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H.G. Wells developed rules for a wargame using toy soldiers and published his classic book entitled Little Wars in 1913. To celebrate the 1913-2013 centennial I have created a series of illustrated Session Reports. The scenario for this week is the battle fought at Bladensburg near Washington D.C. during the War of 1812.






The disaster at Bladensburg on August 24, 1814 was one of the most humiliating defeats in the American military history. After dispersing the formations attempting to block their advance the British pushed forward to burn Washington D.C. and send the entire United States government into a frantic skedaddle.

A fleet of British warships transporting approximately 5000 soldiers and marines had been rampaging along the shores of Chesapeake Bay while putting a stranglehold on American navigation. Released from duty in Europe after the fall of Napoleon, the British force was intended to divert American attention from the battles being fought near the frontier with Canada. The objectives of the British commander were limited because these soldiers were earmarked for the planned winter campaign against New Orleans. It was important to keep British losses to a minimum while inflicting maximum damage on the United States.

The reaction to these maneuvers by the United States government was confused and ineffective. President Madison faced opposition to the war by his political opponents. American commanders were inexperienced and squabbled over questions of rank and responsibility. Even the best of the American troops defending Washington were poorly organized and inadequately equipped. The military doctrine of the United States which placed a heavy emphasis on militia and the theory that a free citizen fighting to defend his home was a match for a paid professional soldier serving a foreign potentate was about to be tested.






Exhausted after being marched back and forth in obedience to nonsensical orders issued by the befuddled American high command, the United States formations were deployed to defend the crossings along the eastern branch of the Potomac River (known as the Anacostia River today) near the town of Bladensburg. The sketchy battle plan involved blocking two roads which might be used by the British invaders. There was a direct approach to Washington or an alternative route which offered the British an opportunity of a flank march on the American capital though Georgetown. Of the approximately 5000 troops available to the U.S. commander all but a small fraction were inexperienced Regular Army recruits or untrained militia.

The defenders were deployed in three lines which were too far apart to provide effective support. The first position was a poorly designed earthwork occupied by a battery of artillery manned by militia (gray miniatures) with an inadequate supply of ammunition. The formation of riflemen placed nearby (kneeling figures) was thrown together from several militia companies. These men fired with some effectiveness but since many of the inexperienced militiamen lacked bayonets they had no hope of standing against a British assault.

The black miniature on the gray horse represents President James Madison. Taking his responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief under the Constitution literally, the diminutive Madison had armed himself with a pair of enormous dueling pistols and headed for the front with his cabinet officials. His presence merely added to the chaos, so the Madison figure provides no benefit to the American player... but he must be withdrawn at a cost in leadership points as the fighting escalates.

The president's entourage was another millstone around the army's neck. Armstrong was the abrasive Secretary of War who had previously guessed wrong about a British advance on Baltimore. When his military advice was ignored as the British pushed forward Armstrong relinquished all control of events to the generals. Monroe was the Secretary of State with no command authority but that didn't prevent this veteran of the Revolutionary War from interfering on the battlefield. Monroe issued a bizarre series of orders to battalions and companies, throwing the American defenses into greater confusion. Winder was the United States general in command at Bladensburg, appointed due to his family connections and political reliability. This uninspiring officer had failed to use the limited force at his disposal effectively. Worn out from attempting to direct the army without a proper staff organization, Winder suffered from fatigue and a sense of impending doom.

The second line consisted of militia battalions (gray miniatures holding muskets) haphazardly distributed in positions which offered few advantages for defense. Only the "dandy" 5th Maryland Regiment had any military potential. The other formations in the second line contained men assembled ("drafted" was the term used in those days) from different militia organizations. These militia units lacked proper equipment for an active campaign (a number of soldiers had no flints for their muskets) and were dressed in a motley assortment of uniforms. Many of the men wore civilian clothes and one British observer said the Americans looked like spectators watching the invaders approach. In view of the performance of the militia at Bladensburg, that might have been an accurate appraisal.






The third defensive line consisted of Regulars ostensibly supported by militia formations. A battalion of Regular Army infantry (blue miniatures) was hastily assembled from parts of several regiments. The only other unit on the battlefield with the ability to fight effectively was the superb provisional battalion of United States Marines and sailors from the U.S. Navy's flotilla, all led by the heroic Commodore Barney. The quality of these fighting men was equal to the British regulars, so Barney's detachment enjoys the same combat advantages. The naval artillery unit is also rated highly. Barney had been ordered up from Washington after being forced to destroy his ships in the Chesapeake Bay during a raid by the British fleet. The men were tired and footsore from marching in recently issued footwear but they were eager to confront the Redcoats.

