Death Valley: Rearguard Action at Winchester, Virginia, May 25th, 1862

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The 1st Battle of Winchester

Spring, 1862, brought the southern Confederacy a succession of defeats in the west and retreats in the east.  Richmond’s only glimmer of hope came from the Shenandoah Valley, where at great cost Stonewall Jackson drove back elements of John C. Fremont’s Army of West Virginia at the Battle of McDowell in early May.  As dubious as that “victory” was, however, it sowed the seeds of a dramatic reversal of fortunes.

Despite Fremont’s setback, the forces assigned to the Union’s Department of the Shenandoah under Nathaniel Banks seemed more than ample to contain Jackson, and Washington transferred half of them to the Rappahannock to reinforce the Army of the Potomac’s drive on Richmond.  Meanwhile, however, Richard Ewell’s division reinforced Jackson, and Richmond now ordered Stonewall’s combined force to conduct a diversion aimed at pinning the remaining northern troops in the valley and if possible compelling Washington to return the forces it had recently sent eastward.  For once, the Confederates enjoyed a significant numerical superiority.

On May 23rd Jackson routed a Union detachment at Front Royal, outflanking Banks’ main force at Strasburg.  With his line of communication threatened, Banks headed northeast toward Winchester the next day, despite being encumbered with a sizeable wagon train.  Jackson had an opportunity to deal his opponent an annihilating blow, but due to faulty reconnaissance ended up marching the legs off most of his men without inflicting significant damage.  Banks made it to Winchester, and some of Jackson’s pursuing troops didn’t halt until 3 AM on the 25th.

Nevertheless, the southerners pushed on at 4 AM.  With Banks determined to shield his wagon trains, fighting erupted south and southwest of town about an hour later.  Jackson’s numbers, however, allowed him to concentrate an overwhelming force opposite the Union’s right wing, and by 9 AM the Yankee line was irretrievably broken.  Following its wagon train, Banks’s force skedaddled through Winchester and did not stop until crossing the Potomac River.

Banks’ defeat prompted Lincoln to heavily reinforce the effort to end Stonewall’s mischief-making.  The showdown in the Shenandoah would come two weeks later at the Battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic, but Lincoln’s decision had fateful repercussions elsewhere.  The reinforcements were taken from the concentration against Richmond, leaving the Army of the Potomac’s commander, George McClellan, convinced the enemy defending the capital outnumbered him.  He proceeded with crippling caution, setting the stage for the Seven Days Battles.


1st Winchester, an overwhelming Confederate victory, is one of the battles depicted in the Death Valley package.  It pits Jackson’s two crack divisions against Alpheus Williams’ lone Yankee division.  Williams commanded good troops, and his superior, Nathaniel Banks, did not lack for bravery although being a “political” general.  Our goal is to balance the game despite the lopsided historical outcome.

As Banks’ job is to protect his wagon trains, he gains a victory point for each un-collapsed infantry or cavalry unit in play at the end of the game, as well as a VP for each battery still in action.  Banks faces heavy odds, but Jackson doesn’t hold all the trump cards.  Short sleep will compromise even crack troops, and so it is here.  Jackson’s three brigades and Richard Taylor’s Louisiana brigade (detached from Dick Ewell’s division) start the game at Fatigue 0.  Ewell’s other brigade under Trimble marched far less the day before, and “Old Bald Head” let it sack in an hour later than Jackson’s troops.  Thus, Trimble’s regiments begin the game with no Fatigue, as do all Union forces.  The game starts at 0400 before full daylight, with Jackson attempting to finish the previous day’s business.  Banks awaits him, as prepared as he can be under the circumstances.

In this particular test the US benefited from the AM draws and was able to send a cavalry regiment far forward, blocking the Valley Pike and thus forcing Stonewall’s men to deploy prematurely.  The US troopers pulled out before any harm befell them.

During the 0500 turn both Jackson’s division and Trimble’s brigade deployed north of Abrams Creek, while the opposing artillery harassed each other and any other targets of opportunity.

By 0600 both Jackson and Trimble were ready to assault the Union lines.  Jackson’s division was content with a firefight at 2-hex range while awaiting Taylor’s Louisianans.  Trimble’s smoothbore-armed troops did not have that luxury, but his men were able to frighten off the cavalry covering the Union left flank and ended up turning Donnelly’s brigade out of its position.

The early morning fighting to this point had cost each side 7 infantry SP. Both sides took advantage of the many stone walls at the edges of farmers’ fields as well as those along the Valley Pike. The Stonewall Brigade managed to put a Union gun crew out of action, giving the Rebs the only victory point awarded thus far.

The 0700 turn began with complications for both sides, namely, Fog, which forms at elevations lower than 800 feet, cutting command ranges by half for any leader in an affected hex.  This caught both sides unawares (my playtesting “duh”), putting most formations out of command. As an added complication Banks pulled a “1” Efficiency for the turn, while Jackson drew a “2”.  Thus, both sides suffered, but Jackson was probably going to suffer less.

I thought Banks would never survive, despite his “1” efficiency rating (which gives Williams’ division an extra activation).  Jackson, too, is rated “1”, and Ewell’s +1 activation rating was bound to add to Union woes.  Banks had won Initiative, however, and sought to buy time by falling back a little and letting the fog shroud his weakened left. Unfortunately, his right wing was on ground high enough to be bathed in morning sunlight, and here Taylor’s “Wharf Rats” together with Jackson’s Virginians were just hitting their stride.  By the end of the turn, however, Banks was still holding on.

Banks won the initiative for 0800 (another Fog turn), and both he and Jackson drew “4” Efficiency chits.  Accumulated Union losses and poor rally rolls paved the way for a nightmarish hour, just as the same hour proved Banks’ undoing that morning in 1862.  By the end of the turn a Reb victory was pretty much sewn up.  Gordon’s brigade had nearly ceased to exist, and Donnelly’s occupied a dangerously exposed salient.

There was only one chance for Banks, I reasoned, and that lay in holing up in Winchester itself. Besides, I wanted to try out the rules for fighting in town, which exact heavy penalties for such unruly behavior. While the attacking side will bear the brunt of those penalties, they can cut both ways, and so they did here.

Not only that, but the Rebs would gain an automatic victory if they took hex 2501 — basically the center of town, about where the courthouse is (it’s a wonderful pedestrian mall these days).  2501 is only two hexes away from the west edge of Winchester, and Banks thus took a dire risk in adopting this strategem, something he’d do only if in extremis.

Reb advantages in numbers and morale helped ensure their victory despite some very tough fighting in town. I’m obviously biased, I suppose, but I enjoyed the effects of the town-combat rules, which helped produce the kind of upsets that make GBACW as unpredictable as the battles it depicts.

Banks lasted longer than in any previous test, which suggests the design is on the right track. Based on these results it has been adjusted so as to slow Jackson’s juggernaut a little more and give the boys in blue a better chance to make a game out of it.  Not only that, but the in-town fighting which occurred in my test could not be less historical.  Thus, the scenario’s next iteration does away with the automatic Reb victory VP hex in the center of town and prescribes stiffer consequences for troops who insist on settling their differences in public .  Testing continues…


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