. Ultimately, this is just a different kind of fog of war, eliminated not by simply moving into it, but by dedicated scouting and mapping. It also seems to require different levels of fog of war, to represent easy or difficult features to uncover.

In the Mississippi campaign, Grant wasted a bunch of time on various canal-digging and river-diverting projects, in large part because his maps were no substitute for detailed local knowledge. Only by attempting those projects and failing at them did he eventually come to some workable solutions.

Detailed Terrain and River Systems

In the Mississippi campaign, high-resolution elevation data and a river level simulation are all but requirements, and probably the hardest part of doing a good wargame of this sort.

In the 1860s, the Father of Waters rose and fell with the rains and the seasons. A canal dug in November might overflow its banks when the spring flood comes, as the surrounding countryside floods too. A river passable by ironclad in late April might be entirely unnavigable by steamboats in late August. The ever-shifting terrain of the Mississippi basin makes for a fascinating battlefield, and one that isn’t ordinarily well-represented by wargames.

Detailed Supply

The wargame I picture is driven much less by combat than by supply. You can get away, then, with abstracting combat pretty heavily. (See below.) I don’t think you can get away with abstracting supply as much as usual. At the same time, you don’t want to get too deeply into the weeds. Some items you probably want to track separately:

  • Food: either bring it with you in your train, or forage from the countryside around you. The latter option requires constant motion, or else you run out.
  • Forage: distinct from food for the troops, forage is food for your army’s beasts of burden. It comes up a lot in Foote’s history. If you don’t have forage, you have trouble moving your train as well as your artillery.
  • Ammunition (small arms and artillery): you probably don’t need to track ammunition with more granularity than the foregoing parenthetical.
  • Environmental supplies: winter coats and boots, tents, and the like. Less a problem for the Union. More a problem for the Confederates.

You probably also should track things like pontoon bridges separately—their lateness to the battle was what torpedoed Burnside’s crack at Lee. (Well, that and Burnside’s decision to go ahead with an attack after it was no longer a surprise.)

Weak Command

An army commander’s experience in the field was generally limited to watching from a headquarters, receiving reports from the field, and hearing (or failing to hear) subordinates engaging in battle.

The extent of his command, too, was limited: ensuring subordinates are in the right place, ordering attacks at a given time, and shuffling divisions around.

I think the Command Ops approach is a reasonable one for a game of this sort, though likely with even greater obstacles between the commands you give and their execution by the troops. Your runners might be captured or killed, and in most cases your orders will move at the speed of horse. If a corps of yours gets into action elsewhere on the field, you may not even know about it before you get reports saying they’ve retreated. Certainly you’ll have a hard time exercising much direct command in battle.

Conclusion

The question, then, is would a game like this be enjoyable to play? It’s hard to say. Command Ops manages to make order delays fun, but I’m not so sure that they would stay fun when your duties are primarily ordering people to capture, repair, or tear up railroads, and you rarely have very much direct control over the course of a battle.

Like I said, I don’t have the time to make this a reality, not even at the prototype stage, so history may never know the answer to the question above. Still, I think it would make for a fresh and interesting take on simulations of the Civil War.

2 thoughts on “Wargames I Would Play: Civil War Operational Logistics

  1. Chris Bradshaw

    How would you balance such a game? If you want to maintain any semblance of historical accuracy, the Grant player would have far more access to manpower, engineering assets, warships, artillery, rolling stock, ammunition, shoes… etc. than the Pemberton player.

    Order delays are always interesting to try to model, but at least the telegraph can give close to real-time orders and information if you can erect and defend a line. Unreliable maps that require in-depth scouting to fix could be an interesting gimmick for a first playthrough, but for any subsequent playthroughs, the players would absolutely just remember where critical geographical elements are, or perhaps just look at a screenshot from the last match.

    Reply
    1. Fishbreath

      In the Mississippi theater in particular, I’m not even entirely convinced it’s necessary for the Confederates to be playable, much less that they be balanced. The Vicksburg campaign is very much a story about Grant, the Mississippi, and batteries on the water, and not as much a story about Johnston and Pemberton (at least, not on the battlefield).

      Given that this is not a satisfying answer to the question, I think the only way to do it is my least favorite wargame win condition, time-based scoring. Beat Grant to the punch and you win a decisive victory; take a long time, notch a decisive defeat instead.

      Even telegraphy isn’t a panacea—it reduces the communications lag, but doesn’t reduce the time it takes to form up troops and march, or to get an attack under way. As far as I’m concerned, the Command Ops games are the gold standard for this sort of gameplay, and it’s certainly frustrating sometimes.

      That’s a good point on unreliable maps. I think you could solve it by varying the fine detail on the battlefield, roads and treelines in particular, but I expect that’s quite an increase in development effort. I’d be for an entire random terrain engine, maybe with settings for Mississippi Valley, Tennessee, and Northern Virginia, but that gets even further down the rabbit hole.

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