Terrible Swift Sword – A Game of Summer’s Past

When I was in high school-ish, my first wargame experience was Panzer Blitz followed by Tactics II and Blitzkrieg.  They were great games, especially Panzer Blitz.  The geomorphic maps were a neat concept.  All wargamers have fond memories of those early games they were exposed to.  There was a simplicity that made them playable and fun.  Nothing was as great as pulling off a victory condition in the last turn, let’s face it.  Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat was always a thrill and still is.   

It was struggle to find gamers in an era before the internet.  I found a note at our hobby store about a summer-long game of Terrible Swift Sword.  I had a few issues of Strategy & Tactics, and loved reading their ads about their games – so I knew this one…Gettysburg.  I called the guy running it, whose name I have long forgotten, and went. 

A couple of guys set it up on a ping-pong table and we played every Saturday for two months – hours at a time.  Everyone wanted to play the Confederates, so I got stuck playing the Union (Sickles Corps).  As a side note – someone could earn a PhD studying why gamers pick Confederates and Germany so often in games.  I guess it is that chance to reverse history and everyone loves an underdog.  There were five or six of us playing. We did a thing where the guy playing Meade would hand-write out orders for us, just for a sense of realism.  Of course, being gamers, and me playing Dan Sickles, I took a lot of leeway with those written orders.  I think they stuck me with Sickles out of the thought that, being the youngest guy there, I couldn’t possibly be as stupid as he was in real life. 

I remember that game well.  It was intense and everyone was playing for keeps.  Holding the Devil’s Den was not nearly as costly as trying to take it…I grew to understand how thin your lines can get and why that is bad. The Confederates pushed hard on Day Two and managed to get a foothold on the Union’s high ground, cutting us in two for an hour or two.  It was costly for both sides. 

Every move had risks associated with it.  Every hex could be the one that spelled the difference between retreat and victory.  Those were not cardboard counters taking losses, those were my men.  When the artillery opened up, if the rolls were right, the ranks of infantry were mowed down.  Even opting to do nothing came with consequences.  Gaming is like that, a delightful cocktail of decisions, fate, and destiny.  All throughout the week, between sessions, I contemplated my next moves – thought out the tactics I would employ.  

We are building a house and my game collection is in storage until we move in.  I have a flat box edition of the game but haven’t played it in years.  I was thinking about it in the last few days, breaking it out and setting it up for another run.  I find myself longing for those games of yesteryear and those moments of glory when you outdid the real men on the field of battle. 

I’m sure all of us have similar memories from that period. I will never forget playing that game and how stressful and fun it was at the same time. 

Review of: Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment by Cory M. Pfarr


People forget sometimes that I am a military historian on top of writing in other more popular genres.  This book has been nagging me for weeks to read it, so I did and it was not quite what I expected, but proved to be more.  This is an unsolicited review.

Like many people, I have read a lot of books on Gettysburg over the years.  In many there has been an undercurrent of sorts, taking jabs, sometimes less than gentle, at General James Longstreet.  Some historians have laid the failure at Gettysburg at his feet.  I knew the stories all too well.  Longstreet was a Republican and after the war took an active role in the Federal Government.  In his post-war assessments and writings he was candid about Gettysburg and less-than-artfully pointed the finger for some of the blame on General Robert E. Lee.  To many in the south, this was akin to sacrilege.

After the war the mythos of the Lost Cause emerged.  In this, Southerners attempted to deflect that the war had to do with slavery, shifting more to the narrative that it was really about states rights.  There is plenty of foundation for that thinking and I won’t turn this into a states-rights vs. slavery debate because it gives even me a headache at times.  At the same time they tended to iconize the Southern leaders, placing them on pedestals.  They railed against Reconstruction, the Republican Party, and the north.  When I wrote about Bert Hall’s father (In my book, The Bad Boy), I had to study the Confederates that migrated to Mexico to attempt to reform the Confederacy there – so prevalent was this determination to remain sovereign on their part.  There was a certain dignity to it, that the South had been fighting what was a doomed lost cause from the beginning but did so nobly and with honor.

Highest on those pillars of untouchable Southern leaders is Robert E. Lee.  So when Longstreet even hinted that Lee was to blame for the defeat at Gettysburg, he became a pariah amongst his own people.  Former generals lined up to contort history as much as possible to make it look like he was the reason that the Confederacy lost that battle.  Historians that followed often used these heavily slanted accounts to further besmirch Longstreet’s leadership.

Which brings me to this book.  Mr. Pfarr has written something of a unique book on Gettysburg.  Rather than retell the battle minute-by-minute, he raises the critiques of Longstreet by various former officers and historians, and compares them to facts and a cold dose of reality.  Being a true crime author, I love it when someone compares conflicting accounts of events, sometimes from the same person, to show how the telling of events is corrupted and twisted over time.

