The second day of the Battle of Gettysburg is often described through the individual engagements of brigades or even regiments. Although the attack was conceived as a massive coordinated assault by a significant fraction of the Confederate Army encompassing both the right and left wings, individual pieces of that assault can be looked at in isolation. In fact, in many cases, the smaller engagements took place sequentially, and can be pieced together to tell a story.
Nevertheless, distilling the entire second day to, for example, Chamberlain’s counter charge on Little Round Top does not capture what happened in the more than six hours of fighting from 4PM on July 2nd, 1861.
In The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, author Coddington details many, if not most, of the pieces of that engagement. He particularly looks at issues where controversy or second-guessing has called into question whether mistakes were made, and whether better leadership might have changed the outcome of the battle.
In his telling, the most important feature of the day was Sickles’ decision to place his Corps forward of the Union line of battle on Cemetery Ridge. It was the vulnerability of his units that put the North the most at risk of a breakthrough, perhaps at any time throughout the three day battle. While speculating about all the things that didn’t happen is bound to be inconclusive, one might imagine that had Sickles not been out of place, the situation for the Union could only have improved.
In backing this claim, Coddington points out that Lee believed that Longstreet’s direct attack was flanking the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. Even the request (and partial attempt) by Hood to envelope the Union line by moving to the right and over the Round Tops assumed that he would find those hills unoccupied and providing an undefended route into the enemy’s rear area. Had Sickles been in his ordered position and had Longstreet attacked, as ordered, up the Emmitsburg Road, there would have been Union troops to Sickles’ left which could have hit Longstreet’s right flank.
Given that, Longstreet’s delay until 4PM may have in fact been fortuitous, in that it gave Sickles time to make his mistake.
The speculative (and quite probably gamey) deviations of my previous posts put aside, I return to Scourge of War: Gettysburg to look at a depiction of the afternoon and evening of that day that is more closely aligned with reality.
When I last wrote about SoW:Gettysburg, I was struggling to like the game. In that last battle, while I didn’t have the enforced difficulty turned all the way up, I tried to play as the commander, dispatching orders instead of micromanaging the lowest-level units. And it did make for better gameplay.
This time around, I actually reset a couple of options to allow the game to enforce this play style. I limited the camera to close to my commander unit, I required all orders to be sent by courier, and I restricted the view of units on the map. No “cheating” this time around – mostly to stop my ineptitude with the controls from causing me to do things I don’t want to do.
After taking a little break, the barrier of the user interface becomes all the more obvious. It took me a couple of restarts to understand even the setup of the scenario. As the player, I am General Evander Law, a brigade commander under General Hood. However, I have under my command not only all of Hood’s Division, but General Hood himself. Law’s own brigade is commanded by a colonel. After a few minutes (and these are timed scenarios, so this counts against you) of struggling with the command structure, I finally had dispatched a whole bunch of orders, and every brigade except for my own had responded. After much riding around and order sending, I finally found my dear colonel hundreds of yards ahead of the brigade, scouting out the area to which I’d ordered him to deploy the unit. Or I thought I had. The “move” command is in the same menu, but higher up, that the “move unit” command. Under duress, I’ve frequently dispatched not the unit, but only the commander. And that’s what I had done here.
The user interface is meant to be simplified when using couriers for orders. Once can enter commands through a orders interface, creating a “note” made up of structure text. However, one can also send a courier by directly ordering a unit over which you don’t have direct control. This makes sense from a design standpoint. You’ve clicked on a unit, you see where it is, and you want it to advance down the road a bit. Do you really want to get lost in an order-composing interface when a pair of clicks would convey all the same information? The problem is, I frequently find myself losing track of what is active. Moving my commander around and inspecting units, I sometimes give a subordinate a command where I mean only to re-position myself. I spent much of the second try working to place my artillery so as to threaten the enemy. At some point I realized that the command, to which I’d been frantically sending orders, still hadn’t move, but a single battery had moved well forward into position. Not clear at all how I managed that, and even less clear how to get stray cannons back under proper hierarchical control.
