Woods Fighting in the American Civil War

By Paul D Stevenson

Black Powder has many innovative concepts and is a great game, especially for multiple players. However, one of the problems folks find with Black Powder American Civil War games is the requirement to go into skirmish order to negotiate woods. This is obviously a rules mechanic to depict disruption but in practice, where large bodies of figures are moving through large tracts of model woods you have models all over the place.

If commanders actually did this with a whole brigade then it would be just about impossible to maintain any sort of control and direction. The fact was that formations would readily move through woods redressing ranks as they went, trying to maintain some order to a fighting line; progress would be slower of course. Skirmishers were vastly important in providing advance warning of the approach of the enemy.

Skirmish lines were often reinforced with troops from the main line when contact was imminent. One of the contributory factors for the phenomena of short range musketry, as reported by modern Civil War battle and weapon analysts such as Bilby, Griffith, Hess and Nosworthy, was because fighting was conducted in such close terrain. Even in more open country woodlots were utilised to provide defence cover and as a means of approach for attackers preferring not to cross the “deadly space”.

General N.H. Harris, who commanded a brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia in 1864 had this to say about methods used in woods fighting:

“… the line of battle was greatly aided in maintaining the direction by the fire of the skirmishers, and frequently the line would be formed with a flank resting on a trail or woods road, ravine or watercourse, the flank regiment in such cases acting as a guide. In advancing through thick woods the skirmish line was almost invariably strengthened, and while the ‘line of battle’ covered by the skirmishers, advanced in two-deep line, bodies in the rear usually marched in columns of fours, prepared to come, by a ‘forward into line,’ to the point where their assistance might be desired. I never saw the compass used in woods fighting.”

The following text comes from a Union soldier. His skirmish line was so unwieldy that it was recalled and the unit reformed in the woods:

“At last General Logan saw that the main column could not march unless our long skirmish line could be got out of its way, and he ordered the skirmishers to be brought in. Two companies were then deployed as skirmishers next to the road and the rest of the regiment was made to march in line of battle behind them, ready to support them if need be. We all knew perfectly well that it was only a scare, for we had sifted the country for Rebs as one might sift the dirt for diamonds. However, we could do nothing but grumble, as we pushed on through that terrible undergrowth, until after noon.”

First Lieutenant Henry O. Dwight, 20th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry

How can we make this work in Black Powder? Well here are some of my suggestions:

Issuing Orders To Troops in Heavy Woods

Orders must be issued one at a time to individual units not in any type of column. Columns within 3″ of one another or following one another, including in tandem may move on a brigade order.

Woods Disorientation Rule

Any troops in heavy woods (or high standing corn fields) that fail an order on 10 or more can be moved up to 3″ in any direction by your opponent. The unit’s formation cannot be changed. Other figures cannot be displaced.

Movement In Woods

Movement Through Heavy Woods: Field and horse artillery movement is 3″; all other movement is 6″. Apart from mixed formations, loose order units, skirmishers and commanders, movement is restricted to one move only.

Movement Through Light Woods: Count woods as Rough Ground and follow the rules given in Black Powder.

Visibility in Woods

Visibility into and through Light Woods (and high cornfields) is 12”; in or through Heavy Woods it is 6”. Units within 1″ of the edge of cover can shoot out across open terrain to their full range and still claim cover. Units within visibility limits still count as Unclear targets except when charging.

If you haven’t tried the Black Powder for American Civil War why not order your copy now and give it a go along with Paul’s additional rules above.

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