This is a good solid book, but it is aimed more at scholarly researchers rather than casual readers.  I really enjoyed the opening chapters where you see Longstreet in his later years.  Once you get into the battle itself you don’t get the entire picture of Gettysburg, but rather the points of contention around Longstreet.  Believe me, there was plenty of blame to go around for the failure there, not just with Lee but with other subordinates.

I think Mr. Pfarr, much like a well-organized lawyer, has made a compelling case in support of Longstreet.  He does not claim that the general is perfect by any stretch, but he casts enough doubt to make you want to reconsider Longstreet’s true role and contribution in the battle.  My only real critique about the book is what isn’t there, which is a chapter that really delves into the Lost Cause mythology. I don’t subscribe to the Lost Cause, but there is a lot of fertile ground that would have been great to explore for context.

So, if you like more academic works of military history, this is a must for Civil War reader.  I anxiously await Mr. Pfarr’s next book.

The Anniversary of the Surrender at Appomattox

KeithRocco NPS Image

Keith Rocco’s image of the surrender – NPS Image 

April 9, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to the Army of the Potomac.  While this does not mark the end of the American Civil War, it was the beginning of the end.  It marked the first step in the healing of the nation.  We may yet still be on that road of healing – more on that later.  As a historian it is worth taking a look at the event.

General Robert E. Lee was out of options when it came to facing surrender.  General Ulysses S. Grant and his commanders had driven the Lee’s forces out of Richmond after a siege there and earlier in Petersburg. Lee’s Army was heading west waging a series of skirmishes and battles with the Army of the Potomac hot on their trail, moving in to surround them.  Lee’s men were starving and nearly out of supplies.  They, and their foes, had endured four long years of war which had consumed two percent of the US population.  The fact that such men were still willing to fight for Robert E. Lee, after all they had suffered, says something of the measure of the men and their commander.

Rather than surrender, some of his officers argued at the Army of Northern Virginia could go on and wage a guerilla-style war against the Federal forces.  It certainly was an option – and one can only imagine what that kind of conflict would have looked like.  Robert E. Lee had grown weary of the war and knew that a guerrilla campaign would only prolong the inevitable and make the risk of retribution even worse.  As much as surrender pained him – it was the best option not just for his men but for the nation.

When he made the decision Lee had no idea what his fate would be.  He assumed he would be made General Grant’s prisoner.  That lonely ride to Wilbur McLean’s farmhouse that April day had to be one of the longest and loneliest in Lee’s illustrious life.  The McLean family had lived in Manassas and their farm had been a headquarters at the first major battle of the war.  It was a sense of historic irony that their home would serve as the place of the surrender.

The story of Appomattox has been told and retold often.  There are things that stick out to me that make it significant, though few are tied to the actual surrender but the events that followed.  Grant extended gracious terms to Lee’s men, going so far as to offer them rations.  Warrior to warrior, Grant understood his one-time-foe and recognized the importance the event would have in years to come.

After the surrender, Lee mounted his horse Traveler, and a cheer rose from the gathered Union troops.  Grant stopped his men’s celebrating.  “The Confederates were now our countrymen, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”   Grant too realized that the defeat of Lee’s Army was the first step to reconciliation as well.

Lee addressed his troops one last time with General Order No. 9:

“After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.

“I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to the result from no distrust of them.

“But feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.

“By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection.

“With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your Country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

“R. E. Lee, General, General Order No. 9”

The formal surrender ceremony, the stacking of arms and flags, took place on April 12.  The ceremony was commanded by General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg.  Chamberlain himself had been wounded several times in the fighting and received his last promotion on the battlefield when it was thought he was about to die. The tough Maine scholar overcame his injuries, defying the odds.

As the Confederates marched, still proud, by each Union regiment, the order was given from the “order arms” to “carry”, the salute of the individual soldiers to the Confederates as they passed.  This has always struck me as so genuine, so purely honorable.  Soldiers, who only days before had been trying to kill each other; acknowledged their defeated comrades with respect that only military men can fully comprehend.  Confederate General Gordon, at the front of the column, reached Chamberlain and tipped his sword to his boot point in a gentlemanly salute – and then ordered the Confederates to perform the same shift of their weapons to salute the Federal troops.  Honor answered honor.  By the day’s end over 28,000 Confederates stacked their arms, surrendered their torn and tattered battle flags, and were pardoned and allowed to go home.  For this Confederate Army, the long and horrific war was over.  They could still return home for spring planting.

Despite popular understanding, the Civil War was still raging in other parts of the south.  The slowness of communications and the fact that the Confederate government was fleeing made matters drag out for some time.  The last land battle would be fought in May – and the surrender of the CSS Shenandoah didn’t happen until November.  The assassination of President Lincoln cast a dark pall over the Union victory.