At some point, probably close to the screenshot above, I received a dispatch that Hood had been wounded, and I was now in command of his entire division. I started looking around for my additional units, and found none. I had, of course, been commanding all of Hood’s units from the beginning. Were they responding to my commands, or did they have some default orders that were overriding mine? Would I even ever know the difference?
Probably time to restart again.
The dispatch system is probably fairly decent for depicting the limitations of command in the heat of battle. During an attack, a general might be able to commit reserves or could ride up and try to inspire his men, but plotting exact lines of advance, and ordering specific positions should be difficult.
On the other hand, before an attack starts, commanders would have used maps and scouting reports to formulate detailed plans of how the attack was to proceed. Perhaps I’d feel much better about this game if it had an initial “planning” interface, using a better set of tools, to lay out what the intention for all the units is.
The other way to look at it is these tend to be short scenarios, so the “planning” is already done for you. Assuming you understand what that plan is, you begin playing on top of that plan that’s been already created.
So, now having a better idea of what the scenario entails I start again. This time, I will focus on my own brigade, until the game tells me my command is otherwise. Upon start, I change all the commands of my subordinate units to direct control, to get rid of the situation where I have that extra commander (the colonel) essentially holding my spot in the command structure.
Almost immediately, I send one or two units off in the wrong direction as I’m trying to move the command unit. Oops. Restart.
This time, I am careful to get ever unit under direct control before I start sending commands to move. Successfully at last. I will assume my orders are those given to Law by Hood in the real battle. While the rest of Hood’s Division attacks along Emmitsburg Rd., I will attempt to flank them on the right, over the two Round Tops. The timing of the scenario starts us as Union sharpshooters are spotted in Devil’s Den, so technically all of Hood’s Division is already deviating from the plan. But in particular, the swinging of Law’s Brigade to the right was a small attempt at doing what Hood and Longstreet wanted to do all along. And a controversial one.
As the Gettysburg Campaign book points out, Longstreet’s impassioned defense of his plan for the second, to move to the right, is based on what he wrote after the fact. From the record before the attack, it isn’t clear what Longstreet is actually asking. Is he suggesting a strategic move to the right – disengaging and shifting to better ground? Or is suggesting a tactical move for the right – move the axis of attack to be more from the South? Both concepts have problems, and are far from a plan. If we watched the move, we probably assume that on the morning of the 2nd he is probably arguing for the latter. Given the failure to get his Corps into position until 4PM, one wonders what an even wider flanking maneuver would have looked like.
Longstreet comes under much criticism on the morning of the 2nd. Once it was decided he would be the primary assault, it almost seems that his reluctance about the details of the plan interfered with the execution. Coddington characterizes his logistics of that morning as amateurish, very much in contrast to what the Army and the Corps were capable of. Both the poorly executed march, as well as a sloppy execution assembling the Corp for attack, lead to an early morning assault taking place in the early evening.
But what effect did that have on the battle? As I hinted at the start of this article, Longstreet’s timing, as unintentional as it may have been, could have been just right to catch Sickles at maximum disadvantage. Longstreet certainly believed he could have done better, but we don’t know that he would have.
Perhaps Hoods decision to send Law on a right-flanking maneuver helps answer the question, or maybe not. Clearly the assault on Little Round Top by Law’s brigade was insufficient. They had marched all day, then marched over Big Round Top, then assaulted enemy infantry where they didn’t expect to find them. Given that Chamberlain’s Mainers were out of ammo when they charged, doesn’t that prove that if more of Hoods Division would have been there, they would have taken Little Round Top? The Killer Angels even proposes the lack of water as a culprit. Law’s men were not only exhausted from marching, but also thirsty. The details sent off to collect drinking water didn’t return in time for the attack. Maybe the extra organization that may have come from supporting that attack, from Lee all the way down, would have won the day and the battle.
On the other hand, Hood was criticized for pulling a brigade out of the main attack against orders. It was on the other side of Little Round Top, in the area of the Peach Orchard and the Wheat Field, where the Southerners may have come closest to breaking the Union line. So could that failure be blamed on a brigade diverted to far to the left?
Above My Pay Grade
Playing now at what I think the scenario intends for me, I will take control of my Brigade and move against Big Round Top, operating basically independently from the rest of Hood’s Division under AI Control.
