Heading Up the Valley – Buying Time for the Captain
It had been some hours since Lieutenant Justice T. Lovetrain had begun to worry. The piquets and cavalry scouts that should have been abroad in the countryside around General Jackson’s force at Winchester were nowhere to be seen. As the small column marched into the northern outskirts of the town, the fields where Lovetrain had expected to see the sprawling encampments that spelt security and medical assistance for the Captain were ominously deserted, it seemed certain that his worst fears were being realised.
“If I may be so bold Captain, I would suggest that the war has moved on apace while we have been away. It would seem that the General has moved southwards up the valley”.
“I guess you’re right L’tenant”. Jebbediah Butplug’s voice was weak, weaker than this morning. His wound was clearly infected and travelling by wagon had taken a terrible toll on the Captain. Throughout the morning’s march he had remained silent, yet his discomfort was writ clear upon his face.
“Sir. There’s a rider up ahead”. Sergeant O’Malley was the first to spot the rider and for a few moments had trained his rifle on the fast moving man and horse. As the two came nearer, however, the gray uniform of what was a Southern cavalryman became clear. The rider pulled up and whistled.
“Sheesh, where you boys come from? I’m supposedly the last man out’a Winchester. I guess you didn’t get the order to move out. Well, I can tell you more than most as I happened to be with the General when the news came in. Johnston has pulled back to Culpeper an’ left us hung out on our own. The General got word that Banks and his Yankees were marching up the valley from Charles Town. There was no point in sittin’ here an’ putting out the bunting, so the Army is falling back up the valley”.
“Well, sir, I am mighty glad that we found you. Our Captain here is wounded and we need help in getting him to a sawbones with the main body of the army. Can you assist us sir?”
“You ain’t a chance in Hell Lootenant. I’m on my way now to tell Colonel Ashby that I have just seen the bluebellies not more than a mile back. Infantry and cavalry. You have no chance of gettin’ away with a wounded man in a wagon, Captain or no. Best to abandon him to the mercies of the Yankees. Now sir, I have dallied for longer than I should, I must get to the Colonel with the news that Winchester has fallen.”
Justice T. Lovetrain III watched as the rider whipped his horse along the main turnpike towards Middletown. He could not abandon his Captain. For all his lack of grace his commanding officer was a brave and good man who deserved better than to rot in some Yankee jail. There was but one chance.
“Nelson, whip up your wagon and take the Captain back until you find General Jackson. I am sending two men with. When you reach Middletown, or before if you can, requisition a buggy that can move faster. Y’understand?” The driver nodded and the Lieutenant turned away. There was work to be done, the Lord would have to look after the Captain from now on.
Mr Pickens, I would be obliged, sir, if you would take command of the right. Put your skirmishers on that rail fence and pepper those Yankees as they come up the Valley Pike. Hold some men back in the woods as a reserve. Once we have held up our enemies for a suitable period of time I shall be relying on you to cover the withdrawal of the force. I shall be up by the mill house with the main body If we can persuade Mr Lincoln’s boys that we mean business they may not press home their attack. All we need is an hour.
“Hold there Cap’n. There are Rebs up in the farm ahead. You may wish to deploy your boys for action. They look to me like they’re settling in to defend the rise where the turnpike enters the trees.” The Major of artillery snapped shut his telescope as he address Captain Abner Spiderwebb. The advance had been unopposed thus far and it was said that General Banks intended to keep on going all the way to Richmond. The Major leant forward in his saddle “I reckon I saw some cavalry back there south of Winchester, I must ride back that way now to report to old Jim Shields, I can send some to assist you if you think such an addition to your force may be appropriate?”
“I would be most obliged to you sir” Captain Spiderwebb eyed the ridge ahead as he spoke, “ for if the Rebels mean to fight they hold a fine position and any assistance will be appreciated”. The Captain turned now to seek out his Lieutenant “Mister Bouldermeir, take your men forward and occupy that orchard. I shall draw up the company here while you engage the rebels in yonder farm”.
Nathaniel Bouldermeir advanced forward with sixteen men in extended order while behind him the Captain was drawing the company up in line. To his left he could see Lieutenant Reliant moving off towards the cornfield, clearly being detached to cover the flank of the main force.
“Here they come boys, let’s give them some Southern hospitality”. Lieutenant Justice T. Lovetrain dropped his sword downwards and thirty-two muskets crashed out a volley. The Federals hesitated in their advance before a second volley sent a party of blue clad men running back towards the line that was forming up. “That’s it boys, you may fire at will, keep them bluebellies under pressure”.
