Major Preston Prentice’s voice rang clear and true around the camp “And I say unto you my brethren, that the sins of the slavocracy are as multitudinous as those of Soddom and Gommorrah, and did not the Good Lord smite them down? Now he looks to us as true believers in his mercy to deliver his crusade unto the south, and we shall not tire in doing his work. Kill them all, for the Lord will know his own. For such is his mercy.” It was not for nothing that the Major was known to his men as the Prayin’ Preacher, and today his prayers were to be answered.
For a month now General Banks had occupied the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley, and Preacher Prentice had been awaiting the opportunity to do the Lord’s work and smite down the southern traitors hip and thigh, and yet it seemed that the General was now to withdraw northward without a sign of an action greater than the small skirmishes that had been occurring at the fringes of the army these past few weeks. Or at least so it had seemed until only minutes ago. Tom Jackson, Prentice damned his black heart, was attacking, and this impertinent gesture seemed to have stung Banks from his lethargy. Orders had arrived that the Union was to turn and fight, to descend upon their foe as wolves from the fold and finally put paid to the whole affair of secession. With Jackson’s force destroyed the road to Richmond, the path to salvation, would be open.
“Jebbediah, tell nobody, we are for it”. Thomas Jackson handed the telescope back to Jebbediah Butplug, he had seen all he needed to in order to know that his lack of reconnaissance could well lead to his undoing. It seemed that the Yankees, far from being a small outnumbered force, were in fact the whole of Bank’s Army. “Move your men back to the Middle Road and take up position there. I’ll try to send you section of guns, but I need to know that my flank there is protected. I’m shifting Fulkerson, Garnett and Burks to your left. Ashby can try to keep the Yankees tied up on the right with his cavalry.” The battle of Kernstown had begun.
It had been several hours since Major Prentice had delivered his rousing address, and in that time the men of the Regiment had done little but sit on the slopes of Pritchard’s Hill and watch other units advance forward. The noise of battle, raging off to their right across Sandy Ridge, was enough to tell Prentice that the war was being won without him. In the middle of the afternoon he had watched with growing frustration as Kimball had taken his Brigade down across the Middle Road into the flank of the main rebel position.
As time passed it occurred to him that the noise of battle was becoming more distant. Out to his front the road south up the valley was, it seemed, open. If he were to lead his men down from their lofty position and advance straight down Middle Road then the enemy would be outflanked. He could turn to the west and form a position that blocked the enemy’s line of retreat. He looked around. Earlier in the day the hill had been awash with staff officers, but now they seemed to have moved on. His Regiment was, it appeared, forgotten in the moment of victory.
Preston Prentice wrestled with his conscience. A school master by profession, a Baptist Minister by calling, he was also enough of a soldier to know that a man could not take his Regiment into battle without orders. However to not seize the moment was to do a great disservice to the cause of the Union, and indeed the cause of God. He could, he reasoned, deploy a company forward to see if the way was clear. In fact two companies would seem to be a better choice. His mind was set. Riding across the front of his Regiment he sought out Lieutenant Bouldermeir and Captain Spiderwebb to appraise them of his plan.
Sergeant Hal Tucker heaved as he and his men pushed the 12 pounder gun into position on the slight rise that allowed them a clear shot across the two fields that lay between the wooded slopes of Sandy Ridge and the Middle Road. He had sought out Captain Butplug, but apparently the bulk of the Confederate Regiment had been shifted across the join the battle along the ridge. Here a Lieutenant Lovetrain commanded the forty odd men that made up the company that were the sole defenders of the road that led deep into the rear of General Jackson’s force.
A few of the infantrymen were assisting the gunners in hauling the caisson up to the gun when shout from his right caught Tucker’s attention. Along the fence line the rebel soldiers were charging their weapons. He turned to look northwards at the solid line of men in blue who were advancing across the far field. It had to be three hundred yards, no, a shade less. “Load canister boys, we’ll let the bluebellies know we’re here”
Major Prentice’s men were approaching the first snake-rail fence when the rebel volley hit them. Here and there men fell from the line, some staggering back as though hit by a mighty hammer, others simply falling dead where they stood. A second later a wave of shock washed over the line as the single rebel 12 pounder added its fire. For a moment the line wavered, then the Major rode forward “It is the Lord’s work you do this day! Show these curs that you are His servants”, the line steadied and fire was returned. To the rear Sergeant Frank Chisholm was pulling stragglers back into line and dressing the ranks where gaps had been torn by the big cannon.
“Fire”. The cries of the officers on both sides could be heard. Again the Union line delivered a crashing volley, to be answered almost simultaneously by the rebel line. Volley after volley came and the men stood and died. On the Yankee side men were falling yet the Major was moving among his men, reassuring some, cajoling others, preaching to all. Behind him Sergeant Chisholm used his boots and fists to emphasise the Major’s message, and, despite heavy losses the line held.
