The Battle of Pleasant Hill is the second closest ACW battle to my original hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana (whose capture was the original object of the entire 1864 Red River Campaign). The first closest battle was Mansfield, which was fought three miles further north of the Battle of Pleasant Hill, and the day before. I visited the Mansfield battlefield (um, gift shop) while in high school, (40 years ago!).
The Red River Campaign was offhandedly assigned to Major General Nathaniel Banks by Union General-in-Chief Henry "Old Brains" Halleck, when Banks was given command of the Department of the Gulf in late 1862. You know, "Clear out the lower Mississippi valley, take Mobile, and while you're at it, join up with the Navy and capture the rest of Louisiana and East Texas." Geographically, one of the tallest orders given to any theater commander on either side during the entire war. At that time, the Red River campaign had a legitimate purpose. Halleck envisioned a joint Army-Navy drive up the Red River into NW Louisiana with the intent of capturing Shreveport on the river, would disrupt the region's vast cotton production. And, open the way into east Texas, further denying beef to the east.
It took more than a year before the Red River Campaign was ready to go. By then, the captures of Vicksburg by Grant and Port Hudson by Banks, had sealed off the entire Mississippi River to the Confederates. And, the Union's blue water naval blockade had completed the isolation of the Confederate states west of the Mississippi. In other words, the Red River Campaign's strategic purpose was rendered moot. That does not diminish the value of the lives lost...where the Union Army went, slaves were emancipated.
The Spring 1864 drive up the Red River (and back again) was an epic hardship. Louisiana is densely forested, and the Red River is treacherous and shallow (and unnavigable to this day). The Navy's riverboats stalled about half-way to Shreveport, at Alexandria. Bank's army then separated from the river and set out overland. At Mansfield, 40 miles from his goal, his advanced elements were bushwhacked by Confederate Gen. Richard Taylor's full force. Bloodied and repulsed, Banks halted and regrouped 3 miles further south at Pleasant Hill. All the while, the Navy's riverboats were in dire danger of getting trapped by the falling river, in Confederate controlled territory. Loosing interest in Shreveport, Banks decided to fallback (retreat?) to the Red River to protect the fleet. That afternoon (the day after Mansfield) Banks began to send units back to Alexandria. This included the Union Army's first "colored regiments," the "Corps d' Afrique," composed of Louisiana freemen. It left for Alexandria just before the Confederate attack. So, the battle, and thus the game's countermix, just misses by a few hours including a most unique and historic brigade.
Why Banks was surprised by an attack that late afternoon is surprising. Just the day before, he had run afoul of Gen. Taylor's army. Perhaps, he figured the Confederates would have figured out he was now retreating, and the did not need to stop him. Anyway, the stage was set for an unnecessary battle, in a unnecessary campaign, in a theater that had become unnecessary to either side's war efforts. My kind of game. Oh, historic spoiler: Taylor lost the battle, but won the campaign.
An OOP S&T game, Pleasant Hill (PH) is easily and cheaply acquired. It's the last of the original GBACW series, before major rules changes with newer versions. So, old school alternating player turns. Before TCT impulses, or drawing command chits.
PH components are also old school (SPI/TSR). The counters are pleasant and uninspired (basically TSS-ish), but, they work fine. The map is also pleasant, uninspired, but functional. It does anything but remind me of dense Louisiana forests. It wont thrill, but it also wont disappoint. The rules from the magazine are laid out chaotically. They are not an insert, not easily removed from the magazine, not numbered sequentially, and exclusive rules are mixed with basic rules. To make things much easier on yourself, download the basic rules, or a grab a basic rules book from another game in that version of the series.
The exclusive rules are not just particular to the game, but include changes to the basic rules, which appear to be contemporary system updates. A short errata also solves a few puzzlers, like the proper setup location of an otherwise errant Union leader. No big deal.
