Thursday 19 January 2023

Bigger than Gettysburg: Chancellorsville (1863)

Gettysburg receives plenty of attention from us wargamers - deservedly so, as it was such a large battle and a turning point in the American Civil War. But an even bigger ACW battle took place just a couple of months earlier at Chancellorsville and is relatively neglected. Let's compare them.

Gettysburg: ~180,000 men (105k US vs 75k CSA) fought for three days on about 5 miles of front.

Chancellorsville: ~195,000 men (134k US vs 60k CSA) fought for four days on about 15 miles of front.

Perhaps the sheer scale of Chancellorsville is the reason why we so rarely see it on wargamers' tables. This makes it an obvious challenge for "Bloody Big BATTLES!" to take on. Consequently I wrote a scenario for it in December (the only one I'd written all year) and we got to fight it twice last weekend.

Chancellorsville was remarkable for its repeated dramatic manoeuvre by both sides: Hooker on the US side taking advantage of the screen provided by the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, while Lee's Confederates exploited their interior lines. To provide space for these manoeuvres, I therefore had to break my usual rule of fitting everything onto 6'x4' and go for an extended 8'x4' table - still achievable for most gamers, I imagine. I also had to add a scenario special rule for strategic redeployment during the night intervals. I limited the scenario to three days for playability, as historically the fourth was just minor skirmishing after the issue had been decided.

The number of units is not huge, so the scenario would be perfectly playable with just two to four players. We were blessed with eight, which meant each side could have the luxury of a C-in-C player directing operations. It also meant frequent noisy command conferences - the sweeping manoeuvres created lots of dramatic changes of situation, which generated heated debates by one side or the other every couple of turns as the players argued about how to un-FUBAR a FUBARed position ... (see my essay on "Changing situations mid-game".)

The Chancellorsville game was scheduled as the Saturday night game for a four-day holiday weekend of gaming. It went down so well that we changed the agenda so we could refight it on Sunday morning, with some orbat tweaks from the previous day. The first game saw the US try to replicate Hooker's heavily weighted right hook; this was stymied by vigorous CSA response aided by some very effective work by JEB Stuart's cavalry in the Union rear, while the US left smashed itself against the CSA entrenchments above Fredericksburg. Result: an emphatic Confederate victory.

Game 2 was very different. Both sides chose to emphasise the eastern end of the battlefield more: the CSA electing to attempt a pre-emptive push across Banks's Ford and US Ford, where the US had also kept more of their troops. This time JEB's dice let him down badly so the US was able to force him eastwards, while taking advantage of the CSA's eastern push to form a solid line east of Chancellorsville itself. The CSA's initial attack never really got started before they realised they had to counter-attack the US right. Bad dice cost them two precious turns in launching that, by which time it was too late. Thus the Union claimed victory and revenge.

This was a terrific game in all sorts of ways and I am sure this scenario will be rolled out again regularly.

A few annotated photos show the battlefield and some of the action. Scroll past these if you just want to read my reflections.

View of the whole battlefield, looking south across the Rappahannock. Fredericksburg on the left with Marye's Heights behind it. Two US observation balloons lower left at Falmouth and above Banks's Ford. Confederate forces clustered around Tabernacle Church in the centre, while Hooker's right hook has arrived around Chancellorsville right of pic. This shot shows how heavily wooded the battlefield is, which makes the road network vitally important. 15mm figures from Scott's collection.

Close-up of the Union left in front of Fredericksburg. In game 1, the two US corps here destroyed themselves in poorly coordinated frontal attacks on the Confederate entrenchments.

Banks's Ford, left/centre. The half-strength Confederate artillery unit withstood all attacks in game 1 but was outflanked and overwhelmed in game 2.

The US right around Chancellorsville. Stuart's cavalry (top right) made a serious nuisance of themselves in game 1, badly damaging the righthand US corps and threatening the Union line of communications. Game 2 was a different story as the Confederates chose not to contest this half of the field while they attacked in the east.


Battlemats: we didn't have one for this game, but it is definitely worth making one. The terrain is pretty complex, lots of woods and an extensive and important road network, so it took an hour or so to set it up. A roll-out battlemat would save a lot of time, and the scenario has so much replay value that it would be a good investment.

Contrasting armies: the blue and the grey have a lot in common (similar uniforms, the same limited variety of weapons, fighting from the same drill book) which can make lower-level tactical ACW games a bit dull. But at the army level, this Chancellorsville game really brought out the differences between US (hamstrung by command and control problems, full of raw and fragile units of near-mutinous short-timers or unhappy Germans) and Confederate (agile and audacious command, confident and aggressive troops).

Multi-player games can be tremendous fun. This scenario was ideal for our large group. Nobody was stuck in a corner with nothing to do; nobody had to wait half the game for their command to enter the table; there was action everywhere from Turn 1 and decisions to make in every sector.

The virtue of space: the large table and low troop density allowed for lots of movement. The strategic redeployment in the night turns made this even more dramatic. The resulting changes in the game situation each turn made for a really exciting game. 

Strategic options add replay value. The extensive front line and the ability to shift pressure to different points along it allow multiple plans for both sides, so there are multiple ways to win (or to lose).

"Benny Hill-ery". Mark wasn't happy with how Stuart's cavalry acted as a combat unit that could dance around and required a whole US division to chase and fend it off, rather than just a brigade parked to protect the fords in the US rear. He described this chase as a "Benny Hill" moment that spoiled the narrative of the game for him. In the revised scenario I'll make the cavalry less potent in combat but I'll still keep them as a unit rather than an area effect.

Balloons! The US had two observation balloons operating near Fredericksburg. These didn't have any game effect (they were as much a hindrance as a help, as the Confederates gave them plenty of fake campfires and fake campsites to observe) but made for a nice table ornament.

Bourbon: the essential ingredient for any ACW game!


  1. Well that sounded like fun and perfect for a multiplayer game as you had here. Rather envious if I'm honest!

    1. Yes, it was a brilliant weekend all round, Steve. I hope you can get out a bit more yourself this year!

  2. Sounds like you had a lot of fun. Very nice looking troops and scenery. Cheers Colin

    1. Thanks, Colin. Good one for BBB Bash Day IV, I reckon!

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks, Konstantinos. Terrain and troops are all Scott's. He made the balloons too.

  4. Chris - really was an epic game and having “side commanders” was really extra fun! Thanks for hosting!

    1. And huge thanks back to you, Scott! It was a fantastic weekend all round. I took a bunch of photos of the other games too, and will write those up as well when I get a chance.

  5. Good looking game! Might give the scenario a look but really can't go larger than 4 X 6, Manhattan real estate being what it is.

    1. Oh, what a pity! Maybe you will have to do a remote game with someone more blessed with space.


Comments welcome!