Justice T. Lovetrain III was, as always, immaculate in his uniform of grey. The Austrian knots on his sleeves marked him as a Lieutenant but today he held the brevet rank of Captain. Jebbediah Butplug had returned to the colors, his wounds healed, but losses in the Regiment during his absence had seen him elevated to command four companies, although lack of men now saw the survivors re-organised into just six companies. Despite his rank Lovetrain had never felt that the company was really his. The men, he was well aware, still looked to the Captain although during his absence it had been young Ethau Pickens who had emerged as a natural leader in battle. Now, in the heat of battle, Lovetrain knew he was failing to keep the company intact. He attempted to rally the men, but overall the weight of firepower was driving his line back. Despite losses being reasonably low. Yard by yard men were heading for the rear, turning, firing, but still always retiring. What had begun as a solid line was now broken down into groups of me who were gathered in knots around the NCOs and officers. To his right he could see Sergeant O’Malley, the big Irishman from Virginia, halting one group who had been in full flight, but even then the Sergeant knew he could not bring them back to the fence that had marked their original defences, settling instead for the stone wall by the group of farm buildings that made up Mrs Massie’s homestead.
Ethau Pickens had withdrawn some men to take position in the trees by the gun which under the command of Sergeant Tucker was using its own recoil to withdraw as it fired, keeping its dressing with the wavering line.
Captain Abner Spiderwebb moved his line forward. Ahead of him the first line was now a shattered wreck that continued to fire, or at least did so until a blast of canister shredded the remaining ranks and saw the remnants finally break and run, only a few men under Lieutenant Bouldermeir refusing to run and edging back still firing. The Captain was most surprised to see Preacher Prentice gallop back with the routers, but his men stayed firm and, closing ranks they advanced towards the fence.
“Begging your pardon Sir” Sergeant Dutch Kapp appeared at the Major’s elbow “If we wheel the line we can deal mitt der gun on the rise there”. The Major knew that the big German Sergeant, a veteran of the King of Prussia’s wars in Denmark, was a man worth listening to. There was not a moment’s pause before he nodded his consent. The line wheeled round and the first volley crashed out.
Hal Tucker threw himself to the floors as the volley cracked over head. Two of his gun crew were hurled back by the shock of several bullets, and the remainder wavered until the Sergeant could get them back to the gun. A round of canister tore holes in the Union line, but a second volley saw the gun crew flee back into the trees.
Brevet Captain Lovetrain looked round, surely they could do no more here. Sergeant O’Malley had rallied his men behind the stone wall and was firing steadily across the field, whilst Lieutenant Pickens had his small group of men in the treeline and was keeping up a brisk fire, but these isolated groups could do nothing against the yankee hordes. Then a movement on the farm track caught his eye. Red, White, Blue. For a moment he thought that the Yankees had worked their way around his flank, then he recognised the broad stripes of the Confederate flag. It was Jebbediah Butplug.
“Good day to you Captain. I see you have your men under control”. Major Prentice waved his hat. “I have brought up a third company, so let us press on. We have fine work to do this day”. Captain Spiderwebb felt a pang of guilt at his thoughts that Prentice had abandoned the fight, another company must surely secure the day. The cannon spoke again.
Captain Bart Enders saw the impact of the fire on Captain Spiderwebb’s company. He could see the men were shocked and that for a moment control of the tattered ranks was lost. Opening his men up into extended order he rushed forward. It was a tricky manoeuvre that if it went wrong could see his force lose all cohesion, but the rewards of success could be so great he took the decision and went forward. As soon as they had passed through the shocked line Enders’ men reformed their ranks and delivered their first volley. The artillerymen on the rise fled, the infantrymen who were forming up along-side them were clearly shocked by the impact. The rebels unleashed a volley, but the reply by the Union forces was sufficient to see their line sag backwards. A third volley saw it break up entirely.
Behind his line Enders could see Major Prentice rallying Captain Spiderwebb’s company, reforming them to renew the fight. He strode on. The Union would prevail.
This was a monster game of Terrible Sharp Sword, the Sharp Practice amendments for the American Civil War. Set in the latter stages of the battle of Kernstown it represented a Confederate rearguard taking on a three company Union wave assault. Each Union wave was made up of seven Groups of eight men, so 54 men, with two Big Men and a Status IV Big Man, Major Prentice, in charge. On the rebel side their initial force was forty men, five Groups of eight, under three Big Men, plus one gun.
Specifically we were testing the artillery rules that I have been playing through and looking at the size of game, really pushing the game towards its limits in terms of size for a typical club evening game. Whilst Sharp Practice has a reputation for being a fun game, my overarching concern is that the game is also historically representative. So we really wanted to ensure that we could do a major assault of this nature and get the right feel. Well, we did that in spades. It was a monster game, and a monstrous success. You could really see the effect of shock breaking down the cohesion of units, especially when under fire from the smooth-bore artillery which was truly horrific in the way that it flayed the Union companies.
One thing that I have been asked for is a breakdown of how the rules actually work, rather than the narrative accounts that I tend to do. So I intend to do just that. I will be taking the above account and dissecting it to say what is actually happening in the game, so watch this space.
The failure of the attacks at Colenso in December, Spion Kop in December and Vaalkrantz in early February 1900 had left the British public and Lord Roberts perplexed as to exactly what General Sir Redvers Buller was doing on the Tugela River, indeed parts of the Army in Natal were losing faith in his ability