In order to recreate the Union's surprise, and the Confederate's somewhat disorganized attack, there is a complicated brigade activation sequence. Until activated, units in a brigade can't move or fire (except defensive fire). Brigades on both sides are activated on specific turns, and/or randomly, and/or by enemy actions (and, for the Union, some activations come with concurrent Victory Point costs). And, activations have a significant impact on the game. Because, both sides are relatively evenly matched. Which is why this battle is even portrayed. It's not easy to get activations correct. Five turns into my first game, I realized I had made a fatal booboo, and had to restart. That's not too hard, set up is easy. Not too many counters, and all counters have their setup hexes printed on their backsides.
OK, y'all, I'm not a GBACW expert, and don't play one on YouTube. I'm only returning to this series after about a 3-decades absence. Take this into account as I now expound on game play. And, be gentle.
The Confederates are attacking an equivalent-sized Union army that is set up in decent terrain. If this were a straight up fight, the Federals should pretty much hold off the Rebels. Except, the Union was surprised and suffers for its somnambulist activations. The sides set up relatively distant from each other, and the bulk of the Union doesn't start to wake up until a few turns into the battle. Until Union brigades are activated, they cannot move or take Offensive Fire. Time and distance give the Confederate player a bit of latitude in approach options. He can go for an immediate full-frontal assault, or go for variations on degrees of flanking, depending on his maneuvering skills and his "press-your-luck" tolerance (vis-à-vis the Union random activations). Factor in that the Confederates must make hay while the sun shines. So, must inflict serious damage, or dislocate the Union force before the inevitable counterattack. Yes, this is one of those games where one side gets to beat up on the other early on. And, then comes the chance for the other side to return the favor (the game may already be decided by then, good or bad). Depends on how much damage the Confederates inflict, and at what costs to themselves.
It's not too hard get into the basic game system, but it has a ton of minor rules. Hint: pretty important modifications to morale rolls are well-embedded in the rules. And, the effects of terrain levels on combat have to be interpreted. And, a fair amount of record keeping is required.
Or, is it? About that...and just between us...after a game and a half, I kinda think you almost don't need no record keeping. Gasp!
Now, hear me out, here! Step losses count as Victory Points (the same for both sides). It's not a big game. After the game (if one side doesn't concede before the end), you could just count up points in the "dead" piles, and add to that the losses to units on the board. Or, just eyeball which dead pile is bigger. There are 7 VP hexes on the map that have more impact on VP's. Or, just look at the battlefield after the game. Did one side really beat up on the other? Did the Union get routed? Did the Rebels get repulsed? Did you have fun?
Yeah, BCE is in use, here. But it really doesn't come into effect, here. Not really. This game has the "newer than TSS" CRT that is less bloody. Neither side inflicts THAT much damage. By the time a brigade hits BCE, it's probably done for anyway (I've only seen one small brigade reach BCE, and it was completely wiped out in the process). I quit the second game three turns from the finish because the Confederates were spent, and about to get rolled up. Even at that, neither side had another brigade on the edge of BCE. If you must keep records, the Confederate regiments are smaller and disappear before reaching BCE. The Union brigades with larger regiments might reach BCE with enough SP's still left on the board for it to make a difference.
I've yet to see any artillery battery come close to running out of ammo, or any supply wagon come close to running out of re-supply. It's not a big battle, terrain is not favorable to artillery duels, and there is plenty of supply compared to the number of units. The hard part is getting artillery where it can fire, and supply wagons close to the action.
Yep, this series is meant to be detailed in pursuit of realism. For me, this smaller game could forgo a bit of detail for speed and ease of play I think a general "forgiveness" of record keeping would significantly speed up the game, without changing a thing. Again, not recommending a sweeping "Damn the details, full speed ahead!" approach to record keeping as a general GBACW series rule. Just say'n it about this particular game. Just for this battle.
Besides, it's already not a fast playing game (at least in my case). A couple or three turns into the battle (depending), about 2/3rds of both armies get into contact with each other across a broad front. So, lots of fighting (with not a lot of artillery ammunition expenditure), lots of adding up combat factors, lots of die rolling, lots of retreats and rallies. And, oh yes, lots of fun!
