Gaming The American War Of Independence Part Two – Initial Campaigns

April 11, 2016 by crew

Welcome back for another foray into the bitter white musket smoke of the American Revolution, presented by @oriskany and @chrisg. Our objective is to provide some balanced background, tips, and perhaps even some inspiration for wargamers interested in exploring this iconic yet often misunderstood conflict.

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As begun in Part One, we’ll examine each part of the war at four distinct levels of gaming, from the operational “general’s table” to the up-close fury of skirmish combat. In part one, we also saw how the war ignited almost by accident at Lexington and Concord. Now the story continues, presented from both sides.

Bunkers Hill – A Patriots View

“… the whites of their eyes!”

After Lexington and Concord, thousands of our Patriot militia closed a ring around the outnumbered British garrison at Boston. The British didn’t fancy coming out for another “Indian fight” in the woods, nor did we relish the thought of assaulting trained regulars in Boston. A tense standoff set in, the armies glaring at each other.

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To force the British hand, orders came down to build a fort on Bunker Hill, on the Charlestown Peninsula, looking straight down on the British fleet in Boston. The idea was to force the British to come out of Boston and engage our larger force entrenched on high ground. We’d win the war in one grand battle. My God, what fools we were.

Sure enough, on June 17, 1775, British General Howe ordered his fleet to bombard our positions while his army loaded into flatboats for the assault on Bunker Hill. There were nearly 2,200 of them in all, facing some 1,200 of us. This would be the first set-piece, proper battle of the American Revolution.

Among our commanders that day was General Israel Putnam. Building this fort and instigating this battle had been his idea. There was just one problem … somehow most of the American earthworks had been built on nearby Breed’s Hill, but Bunker Hill. Yet even today, we still call this the Battle of Bunker Hill.

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Admittedly, some of our militia fled straight off, terror-struck by British barrage of the sheer spectacle of their advancing army. Putnam steeled us, however, famously yelling: “Don’t fire ‘til you see the whites of their eyes!” A sound command, since each man that day faced the British Empire with just a dozen shots in his cartridge box.

Bunkers Hill – A Royalist View

A Pyrrhic “Victory”

The King’s soldiers had a new commander the day we went up Breed’s Hill. Whereas Thomas Gage had commanded in Boston as an administrator, while Britain still sought to come to terms with their colonial subjects … General Sir William Howe was a combat commander, a blooded veteran of the French and Indian War.

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The day would prove a bloody one. Forming up our regiments, we pushed up Breed’s Hill only to meet a withering hail of accurate musketry. Driven back, we reformed and tried again. Driven back again, and resolute despite our hideous losses, we pushed back up a third time, and finally carried the day.

This “victory” was a costly one. Although we took the whole Charlestown Peninsula, we counted 226 killed and 828 wounded, a staggering 50% of our landing force. Among the dead was Major Pitcairn, our commander at Lexington Green just two months before.

The Americans had also suffered deep losses, 145 killed, 274 wounded, and 30 captured. Among the dead was Joseph Warren, the most prestigious and pivotal militia commander during the recent fight along the Battle Road.

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Both sides learned plenty about their foe that day. The Americans had woefully underestimated the sheer tenacity of the British solider, the firepower of the Royal Navy, and the cold, sharp competence of their officers. Training, supply, command, coordination of military arms, the we completely outclassed the militia in every category.

In truth, however, we also learned that these colonial upstarts were more than simple farmers with pitchforks. If they could inflict such damage on us now, what would happen once they got some real weapons? Some actual training? Some competent and experienced leadership or, God forbid, some European allies?

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Still, if they insist on being so proud of their performance on this hill, you’d think they could get the name of the hill correct.

New York – A Patriots View

The Revolution’s End?

The bloodbath at Bunker Hill closed forever any chance of mediation with the Crown. After a bitter debate, the Continental Congress officially adopted the militias at Boston as the “Continental Army” and appointed Colonel George Washington (formerly of the Virginia Militia) as commanding general.

Washington was hardly pleased with his army, however. We were more of a mob with a flag, rife with disease and desertion … and without money, supply or logistics worthy of the name. Nevertheless, with a few cannon and some artful bluff, Washington was able to compel Howe to withdraw from Boston in March 1776, without a shot fired.

