Monday, 12 August 2019

Fire and Fury in the Kentucky Heartland

For our second ACW battle, and after Mark's usual superb painting on an industrial scale had added substantially to my original purchases, the ANF ventured a step up, to a Corps level encounter, the Battle of Perryville. Historically, a gallant, outnumbered Union force under Major-General McCook delayed the Rebel advance, with heavy casualties on both sides, until his opponent, the Rebel General Bragg, realised that he would be facing the entire Union army if he stayed where he was, and wisely withdrew. No mean feat, for as a result Kentucky was retained for the Union, so I was under considerable pressure to do at least as well - readers will have gleaned by now that you are likely to read an account from a Union perspective if I'm writing it. We used a scenario Mark adapted from one in Practical Wargaming in 1996, designed for Johnny Reb rules but easily adapted for Fire and Fury 1st edition. Wargaming's own history has now become a fertile source for research.

It's a cluttered battlefield. Cornfields, woods, and hills. For simplicity's sake we didn't place the roads, but it was all looking quite difficult enough for everyone by the time everything was laid out and the long Union line was deployed. My judgement was that Brigadier-General Terrill's men were way out of place, in advance on the Union left. By accidental misjudgement, the 80th Indiana had found their way into his brigade instead of lining up along the stone wall with the rest of Colonel Webster's brigade, a mistake that was to have serious consequences. 

The view from the Union line at the opening of the battle

As McCook, I formulated a grand plan, which was to allow Brigadier-General Terrill to fall back, get Brigadier-General Jackson to command Colonel Starkweather's seasoned men personally, and eventually to attack the Rebels on their flank when they made their predicted assault on the hill. Given the numerical superiority the Rebels enjoyed, and the importance of holding that hill in the centre of my position, there seemed little alternative to a counter-attack.

At first, things went really well for the Union. Appalling die rolls kept some Rebel brigades from advancing at all, leaving Brigadier-General Donelson's green men to climb through the high corn on their own.

The loneliness of the long-distance assault

General Terrill refused to retire, however, and instead used his numerical superiority to begin a prolonged, and ultimately highly successful, series of melées against Brigadier-General Maney's men, who were initially unsupported by a battery.

Overview of the Union left and centre - Peters Hill off to the left out of view

General Bragg's infuriation with his slow-moving brigades led to a piecemeal attack rather than the co-ordinated blow he had intended to inflict. 

Donelson's brigade was especially exposed in the centre.

Half-way through the battle, and General Bragg was feeling the heat. The Union command began to have a glimmer of hope that they would be saved by the fall of night, and still yet be able to cling onto their line, both at the stone wall and on the hilltop. But it was not to be. Finally, the Rebel infantry reached Colonel Lytle's men, and began their inevitable assault, assisted by now by a considerable superiority in artillery. 

The Union line under assault - a view from the South-West 

In a dramatic manoeuvre to pincer Cleburne's 2nd brigade, Webster's men charged their front, whilst at the same time Starkweather's brigade, having pushed back Johnson's 3rd brigade, about faced and crashed into their rear. Unfortunately, Starkweather's men were too far to the North-East when they launched their charge, and Cleburne slipped back through the gap. It saved the stone wall position, at least. And it gave me a magnificent feeling of place and participation: it is not often a plan like this comes to fruition in a wargame, albeit that I had envisaged a flank attack, not an about-face.

Before the Manoeuvre: Brigadier-General Jackson in the centre of the photograph looking earnestly at the rear of the Confederate line, before giving the call to about face and charge.

After the Union manoeuvre: interpenetration of Webster and Starkweather's brigades at the wall, and Rebels in retreat

Unfortunately, like so many excellent theoretical plans, it was quite insufficient to win the battle. For meanwhile it had finally all proved too much for the Union brigades holding the hill. The dispatch of Colonel Starkweather's brigade to the left flank, whilst it had brought limited success, came too late to prevent the loss of the central hill and the collapse of the staunch defence put up by Colonel Harris' brigade, which fled the field. Colonel Lytle's men had stood firm, but were now outnumbered 4:1, in evident danger of being outflanked and destroyed in detail, and had to retire.It was small comfort that over on the left flank, Terrill's men had had a great day, with Maney's brigade finally disintegrating. The inadvertent error of stationing the 80th Indiana with him had led to serious consequences: if they had been where they were supposed to have been, the envelopment of Cleburne would have been much more likely. Swings and roundabouts. 

Not how it was supposed to be: McCook stares at a sea of grey in front of him and a sea of blue behind him, and prepares to ride to save his own skin

We judged the battle a draw, after a very hard-fought action indeed, which was close to the historical result [...]. Overall Confederate casualties were a little higher than the Union, somewhat over 3,600 [3,396] compared to 3,000 [4,241], largely because of their failure to attack in a co-ordinated way in the centre early on, and some very unlucky die rolls at shooting as well - Union forces consistently outshot their opponents, even having to fall back to replenish ammunition on several occasions (a roll of 10 on the decimal die when firing). But these casualties were extremely close to their historical equivalents given the better luck on the day that the Union enjoyed compared to history, and reflected, I like to think, great competence shown by the brigade and divisional commanders as well. 

One of the many great things about the unmistakably ACW feel of Fire and Fury is the way an independent character quickly forms around the brigade commanders, as a result of their die rolls, which in turn enables an assessment of the divisional commanders as well. They come alive as personalities on the table. Of course as Major-General McCook I shall express my great thanks to my own commander, Major-General Buell, to the President, and of course to God. As for the Rebels, as historically, they were nowhere to be seen in the morning....


  1. I was very interested to see how you adapted Fire and Fury to your Airfix ACW armies. I haven't tried the same, but your example demonstrates its feasibility.

    1. To be honest it felt as natural as turkey and apple pie at Thanksgiving. Just three men to a base, and as many of these 'units' as the brigade needs. Two cavalry to a base, incidentally. Depth not really a problem with F&F. I like rules that give that flexibility.

  2. Good to see you upholding the honour of them blue boys Julian!

    1. Can always count on me to do that as best I can. Goddam Johnny Reb took a lickin', but they took the hill nonetheless. It was gripping stuff to play, tense until the final move.

  3. Looks great Julian, I'd love to join you lads in one of these encounters. I'm quiet fluent in the ole fnf👍

    1. You and all the noise you can make will be very welcome. On current planning probably late Jan or Feb next year, and quite possibly the start of a Fair Oaks mini-campaign, too!

  4. That should read "quite fluent". I could never describe myself as "quiet".

  5. A fine tale, well told and illustrated! :-)