The weak militia formations in the third line were exhausted from their long approach to the battlefield in smothering August heat. One battalion from Virginia arrived just as the firing began. Militia from Pennsylvania never joined the campaign after a bureaucratic blunder. Green militiamen kept the army in a constant state of insomnia with nightly alarms caused by imaginary British patrols near camp. There was at least one incident involving a nervous militia sentry who killed two of his comrades in a nocturnal fusillade. American troops were tired, hungry, and beginning to question the competence of their officers.






The 4000 men in the British column were organized into three infantry brigades. The First Brigade (also known as the Light Brigade) included the elite 85th Regiment from the army known as "Wellington's Invincibles" on the peninsula. Also assigned to this brigade were the light infantry companies from the other regiments and a detachment of Royal Marines. This ad-hoc formation is represented by a smaller number of miniatures. The Second Brigade included the line infantry companies of the 1/4 Regiment and the 1/44 Regiment. These formations do not have the maneuver advantages of the light infantry and move at a slower pace. The Third Brigade included the 21st Regiment and a provisional battalion of Royal Marines.

The army commander was the intrepid General Ross, depicted on a black horse as his troops ford the river north of the bridge. Ross had earned the respect of his men in Spain and Portugal. He was quite reckless at Bladensburg and committed his light infantry to the battle before the other two brigades were ready for action. Admiral Cockburn accompanied the column and this aggressive naval officer had convinced Ross to ignore an order from the fleet admiral to halt the advance on Washington and return to the coast. Cockburn's evaluation of the American army is worth a quote:

"I know their force. The militia, however great their numbers, will not -- cannot -- stand against your disciplined troops. It is too late -- we ought not to have advanced -- but there is no choice left to us. We must go on."

Ross agreed to exceed the original instructions. It is interesting to observe that the basic doctrine of the American militia system was nearly confirmed by the British high command. According to United States planners a swarm of citizen soldiers backed up by a small cadre of professionals would deter an invasion by an enemy. This almost happened in 1814, and after the burning of Washington even the bold Admiral Cockburn was eager to withdraw because American militia threatened to gather along the evacuation route.






There was a shortage of horses and transportation. British commanders were forced to detail 200 sailors to haul supplies and drag the artillery forward. Logistical challenges had reduced the British options to a quick raid... what the grumpy Secretary of War Armstrong had predicted would be "a mere Cossack hurrah" followed by a rapid retreat. General Ross compensated for his lack of artillery with a Royal Marine detachment armed with Congreve rockets. These noisy weapons proved to be highly effective against the jittery American militia, so I absolutely had to include these miniatures in this scenario.






The command rules for this scenario use an "average dice" with values of 2-3-3-4-4-5 to determine the number of leadership points available. The versatile "average dice" is a piece of equipment which belongs in the toolbox of every board game designer. Command points are used to move or shoot. General Ross can also issue a direct order to any British formation on the board. In this photograph he is activating the 21st Regiment from the Third Brigade. The flag token indicates that the formation is in reserve status after a desperate forced march and requires special orders. British troops suffered in the brutal August heat and the weather caused nearly as many deaths as American muskets.






This simple template is used to determine which miniatures belong in a "formation" for the purposes of the command rules. Any figures under the template may considered in a specific formation when an order to move or shoot is issued. The same template is used to determine which miniatures will participate in a melee during a close assault.






This photograph shows the Royal Marine battalion in their distinctive uniforms. As part of the Third Brigade which has just arrived at Bladensburg this formation is also in reserve status. Removal of the flag token to activate the unit will cost the British player a victory point.






The militia artillery retreats after the American riflemen on the left flank have been dispersed by a British assault. A regiment of militia has moved forward to cover this withdrawal. During the battle the 5th Maryland executed a similar maneuver and briefly interrupted the relentless British advance. One American sailor accused the militia of running like sheep while a militia colonel commanding one U.S. regiment said this is in his official report:

"We were outflanked and defeated in as short a time as such an operation could well be performed."






The retreating militia artillery has taken a position on a nearby hill. The mounted figures are a unit of United States dragoons. Each miniature in this scenario represents approximately 50 soldiers (but 75 men in the less effective militia formations) but I was being charitable when I assigned five figures to this detachment. A player may fire one shell for every five soldiers in a formation (but it requires eight figures to launch one projectile in a militia infantry formation) so I gave the dragoons the benefit of the doubt.

These cavalrymen had recently completed an entirely inadequate training program at Carlisle Barracks and were mounted on horses purchased just a few days before the battle. General Winder failed to take advantage of the fact that the British column included no cavalry and whatever potential the dragoons had in 1814 was squandered. These horsemen played little part in the battle and were engulfed in the retreat.






