Games vs. History: The First Battle of Bull Run in War Games

By Jack Trumbull 27 Nov 2018 0

The First Battle of Bull Run (or First Battle of Manassas if you feel like whistling Dixie) was the first major battle of the American Civil War, and the beginning of Americans’ introduction to a post-Napoleonic way of fighting war. Bull Run is not a widely covered battle as it was not as decisive as an Antietam or Gettysburg but has a fair following in game-makers due to the irregular nature of the battle.

Both the Confederates and the Union had updated weapon systems, but neither side had updated their combat doctrine to reflect the new realities of rifled muskets and heavier cannon. Even worse, the leadership on both sides was largely inexperienced, with only a few men having served in the Mexican-American War 13 years earlier. What resulted from this was an unnecessarily indecisive bloodbath that would set the tone for the war but would make an excellent scenario for a wargame 150 years later.

Bull Run 1

The Battle 

The Union General McDowell set out into Virginia to capture Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. In what he believed what would be a simple campaign, he marched for Manassas, a city in northern Virginia, to capture the rail junction that would both deny access to his rear by Confederate reinforcements and allow quick access to Richmond to end the war. P.G.T. Beauregard, McDowell’s Confederate counterpart, knew the Manassas rail junction was a key strategic point at this early stage of the war, and moved skirmishers to harass and delay McDowell’s army as the Union forces moved their way into northern Virginia from Washington. The slow advance of McDowell allowed Confederate forces in the southwestern part of Virginia time to arrive by rail, giving the Confederates equal numbers to the approaching Union army.

On the morning of July 21st, 1861, McDowell deployed a small force of skirmishers to harass and pin down Confederates at the Stone Bridge, a small bridge a few miles from Manassas. The rest of his forces set out on a long, flanking march to an undefended ford through heavily wooded terrain. The Union were unable to remove the Confederates from their position after exchanging fire with them for hours and were reluctant to perform a frontal assault due to rumors that the bridge had been mined. The steep banks of the creek forced attackers to use the narrow bridge if they hoped to cross. However, the main goal of the Union was not to simply capture the bridge, but to capture Manassas and its valuable rail junction.

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After several hours of exchanging fire over the Stone Bridge, the Confederates began to realize that the attackers were merely a distraction and began to deploy their forces in a defensive formation on Matthews Hill, about a mile west of the Stone Bridge, just as the long Union column began to appear. The march over the rough ground took much longer than anticipated, and McDowell, who expected little resistance behind the bulk of the Confederate forces, found surprisingly robust defenses in his way. McDowell’s brigades assaulted and eventually overran Confederate positions on Matthews Hill, but rather than chasing down and continuing the rout of the smaller enemy force, McDowell ordered a two-hour rest at the hill, allowing the Confederate forces to regroup and gain reinforcements on Henry Hill, the neighboring hill that further blocked the advance into Manassas.

This pause is likely what sealed the defeat of the Union forces. Bill Bozo, a tour guide at the battlefield, said that there is no documented reason for why McDowell gave up the chase, but suggested that due to poor intelligence, he was unaware of the Confederate reinforcements arriving by rail. McDowell attempted to force the Confederates off Henry Hill with his superior number of cannon but was forced to attempt a frontal assault. Several unguarded Union batteries were caught by Confederate infantry as they made their way up the hill, and the Union forces were fed a brigade at a time into the Confederate defense. After several hours of attacks, McDowell’s forces began to rout in small numbers, which triggered a panicked mass retreat of his forces. Union soldiers straggled into Washington into the late hours of the night, and many fled service entirely. However, the Confederate forces were exhausted, and unable to follow up on their victory.

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I took a look at two games for their depiction of the battle, Ultimate General: Civil War and HexWar Games’ Civil War: 1861. Both games feature the First Battle of Bull Run as part of a larger campaign, showing some attention paid to the context of the battle. Generally, the Union player is tasked with seizing Henry Hill, and the Confederate player’s mission is to defend it without unreasonable losses. Some games, like Civil War: 1861, show the battle on a grander scale, and the Confederate player is tasked with seizing Centreville, a town several miles behind the Union line.

The Stone Bridge proves to be as much of a hindrance for the Union in wargames as it was to McDowell. In Ultimate General: Civil War for example, the Confederate forces have a reinforced position, supplemented with light cannon, to help delay the attacking Union force. Generally, assaulting the Confederate position is highly costly, and not worth the effort. The Union player is instead encouraged to wait for the flanking forces to seize Matthews Hill and drive to Henry Hill, the final objective. The Confederate player will always be outnumbered at the beginning of the battle and will have to make use of the superior defensive positions at the many fords and hills that cover the battlefield.

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Ultimate General plays into the delaying nature of the battle by revealing the southern portions of the map as time goes on, forcing the Confederate player to hold onto what they have, and preventing the Union player from advancing too far, too quickly (perhaps simulating the tentative nature of McDowell’s thrust?). Even so, the Union player must push as quickly as possible to Henry Hill to arrive before the sizable reinforcements do.

The AI of Ultimate General is much more responsive and opportunistic than either Beauregard or McDowell were, frequently offering ahistorical cavalry flanking rushes at artillery that was thought to be safe behind a wall of infantry and attempting to cut off either side of the enemy force before arriving at Henry Hill. Cover and concealment, two large factors of the Confederate victory, are simulated here as well. Wheat fields provide a safe route for cavalry to harass the enemy’s back lines, and small wooded areas allow a unit of 2,000 to safely take on an enemy force several times their number, if for a short while. Ultimate General also does a decent job portraying the retreat of the Union forces, with units occasionally fully retreating from the field, completely shattered, rather than falling back and regrouping.

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Similarly, the AI opponent in Civil War: 1861 is a much more formidable opponent than either Beauregard or McDowell were. I have lost nearly every round of the battle I’ve fought due to the Confederates charging up an eastern road and capturing Centreville before I had time to react. This is wholly ahistorical, as both the Union and the Confederacy failed to properly communicate with their whole armies about the goings of the battle. Roughly 18,000 men on each side did not participate in the fighting, and there was no real push for Centreville until the main Union forces had already begun pulling back. At the same time, the Union is tasked with capturing the far side of Bull Run from Centreville, a mission that was not given to these eastern forces. The difficulty from Civil War: 1861 is less about the fight for Henry Hill, and more about drawing away forces to fight over the eastern fords.

The First Battle of Bull Run is many things, but a mess of a battle first and foremost. Between the many, many instances of friendly fire from the lack of a standard uniform for either side to the lack of communication between allied forces, the battle resembled more of an armed brawl than an organized conflict. Such a battle is difficult to recreate, especially when the players are aware of the final outcome, or of the reinforcements that will show up at a certain time. I was unfortunately unable to try a board game version of Bull Run to fight another human player who was aware of the battle, but Avalon Hill’s Bull Run deserves special mention for its interesting suggestion of morale: the player forfeiting simulates the sudden rout of the Union (or Confederate) army. Happily, there are many solid options, both physical and digital, for a wargamer to try their hand at this mosh pit of a battle.



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