“Damn those men Sergeant, get them under control”. Captain Spiderwebb was not happy. Half of Lieutenant Bouldermeir’s party were now running back past his line, the shock of the enemy’s fire too much for them to stand. The Captain could see that the other half of the advanced party had been unaffected as their advance had been covered by a small orchard, however this had meant that the fire from the whole rebel line had been focussed on one small Group of men, and they had decided unilaterally that saving their skin was of prime importance.
Sergeant Frank Chisholm’s punch floored the first man as he attempted to dodge past and continue his run. “Anyone want some of that?” Chisholm glowered at the men who had now stopped running, but on whose faces the shock was still plain. At least they still had their rifles. The Sergeant hauled the fallen man to his feet and began to get the rest into some semblance of order.
The man’s kepi went spinning as the bullet took off the top of his head. “Oh my Lord”. Lieutenant Robin Reliant was horrified. On the march he had enjoyed the beauty of the valley in springtime, his sketchbook was tucked into his tunic and always to hand when moments allowed flora or fauna to be captured in pencil in the watery spring sunshine. Now, in an instant, the horrors of war transformed the landscape into a living nightmare. A second man went down.
“Fine shootin’ Mitchell”. Sergeant Red O’Malley could see the Yankees hesitating in their advance towards the wheat field. He could clearly see that the young officer that headed them was now sprawled on the ground, all semblance of leadership evaporated, “Git another Mitch, and they’ll be a runnin’”. And indeed they were. Another body of Federal troops were running for the rear, but this group evaded the big Sergeant from Boston and kept heading down the gradual slope towards Winchester. Only Lieutenant Reliant was left, recumbent in the dirt.
Captain Abner Spiederwebb watched as his plan fell apart. Only a handful of men now were engaging the enemy from the orchard and they weight of rebel fire would surely tell very soon. Were he to make any headway he must take his line forward, but knowing the standard of drill he could expect from his men he knew that the darned orchard would break up the formation once he moved through it. He swore.
“We’ve got them licked boys, pile it on!” Lieutenant Lovetrain could see that the day was his. For half an hour now the Yankees had stood back and sent in small bodies of men who were simply unable to stand against his massed firepower. Even the fire from the orchard was now less than it had been only moments ago. The Yankees could bring on their main force now if they cared to do so, they would be shot down like dogs. He peered through the smoke that was now draped across the front of his position, damn this black powder!
“Captain, sir. May I suggest that the enemy’s fire seems to be going high. The smoke that hangs across their position is making their musketry ineffective”. Sergeant Chisholm had seen this before at Chapultepec, men on high ground firing over the heads of their enemy, made worse by the build-up of smoke from their weapons. “Were you to order an advance now I would wager that we could clear that orchard and reform before those Rebels know what we are up to”. It was a suggestion, but Captain Spiderwebb, who in 1847 as a small boy in Baltic Russia had never heard of Mexico let alone Chapultepec, was man enough to listen to an old hand.
“Stop your fire! I cannot see a damned thing!” Lieutenant Lovetrain was now concerned. His men were keen, but firing through a wall of smoke was a waste of good powder. The firing petered out and the Lieutenant vaulted the fence and ran forward some twenty yards, “Tarnation” the Yankees were coming.
Sergeant Brendan MacMahon rammed another cartridge into his Sharps Military Carbine and fired. From the edge of the wheatfield he could see the rebel skirmishers on the hill beginning to hesitate. The rate of fire from MacMahon’s ten cavalrymen with breach-loaders was clearly beginning to tell. Jaysus, Mary, Joseph and all the Saints, it was a fine weapon.
On the hill another Irishman, Red O’Malley, had been attempting to concentrate his fire onto the flank of the advancing Federal troops. He could see that Lieutenant Lovetrain’s position was covered in smoke and knew that musketry there would be wild and ineffective, but now his attention was fully grasped by the incredible fire that was coming from below his position in the wheatfield. He could only see a few men down there, but the number of bullets that cracked past his ears was truly frightening. Two of his men had fallen in last two minutes.
“Damn their black hearts. Fire!” Lieutenant Lovetrain had run back to his line, and as the last whisps of smoke had cleared he unleashed a volley down towards the yankee line that was attempting to get past the orchard. A few men in blue fell, but then a crashing volley came back in reply. All around him men were falling, the solid firing line that until that moment had suffered little or no loss now recoiled in shock. Another volley, and then another, and now fire was coming in from the area of the wheatfield. Lovetrain looked to his right, he could see that Sergeant O’Malley was running back towards the treeline. And then the line broke.
They didn’t run, these were tough men, but as one they fell back from the line of the fence. The mill house was now burning, adding to the chaos, but Lovetrain could see Sergeant Beckwith holding the line steady, stopping the retreat and reforming the men. They had surrendered the fence line, but in doing so were safe from the Union rifle fire. If they could be reformed to meet the enemy as they came up the slope then more time could be won to allow Captain Butplug’s escape.