In this scenario a figure is eliminated if the miniature is actually hit or knocked over by a projectile. However, the militia formations at Bladensburg were frequently disrupted by the impact of Congreve rockets. The traditional Little Wars shrapnel template is used when a rocket attack is targeted against militia infantry. Any figure under the template is eliminated.

The stream in the background represents the ravine in front of the American third line of defense. It is easily fordable but a crossing will slow down the advancing British troops. The rough terrain with trees and rocks is considered to be impassable.






British troops have swept over the first American line. In an incredible display of intestinal fortitude the U.S. commander has ordered the dragoons forward to support the militia. Losses among the gray militia figures result in the gradual demoralization of the entire militia force but lost Regular Army miniatures count against the American victory point total.






General Ross orders another battalion to move forward. As in the actual battle, the British commander has attempted to stampede the American army with a quick thrust against the militia. While those militia formations have disintegrated the U.S. commander shows no sign of panic.






The limited supply of U.S. command points has been impacted by the need to withdraw the President Madison figure. Since the president must always be "escorted" by an American unit the Regular infantry battalion has moved forward to perform that mission.






British troops advance to melee with the Americans. I normally use a modification of the 2-1 rule originally formatted by H.G. Wells but in this scenario the best result the American commander can hope for is a retreat after inflicting a few losses on the British. A simple coin toss (a method much beloved by H.G. Wells, I might add) determines if the American unit will be vaporized or simply retreat. It should be noted that tough American formations like Commodore Barney's detachment will stand and fight toe-to-toe with the Redcoats.

British officer losses were heavy in 1814 as unit commanders led from the firing line. One soldier recognized the opportunity for battlefield promotions with a bit of macabre humor, remarking that by the end of the day he would either be a walking Major or a dead Captain. In this scenario the General Ross figure can be eliminated... he was killed in action later at a battle near Baltimore later in 1814.






Since the British commander has ample firepower available a heavy volley of plastic projectiles is launched in the direction of the Americans. One rocket hits the wagon carrying the reserve ammunition supply for Commodore Barney and his Marine/Navy detachment. Boom! During the fighting in 1814 the civilian drivers responsible for this ammunition panicked and fled the battlefield, leaving Barney with a limited supply. The result in this scenario is identical, with the capability of the U.S. artillery reduced by 50 percent.






The remaining American forces defending the Washington road are consolidated on the ridges. On the opposite flank the 21st Regiment has broken the American militia defending the Georgetown road. The beleaguered American commander faces a cruel dilemma: deploying in a compact mass to prepare for an expected British close assault will be helpful in a melee but leaves the U.S. formations vulnerable to British fire.

After rolling a lucky "5" on the command die the British player decides to delay the close assault and deliver another volley instead. American losses were heavy. With the valuable miniatures under Commodore Barney cut to pieces the U.S. admits defeat. If the American player could inflict heavy losses and a serious delay on the British column a "victory" can be secured even if the demoralized militia has been largely destroyed.

Just one of the many strange episodes of this campaign: on this land battlefield a severely wounded Commodore Barney of the U.S. Navy was taken prisoner by a British admiral. Barney was treated with great respect by the British because they admired his gallant conduct.



Thanks for taking a few minutes to read this lengthy article. I enjoyed the research almost as much as playing with my army men.



Three books I could recommend:

The Dawn's Early Light by Walter Lord

Amateurs To Arms by John Elting

The Burning of Washington by Anthony Pitch



A special "Thank you!" goes out to...

Sim Guy
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...who generously provided many of the miniatures used in this Session Report.
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mark feldman
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Great A.A.R. Pete!! The British at the Gates by Robin Reilly is another good book on the war
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Thanks for the positive comments and the book recommendation!
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Marc Nelson Jr.
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Luckily, the Baltimoreans were made of sterner stuff...



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Barton Campbell
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Why are these posts coming up on the Children's Games page and not Wargames?
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Good question.

Didn't know that was going on...
 
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"L'├ętat, c'est moi."
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bartman347 wrote:
Why are these posts coming up on the Children's Games page and not Wargames?

Little Wars is listed in the introduction to the rules as being "A Game for Boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys' games and books." (it's worth noting it was originally written a century ago, so we can be somewhat forgiving of Mr. Wells quip about girls).

Last time I checked 12 year olds were children, so it's not entirely inappropriate that it appears there.

That said, games appear in the subdomains where people vote them in. Little Wars has 7 category votes - 4 for wargame, 3 for children's games. The threshold is around 30% to be listed in any particular subdomain and by that reckoning can show up in three different categories.

It's definitely showing up in the wargames section!

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Thanks for the information.

So... how do I "vote" for a category?
 
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In the game info section, where it says subdomain, you can "vote" for which subdomain you believe it belongs.
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