So far, both my experiences with PH are solitaire. My likelihood of finding an opponent is laughable. But, by birth, I have an inbred inborn affinity for the South, and for the first half of the game, this game is all about the Confederates. It would be more interesting if the Union-player half of my brain didn't know turns in advance what the Confederate-player half of my brain was planning. But, it plays solitaire quite well.
Like hominy grits with sunny-side up fried egs, Pleasant Hill is a pleasant edition in the GBACW series.
Having now read Shelby Foote's chapter on the Red River campaign (hey, it's TWO THOUSAND pages into the trilogy!), and remembering I did not get the magazine with the second hand game, I can elucidate a little more on the background behind the game. So, using two esteemed sources, Foote and Wikapedia...
The RR campaign was indeed the brainchild of General-in-Chief Henry "Old Brains" Halleck, and assigned to Maj. Gen. Banks shortly after he took over the Department of the Gulf. But, only after the Mississippi was cleared. Hence, the year-and-a-half delay. After the entire campaign had become superfluous to defeating the South. By then, Grant was promoted to Lt. Gen., but had not yet taken command of all Union forces. He could not stop the Red River Campaign, but had no affection for it.
Perversely, Lincoln wanted the campaign to go forward for the oddest reasoning. He feared that France's Napoleon III might use his current Mexico adventure to link up with the South, knowing the French Emperor sympathized with the Confederacy for economic reasons. Union forces in East Texas would provide a "blocker" to such a link up. Halleck duly passed along the President's desires in the form of orders to proceed. And, lent Banks two of Sherman's best divisions for the campaign. Never mind that Banks was being ordered to conquer territory the size of France.
Maj. Gen. Banks had reasons to get on with it, too. He was still riding high from capturing Port Hudson on the Mississippi. Capturing Shreveport and East Texas would be a boon to the former Massachusetts Governer's future political ambitions. Then, capturing Mobile could seal the deal for a run for the White House. And, there was an estimated $100,000,000 (not a typo) worth of precious cotton in the Red River valley. Enough to fund the entire war effort for two months. Oh, and put textile mills in his home state back to work (Banks was once a bobbin boy in a Massachusetts textile mill).
The only fly in the ointment was the size of a California condor. Grant. He thought the campaign a waste of time and effort, and he wanted those divisions returned to Sherman, to get on with that General's more important Atlanta campaign. So, Grant amended Banks orders. Get to Shreveport ASAP. And, if delayed for any reason, abandon the campaign, and return right away with his army to New Orleans. This had another unforeseen effect on the campaign. Originally, Banks would strike from the south of Shreveport, while a smaller Union force would come down from Little Rock in Arkansas to the north. Forcing Taylor to split his meager force. Instead, Banks moves out without coordination with the northern force. Which never really moves very far at all, anyway. Taylor could counter Banks with his whole army. As a side note, the Civil War on both sides was rife with great plans poorly executed. The General Staff work was typically abysmal.
Through a confluence of bad decisions, bad weather, and bad luck, Banks was indeed delayed. After the ambush at Mansfield, he decided to return home. That following morning, he sent his supply train back to Alexandria with the 1500 strong Corps d'Afrique as escort. Then, Banks changed his mind again (he really wanted that feather in his cap) and began to prepare to resume the march to Shreveport.
Meanwhile, that very day, impetuous Confederate Gen. Richard Taylor struck again at Banks army encamped at Pleasant Hill. In keeping with the theme of conflicting orders, Taylor was overstepping his orders from his superior Gen. Kirby Smith who desperately did NOT want Taylor to engage the enemy with his Trans-Mississippi Department's largest and most important military force. Dick Taylor's boys hurt Bank's boys, but did not win the field. Banks won the day, and then retreated, anyway. Taylor tried to strike again, but Smith robbed him of two divisions and sent them to fend off the Union force in Arkansas under Maj. Gen. Steele that was still kinda, sorta threatening to advance on Shreveport.
Imagine how the Civil War might have changed with only a Tweet here or a Text there.