Reconciliation was far from smooth.  Some might argue we’re still reconciling even today.  Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, was imprisoned at Fort Monroe for two years after the war, first on suspicions of being part of the Presidential Assassination, then  for more political reasons.  Robert E. Lee’s home, Arlington, was seized from his family and used as a cemetery for Federal troops who had died in the war.  It would be decades before the Lee family received any compensation for their loss.  There was talk of bringing Confederate leaders up on treason charges but General Grant himself squashed those efforts, threatening to resign.

Some Southern Generals/Historians went on to apply an almost mythical quality to the war – “The Lost Cause.”  Others went on an exodus to Mexico in hope of re-forging the Confederacy there.  While the shooting was over the issue of the rights of people of color was left almost unresolved.

As much as the Civil War was over, we, as a people, are still struggling with its aftermath.  The issues revolving around Civil Rights are still plaguing us today.  We struggle as to whether the war was about slavery or state’s rights when both may be right (and wrong).  Single answers to complex things like wars rarely work.  Society chaffs at the Confederate flag, wondering whether it is a symbol of the “Lost Cause” or a symbol of slavery – or both.  When matters like Ferguson Missouri raise their ugly heads, I find myself looking at the men at Appomattox and the respect and honor they displayed to each other and hope that we too can find that within ourselves.

Those men, at Appomattox, 150 years ago showed us the way but we have lost it.  They demonstrated respect and honor.  All we have to do is measure up the examples they set.

The Anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg


The Sunken Road

December 11-15 marks the anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862.  This is one of my favorite battlefields to study in Virginia (topped only by Chancellorsville and Manassas).  Fredericksburg is one of those battles that sticks in your mind that makes you contemplate some of the battles of the Great War fifty-two years later.  Both this battle and the Great War share in what was seen as the senseless slaughter of honorable men for little gains.  While I write a lot of Great War history books, one of my less-than-secret loves is study of the American Civil War.

General Ambrose Burnside, often maligned for his handling of the battle, was north of Warrenton when he got the word that Major General George B. McClellan was relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac.  President Lincoln wanted action and General wanted to oblige.  His plan, rather than continue the plodding march that eventually Ulysses S. Grant would take, Burnside opted for something that seemed audacious at the time.  He would shift the massive Army of the Potomac to Fredericksburg.  From there, in Lee’s proverbial rear, he could force a crossing of the Rappahannock River, and take a shorter route south to Richmond.

The Fredericksburg Campaign on paper was a battle that could have been successful if not for logistical issues. The Army of the Potomac made the move quickly but was stalled waiting for the bridging equipment. The bridges at Fredericksburg and Falmouth had been destroyed, so bridging equipment, pontoons, were needed to cross the river.  Burnside was promised the pontoons quickly, but bureaucratic hang-ups, bad weather, and a lack of urgency delayed them.  This delay sealed the battle before any shot was fired by either side.

Lee, even in his own after-action reports, admits that he was caught off-guard by the Federal Army’s deployment.  He tossed Longstreet’s Corps to Fredericksburg and ordered Stonewall Jackson’s Corps back from the Shenandoah Valley.

On December 11 the Army of the Potomac made its move.   They tried to build their bridges but fell under fire by a brigade of Mississippi sharpshooters in the city of Fredericksburg.  Moving like modern day snipers, they riddled the bridging efforts, buying the Confederate forces more time.  The Federal Army’s response was to shell the town, damaging almost every structure in their bombardment.  The Union forces finally made their way across, but their fighting was just beginning.

On December 12-13 General Burnside pushed his force forward to cross the river piecemeal, rather than a cohesive and coordinated assault.  Stonewall Jackson’s force arrived on the Confederate right flank, securing high ground.  General Longstreet’s Corps was arrayed on the Confederate left, with the best position being at Marye’s Heights.  Near the top of the hill, running its length was a roadway with a retaining wall cut into the hillside providing a perfect line with full cover for the Confederates.  Longstreet had ringed the hilltops in his sector with artillery.  Having visited the battlefield several times I can assure you, it’s hard to see clearly given the current city buildings – but the hillside was clear fields of fire to where the city was along the waterfront.  Adding to this was a canal that bisected the advancing Federal lines, further breaking up their formations and slowing them while under this horrific fire.

The battle was brutal.  On Jackson’s front, General Meade rushed the open ground and tried to climb the hills to get to him.  Twenty-four year old artillerist John Pelham, “The Gallant Pelham,” took his pieces onto a position that allowed him to fire down the length of Meade’s lines.

