Gaming The American War Of Independence Part Three – The Central Theatre

April 18, 2016 by crew

To arms! To arms! We’re back to continue our wargaming explorations of the American Revolution, as presented by @oriskany and @chrisg. In Part One, we summarised the narrative motivations of the men who fought this war and some of its initial skirmishes. In Part Two, we looked at some of the first large-scale battles and campaigns.

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Now we’re going to break the remainder of the American War of Independence into its three main theatres, Central, Northern, and Southern, and examine each in turn. First, we’ll look at the Central Theatre, already in full furious progress after the massive British victories in New York and the American miracle of Trenton at the end of 1776 …

Princeton

Winning Back New Jersey

When last we left our plucky Patriot rebels, they’d pulled off a stunning upset against the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton. But now, British General Cornwallis (his return home cancelled by his boss General Howe) had been sent down into New Jersey to quash the rebel upstarts with a force approaching 10,000 of His Majesty’s soldiers.

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No doubt irate over his ruined vacation, a vengeful Cornwallis soon had the rebels pinned against the Delaware River. But Washington would again pivot around the Crown’s army and hit a smaller wing of British forces at nearby Princeton, winning another victory small in military scope, but psychologically vital to the American cause.

After Princeton, Washington moved his dwindling army to winter quarters at nearby Morristown, New Jersey. This position was more or less unassailable to the forces Cornwallis had at his disposal (at least in the depth of winter), so with two small victories at Trenton and Princeton, Washington has basically won back the state of New Jersey.

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Thanks to the victories at Trenton and Princeton, Washington was also able to recruit and re-enlist men into his disintegrating force. While by no means a turning of the tide, Washington’s “Ten Days at Christmas” had forestalled British victory, for now. Yet the question remained; when spring arrived, where would General Howe strike next?

Brandywine – A Patriot View

Enemy at the Gates

Sure enough, once the weather broke it didn’t take long for General Howe to start pushing some very big chess pieces into play. Leaving a sizeable garrison in New York City, he sailed with about 15,000 men south around New Jersey, then came up the Chesapeake Bay to land his army just fifty miles south of Philadelphia, our capital city.

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Washington, meanwhile, had spent the first half of 1777 carefully rebuilding our army. By the end of August we had about 10,000-12,000 men ready to meet Howe. To compensate for Howe’s edge in numbers, Washington set up our defence behind the Brandywine River, over which there were no bridges and only a limited number of fords.

We had no doubt as to the importance of the upcoming battle. To get to Brandywine, we first marched through Philadelphia, our capital city which would now be our honour and duty to defend. Members of the Continental Congress, the very men who’d written and signed our Declaration of Independence, waved as we marched by.

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Sure enough, the British and their bought-and-paid-for Hessian mercenaries lined up in their pretty lines of red, blue, and gold, marching right at us. We knew we had to put up a good fight because a young French general, the Marquis de Lafayette, was with us. If France was to join the war on our side, we had to prove we could fight.

And fight we did. Soon, however, we heard gunfire thickening in the woods to our right. Then came the first panicked reports of a massive force on our flank. We’d only been fighting a third of the enemy force! Their main body had somehow crossed the river without our knowledge and were about to cave in our whole right wing!

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Yes, we lost. We lost the field, over a thousand men, and with them our capital city. At least the Congress had escaped … and our army remained intact. Unlike New York, we hadn’t disintegrated in defeat. We’d be striking back, and a damned sight sooner than our friend Mr. Howe likely expected.

Brandywine – The Crown View

“This war SHOULD be over.”

I would have paid twenty pounds sterling silver to see the look on Washington’s face when he was informed we’d flanked his army… again. With Knyphausen demonstrating against the rebels’ front at Chadd’s Ford, we’d force-marched around their right wing and now stood ready to bag the lot of them.

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Three hastily deployed divisions of rebels, however, made a passable account of themselves, and stalled our advance long enough for the bulk of the rebel force to make an orderly withdrawal. We took the field and plenty of prisoners, but I must confess these rebels are slowly learning how to put up the semblance of an actual fight.