The weird graphic static on the screenshots aside, the engine really does a beautiful job of capturing the landscape. With the camera tied to my general here, must slowly climb the hill along with my infantry.
When we get to the peak, we are rewarded with quite a view of the surrounding countryside. In the screenshot above, I glance out of the rear of the union positions as I wait for all my regiments to catch up with me. Looking the other way, I can see all of Longstreet’s positions. This is going to be some ground worth keeping.
Once again, I run into some control issues. I now want to fan out my regiments and probe the valley between the two hills for enemy units. The problem is, because the slop in front of me is so steep, I can’t click on the “ground” where I want to order my units to. After jiggering around the general’s position, I finally gave up and gave the orders by setting their position on the map. The problem there is that, on the map, I can’t see the terrain features, so it is harder to know exactly where I am sending them.
As they start up and over, some boys in blue starting flickering in an out of view. The engine only draws “spotted” units, and the terrain/unit size is a bit abstracted, so the calculated visibility is sometimes at odds with the graphical rendering visibility. I hover over the screenshot key so I get the picture when the unit is actually “there.”
Right about this time, I again get the dispatch that Hood has been shot and I am in command of the entire division. After an exercise of reassigning the units to “AI” control, so as to put them under full command of my promoted subordinate colonel, I’m off to the rear.
My first observation (granted, based largely on my previous playthroughs) is that all the divisional artillery is out of range of the actual battle. So my first order of business is to ride back to their locations, pick out what looks like a location with better visibility, and order them forward. In retrospect, given the short duration of the scenario, there was little hope of getting the artillery successfully deployed. Further, it would have been more efficient to ride to where I thought some decent artillery positions were and, if finding them, send the orders back from there. It seemed more appropriate to at least see how whether or not the artillery was engaged (they weren’t, they were out of range) before moving them.
That completed, I rode forward to find the battle. When I got there, I had a hard time figuring out what I was looking at.
From the top of the Devil’s Den position, I could see that all of my “new” brigades were engaged with enemies to my front. But it was kind of a mess. Some were actively fighting, some were withdrawing from the fight, and a few were working there way around the rough terrain, unable as I was to get a clear view of the battle. I decided my best bet at this point was to ride forward and try to directly assist those in the thick of it.
Riding down off Devil’s Den, I realized the terrain had obscured at least half of the fighting from my previous position. Fortunately, though, as I arrived, it seemed that my fellas were just about to send the Union boys running. I watched as several of the regiments took off after them.
At this point, I took a look towards my old brigade, off to my left. Things didn’t look so good for them. They were still assaulting the Union position on the slope of Little Round Top, but by this time they seemed to be outnumbered (with respect to those units remaining on the field.) So I took direct control of two of Robertson’s regiments, and moved them into the fighting, into the rear of the Union line. It worked like a charm. Strong Vincent’s brigade, now beset by us from both sides, began to crumble.
Once again, I ran out of time. The scenario ended and I got an terrible score – worse, I think than the last time.
Engagements at this scale can be tough. Victory conditions based on time might be to add an artificial “challenge” and replayability to the scenario, but they also reflect the limits of the tactical combat model. After an hour of fighting, some units run out of ammo and others are resupplied. One side or the other may be able to bring in reinforcements. In the larger scheme of things, if general is told to take a hill in the next hour, he can’t spend an hour and a half or two hours doing it. It’s hard to tell in this case.
It was also another showcase of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this game engine. As before, it emphasizes that this engine is designed for the higher levels of command at the higher levels of command difficulty. Some of the weaknesses also jump out, particularly with this fight. I happened to also play the scenario from the other side – playing as Vincent. With all the detailed terrain and unit depiction, one notices what isn’t show. For the defense of Little Round Top, a key part of the Union’s success was that they were able to take a good position on a steep hill and literally dig in. They have built defensive walls with earth and stone, allowing to shoot from partial cover. It is difficult to position units relative to existing terrain and I don’t believe there is a way to simulate “digging in.” This Union scenario really doesn’t give much time (if playing with a locked camera) to even scout the area before the enemy shows up.
Scourge of War, you sure make it tough to love you sometimes.