“Damn me Sergeant, these men will be put through their paces on the drill field at the first possible opportunity. They cannot perform even the most simple of evolutions without all formation being lost!” Captain Spiderwebb was cognisant of the fact that valuable time was being lost. The rebels had been cleared from the fence-line, allowing his main body to advance past the orchard, but getting them back into formation seemed to take an age.
Lieutenant Pickens crawled forwards through the wheat, he could neither see nor hear his men, but he knew they were there. The report from Sergeant O’Malley had persuaded him use the gulley that lay before his position to bring his men unseen into the wheatfield. If the Yankees had breach-loaders then he would get in close and give them a shock. A cry went up just ahead, the Lieutenant leapt to his feet steadied himself for a moment and then fired into the Union cavalrymen who were scattered through the field.
“Jaysus” Sergeant MacMahon was shocked. Where had those damned rebels come from? He wheeled round to face the new threat, but at that moment a second group of rebels delivered a second volley into his men. The rebels seemed to be all around him.
Sergeant O’Malley was back on the fence and putting fire into the flank of the union line as it came up the slope. He could see that Lieutenant Lovetrain was still frantically attempting to re-organise his men by the Mill house. He had to try to hold up the Yankee advance.
Captain Abner Spiderwebb waved his sword with a flourish. He could see his line beginning to hesitate, “For Old Glory boys, for the Union” his words provided the final spur that took the men up to the fence-line and into the teeth of a rebel volley. Men went down, for a moment the Union line seemed to creak and bow as a beam under the blow of a steam hammer, but then their Enfield rifles spoke out in reply. Before them the rebel line melted away into the woods.
Lieutenant Justice T.Lovetrain III looked at his pocket watch. Fifty minutes he had bought for the Captain at the cost of twenty men dead. He had hoped for an hour, enough time for Nelson to get his master away down the pike. Would fifty minutes be enough?
Ethau Pickens fell back by bounds, one group firing as the other retired back up the gulley. Red O’Malley’s skirmishers kept the main Union body at bay for another minute, enough time to pull out the men remaining without further loss. Captain Spiderwebb’s force had lost the best part of thirty men, several of whom had deserted in the face of the enemy and would, he hoped, be rounded up and shot for cowardice. The Yankees had opened the road, but were in no state to pursue the retiring rebels. What of Jebbediah Butplug? Did he escape to medical care and safety? We shall find out next week.
A very interesting game in that the Rebels held a very strong position, however with Jebbediah out of the way they were very short of leaders of any quality. Lovetrain was a Status II Big Man, the best they had (O’Malley and Pickens were also Status II, Beckwith was Status I). This total of Seven command points was pretty paltry in the face of the Union total of eleven (Spiderwebb III, Bouldermeir II, Chisholm II, Robin II and MacMahon II) but they also had Sergeant ‘Dutch’ Kapp absent wounded. Despite that the game saw huge swings from one side to the other. After twenty minutes play everyone thought that the Rebels would simply shoot down anything that came near them, however that was before the Union cavalry arrived and tied up O’Malley’s skirmishers. This left the rebel line of four Groups to face the Union line of five Groups. In the end it was the additional command points that allowed the Union line to retain its order and recover from several rounds of wicked Confederate firing, whereas with just one status II and one status I Big Man with the rebels line they were unable to rally their forces as efficiently, and once Shock began to mount the line fell apart.
I was overly generous allowing the Union cavalry to be as tactically smart as they were, but I wanted to playtest aspects of their firepower and skirmishing abilities with a larger Group. As such I allowed them twelve men instead of eight which put ten men in the firing line (after horse holders had been allocated) and they were pretty devastating. In reality I would not allow them to operate in full skirmish order in 1862, limiting them to extended order, so that would make them more brittle, however that aspect of the battle really was kept to one half of the table. This allowed us to really test the line against line combat on the other half, and when they met it was (in the words of Max from “Hart to Hart”) murder.
The game was played out with about 70 rebels and 90 Federals and took two hours to play to conclusion. Unlike the previous games which have been real skirmishes, this had the feel of a battle. Indeed it was a truly awesome spectacle and everyone commented that it was an epic game. Again the card deck was used to good effect, the initial union volley saw the crashing volley played, which rocked the rebel line, the rebels played two ambuscade cards when surprising the Union cavalry from close quarters and that served to ensure that no pursuit occurred once the two sides parted. In the final advance the Old Glory card was used to rally the line for the final push up the hill, the Unions last card as the rebels had played the Tarnation card against them in an attempt to rid them of any advantage in the final clash.