Not that we were done thrashing these ungrateful wretches. Moving on their capital at Philadelphia, we eliminated another rebel force at the Battle of Paoli (September 20th), which of course their propagandists choose to characterize as a massacre. Finally we marched into Philadelphia itself, capturing the city on September 26th.

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Still the rebels hadn’t had enough, Washington attacked one of our outposts at nearby Germantown on October 4. After being outflanked at Long Island and Brandywine, Washington now outflanked HIMSELF by turning part of his army the wrong way to attack a bypassed mansion. The rebels lost yet again, ending the year’s campaign.

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Yet how did the war NOT END HERE? We’d taken the enemy’s capital, we’d defeated his field army … twice. In any traditional terms, this game was well and truly up. But these rebels don’t abide by any civilised rules of honour or warfare. They simply scampered into the woods like so many deer, and so we’d have to beat them again in 1778.

Monmouth

The Revolution’s Largest Battle

After a harsh winter camped at Valley Forge, spring brought two great boosts to American morale. First, Baron von Steuben, a Prussian drillmaster, had brought much-needed professionalism to the Continental regiments. This reflects in AWI gaming since, starting in 1778, the Americans start to look and act like an actual 18th Century army.

Second, France had finally joined the war on the American side. This caused an immediate shift in British strategic priorities since troops, ships, and money would be needed to meet French threats against rich British possessions in the Caribbean and elsewhere. These colonies were incredibly wealthy, far more valuable than Philadelphia.

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Accordingly, British forces in North America would have to be significantly cut back. The new British commander in America, General Sir Henry Clinton, was forced to abandon Philadelphia and consolidate Crown forces back to New York (General Howe had stepped down, unhappy with how the war was being run from London).

Accordingly, General Clinton massed his army in Philadelphia and started a march northward to New York. The column was huge, an opportunity Washington just couldn’t pass up. He attacked Clinton’s withdrawing army near the town of Monmouth, New Jersey, starting what is widely regarded as the largest single battle of the war.

The American vanguard was commanded by Charles Lee, hateful and jealous of Washington’s position, but nevertheless a competent general. He hit what he thought was Clinton’s rear guard north of Monmouth Courthouse, but the whole Crown army swung around and quickly pushed back Lee’s outnumbered forces.

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When the rest of the Continental Army met Lee’s withdrawing vanguard, Washington demanded to know why Lee had pulled back. Deaf to excuses, Washington relieved him on the spot … in a screaming barrage of profanity, no less. Simply put, Washington had had enough of Lee’s scheming, insubordination, and now alleged cowardice.

Taking command of Lee’s forces himself, Washington stabilized the field as the two armies locked in an artillery duel that lasted hours (the American guns in enfilade positions on Comb’s Hill). In the end, the battle was a draw. But for the first time, the Americans had met the British face-to-face in a large, formal battle, and had held the field.

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After Monmouth, Clinton completed his march to New York. There would be no more major battles fought in New Jersey, New York, or Pennsylvania. Effectively, the central theatre was closed because, as we’ve discussed, the war’s centre of gravity had been irrevocably shifted by France’s entry into the war.

Without France, American success in the Revolution would never have been possible. Yet France would’ve never joined until America proved its viability with a decisive victory in a major battle. As it happens, just such a victory had recently been won in the Revolution’s northern theatre, in one of America’s most crucial turning points …

… near a small New York town, called Saratoga.

By James Johnson &  Chris Goddard

If you would like to write for Beasts of War then please contact us at ben@beastsofwar.com for more information!

"...while by no means a turning of the tide, Washington’s “Ten Days at Christmas” had forestalled British victory, for now. Yet the question remained; when spring arrived, where would General Howe strike next?"

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"Without France, American success in the Revolution would never have been possible. Yet France would’ve never joined until America proved its viability with a decisive victory in a major battle..."