One of the coolest things you can do, if you’re really into a game and have taken the time to get really good at it, is convince one of your friends to buy it. That way, you can take out all your passive-aggression but stomping them into the mud and making them feel like incompetent poltroons, all under the guise of a friendly game! Fighting game fans have known this for years, of course, but this week I tested whether it’s as satisfying in a tactical wargame.
Ultimate General: Gettysburg was my weapon of choice to humble my fellow PCGamesN strategist, Fraser Brown. My increasingly-rhapsodic articles about the game sold Fraser on the idea of a multiplayer session, but would he fall for my other traps? Could I use my experience and Fraser’s lack preparation to give the Confederate Army the flawless First Day victory that eluded them at Gettysburg?
Fraser and I are going to be playing the defense of Seminary Ridge. From a wargaming perspective, it’s a rare case where history provides a perfect scenario setup.
The Union has a great defensive position, but they don’t have much to defend it with at the start. The Confederates have the manpower advantage for much of the battle, but Union reinforcements will pour onto the battlefield and moot that advantage if the rebels don’t move fast enough. On the other hand, if the Confederates overextend themselves, those fresh Yankee troops will roll them up like a carpet. It’s a difficult balance to strike.
Historically, the Union won this phase of the battle pretty decisively, and bought a lot of time for the rest of the Union army to reach Gettysburg and seize the key heights south of town. Those heights are where Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia shattered itself on the following two days of the battle.
The first minutes of the battle proceeds like clockwork. There’s very little for Fraser or me to do. He can’t hold the first position, McPherson’s Ridge, with the cavalry skirmishers and lone artillery battle at his disposal. Not against two rebel brigades under Archer and Davis.
It’s the next step where things get tricky for a Confederate General. To win an epic victory here, I need to own two key locations: Oak Ridge, to the north of the road into Gettysburg. To the south, there’s the Lutheran Seminary, which enjoys a better field of fire and a lot of cover. Trying to grab them both at once is a great way to end up with nothing. The two objectives are too far apart. Units committed against one objective can’t help units trying to storm the other.
Union reinforcements are already taking the field, but I also have fresh troops arriving on the field to bolster Archer and Davis. Brockenborough’s brigade of over a thousand men arrives in the west along with Pettigrew’s massive 2500-man force. They’re not a moment too soon: Archer’s brigade is down to 800 men and is going toe-to-toe with two of the best brigades in the Union Army: the legendary Iron Brigade and Cutler’s Brigade. Archer has the advantage of cover in a light forest, but he’s still getting cut to ribbons and my attack to the south is in danger of getting pushed back.
On the other hand, Davis’ brigade has managed to push onto Oak Ridge, a position from which it will be very difficult to evict him, thanks to the tree cover and high ground.
Fraser asks a question
As we play, Fraser brings me up short when he asks me how I feel about playing the Confederates. He’s curious how Americans regard this army that fought on behalf of slavery.
A few years ago, I think I would have been less ambivalent. Like a lot of Americans, I’ve been exposed to a lot of forms of the Lost Cause myth. Much of America still regards the Confederates’ greatest soldiers as national heroes, and the conflict is often regarded as being about slavery, first and foremost, but also about a lot of other issues. State’s rights, the growing economic and cultural divide between the North and South.
It’s a way to dodge the truth of what all those brave, honorable men in gray were actually killing and dying for. Hell, we need to preserve the lie of the Lost Cause so badly that we have a show like Firefly recast the Civil War as being about plucky, rugged individualists and freedom fighters resisting the hegemony of the centralized, industrial state. The spirit of the Lost Cause is allowed to live on, devoid of historical context.
Wargames are similarly divorced from their context. It’s easy to view the Confederates as sympathetic protagonists when they’re fighting a superior opponent and struggling to overcome the challenges of terrain, technology, and numbers. Meanwhile, slavery is off-screen. Not a part of the model.
Wargames promote this kind of mindset. They can’t address things like war crimes or racial oppression because they’re so focused on process. But when you look at the historical record, which is consistently damning for the Confederacy and its champions, it’s hard to maintain that distance between the war and its causes. The Confederate army was full of good and courageous soldiers and some truly brilliant commanders. They were fighting for one of the worst causes in history, and killed hundreds of thousands of their fellow Americans rather than accept a peaceful end to slavery. That should not be forgotten, even as we dive further into the fascination of warfare and the fun of wargaming.