I did some civil war relic hunting (with permission on private property) on the ground where Meade’s men rushed towards Jackson’s position.   When you stand there you realize how much the land offers no cover other than the shallow railroad embankment, and how Confederate fire enfiladed Meade’s Pennsylvanians.  Eventually the Federals recoiled on his front, but made it so far as to engage some of Jackson’s troops in vicious hand-to-hand fighting.  Little did General Burnside realize at the moment that this thrust was the closest that he would come to a possible victory in the fighting.

Matters were worse for the Army of the Potomac’s main thrust at Marye’s Heights.  Longstreet’s artillery had overlapping fields of fire from elevated positions.  One Confederate summed it up… A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”  Those that survived the carnage of shrapnel and hot iron/lead, faced a highly protected force in the sunken road.  Wave after wave of troops were fed piecemeal into this meat-grinder, only to be mowed down and forced to fall back into what was left of Fredericksburg.  As General Robert E. Less summed it up to General Longstreet, “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.”

Despite his horrific losses, General Burnside went so far as to draw up orders for another final assault on December 14.  He planned on leading the attack himself.  His staff convinced him that any such assault on the hill littered with Federal dead would result in his suicide and the loss of more lives.  Burnside consented and withdrew to Stafford Heights.  The Confederates inflicted more than two-to-one losses against as numerically superior enemy.  More than 2/3 of those that died did so attempting to seize the stone wall at the sunken road.

Fredericksburg did not mark the end of Burnside’s leadership of the army, contrary to popular belief.  Most people don’t factor in that during the winter months, the armies went to winter camp and campaigning ended.  Burnside tried again in the spring to outflank Lee heading back towards Culpeper from Falmouth, but the muddy Virginia roads literally consumed his army.  The campaign which ended ingloriously was known as the Mud March.  Burnside, while he carried a mark of shame, had been thrust into command of the Army of the Potomac.  Unlike Hooker, who waged politics and backstabbing to get control of the same force.  Hooker’s campaign was nearly identical to the Mud March, sans the mud, and he nearly would have succeeded if not for his many errors at Chancellorsville.  While as a historian I would not argue that Ambrose Burnside was a good general, but he was not entirely in command of his circumstances.  That, and he opposed the Confederate Army near its zenith under the command of Robert E. Lee.

Aside from its commander, Fredericksburg became a scar on the Army of the Potomac.  Not until Gettysburg would this wound heal.  When Pickett’s Charge was shattered in a similar assault, the Federal forces would chant, “Fredericksburg!” at their mauled foes.

Crucible of History – July of 1863


It is eerie how certain periods of dates seem to surface in historical significance.  This is the case for the 48 hour period July 3-4, 1863 – 150 years ago this last week.  It is odd how the forces of nature seem to center on certain dates.

The Battle of Gettysburg reached its climax on July 3, culminating in the “high-water mark of the Confederacy.”  To debate the significance of the battle is pointless and futile – as it was a critical juncture of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  The less-informed will say that Confederacy was forced into a series of long retreats after this battle.  That isn’t entirely true.  The Bristoe and Mine Run campaigns that fall demonstrated the Lee, much like George Meade, struggled to engage each other in another decisive battle but failed to do so.  Others say that the Army of Northern Virginia never again invaded the north – but that disregards General Early’s invasion of Maryland in July of 1864, the Battle of Monocacy, and eventual attack on Washington City.  That being said, the loss at Gettysburg ate into one resource the South could not replace – men.

But of equal importance was the July 4, 1863 end of the siege of Vicksburg Mississippi.  General Ulysses S. Grant’s victory over this stubborn city gave the Union unfretted control of the Mississippi River.

Gettysburg seems to always draw the spotlight to the casual history buffs.  Some of this comes from the personalities involved.  It is hard to disregard the rock-star quality of Robert E. Lee.  There was the valiant defense of Little Round Top by the 20th Maine.  And Pickett’s Charge is burned in the public psyche as the image that culminates the battle.

Vicksburg was a siege.  While there were assaults by the Union army which tightened the noose around the city, what brought down Vicksburg was modern siege tactics.  It was not as much the bombardment of Vicksburg as the lack of food which forced the capitulation of the city.  Compared to the images of Pickett’s Charge, starvation seems sad and depressing.

Confederate General Pemberton was not a colorful or dynamic leader as Robert E. Lee was.  General Grant himself was far from the status of General Lee at this stage of the war.  While he had distinguished himself several times in the west, the majority of the population of the nations were more focused on the events in the east.

Vicksburg, however, marked a strategic victory.  Securing the entire length of the Mississippi River, the superhighway of the era, effectively cut the Confederacy in half.  It achieved far more than the victory of Gettysburg, though I’m sure others will retort this with me.  Moreover it secured General Grant as the man that would be elevated to position to deal with General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.  And this collision of Generals all was determined in a 48 hour period of 1863.