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That summer saw the Declaration of Independence proclaimed in Philadelphia. Only now had our goals in this war been agreed upon and written down. Meanwhile, the British were making so secret of their goals, sending a huge fleet and army to strike back into the rebel colonies at one of America’s biggest ports, New York.

Washington was ordered to move his army from Boston down to New York to contest the British invasion. Although he put on a brave face, privately he feared the worst. For those who may not know, New York is a series of islands, hardly a choice battleground when you have no navy and your enemy has the largest navy on earth.

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Sure enough, the British landed at Long Island in August, 1776. We thought we had an army to meet them, but thousands of our militia fled at the first sight of a red jacket. We thought we were well deployed, but our army was fatally split between Manhattan and Long Island. We thought we were ready. We were wrong.

New York – A Royalist View

The Empire Strikes Back

The battles around New York, fought between August and November 1776, unfolded as a series of truly unmitigated disasters for our colonial friends. Defeat, rout, humiliation, and retreat was inflicted on them time and again … it really is a wonder that we didn’t win the war at a stroke right then and there.

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First came the Battle of Long Island (August 27). Washington had drawn up his rebels along the island’s central ridge (Brooklyn Heights), and covered all the passes. But he neglected the Jamaica Pass, far to the east, assuming our infantry couldn’t march that far that fast. Of course we did so, turned the rebel left wing, and crushed them.

We then followed the rebels across the East River to Manhattan, landing at Kip’s Bay. This was hardly a battle, the Connecticut militia routing the instant our grenadiers landed in their boats. We watched them run right past a screaming, infuriated, and heartbroken Washington, who soon had no choice but to ride after his men.

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Burning most of New York City to the ground in their retreat (you don’t read that often in the history books), the rebels withdrew to northern Manhattan, where they put on a slightly better performance at the Battle of Harlem Heights (September 17). Still, New York City was ours, its streets now teeming with Loyalist Americans.

In late October we met the rebels again at the Battle of White Plains. This was yet another victory for the Crown, and pushed the Americans completely out of Manhattan and the environs of New York City. We then tore open the gates of the mighty Hudson River by taking Fort Washington and Fort Lee (November 16 and 20).

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These latest two victories were the crowning achievement of Howe’s campaign. Making good use of our Hessian allies, we captured 3,000 rebels and almost all their remaining artillery. Washington withdrew south into New Jersey in a despairing attempt to keep between us and Philadelphia, the rebel capital and largest city in America.

Trenton

The American Crisis

New York was gone, along with 90% of the Continental Army. Exhausted and starving, the 2,000 men Washington had left retreated into New Jersey. The cause of the American Revolution, so proudly proclaimed just six months before with the Declaration of Independence, was now a flickering candle just a breath from being snuffed out.

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We withdrew across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, but even this would bring only brief respite. As soon as the December weather grew cold enough, the Crown’s soldiers would walk across the ice and end the war in a final stroke. Faced with annihilation, Washington decided on what seemed like an insane course: Attack.

On Christmas night, Washington led us back across the Delaware into New Jersey. Under cover of darkness, we forced-marched on Trenton through a sleet storm. Here, a detachment of 1,200 Hessians (troops from modern-day Germany) had been stationed to keep an eye on us, but they had no idea we’d come back across the river.

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We hit the Hessians shortly after dawn on December 26, 1776. Against all odds, surprise was total. The German commander (Johann Rall) was mortally wounded, and soon after the Hessians surrendered. They’d lost 23 killed, 83 wounded, and all 900 survivors were taken prisoner. We lost only two killed and a handful of wounded.

Stunning as it may have been, victory at Trenton marked only the first step back from the abyss, by no means was Washington now “winning the war.” In fact, his army was about to disintegrate because most of our enlistments were due to expire on December 31. Even now, the Revolution’s survival hung by the slenderest of threads.

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Check back with us next week as chrisg and oriskany wargame their way into 1777, a year which will see both the Patriots and the Crown win some of their greatest victories of the war. Meanwhile, post questions, comments, and ideas below, or share your own gaming experiences in the age of black powder.

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!

"Both sides learned plenty about their foe that day. The Americans had woefully underestimated the sheer tenacity of the British solider, the firepower of the Royal Navy, and the cold, sharp competence of their officers..."

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"The battles around New York, fought between August and November 1776, unfolded as a series of truly unmitigated disasters for our colonial friends. Defeat, rout, humiliation, and retreat was inflicted on them time and again..."