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Game: American Legions Designer's notes

By Mike Joslyn

In all honesty, American Legions was not inspired by an American hero of the Revolution, but by a British officer that patriots considered one of the conflict's most scurrilous villains: Banastre Tarleton. I've been fascinated by Tarleton ever since I visited Carter's Grove plantation (just outside of Williamsburg, Virginia) as a child. While quartered there, claimed the tour guides, Tarleton rode his horse up and down the manor's teak stairway, hacking with his saber at the railing in anger at his rebel host's lack of hospitality. The flamboyant Tarleton was immediately emblazoned on my impressionable young mind. While gouges are still visible on Mr. Carter's banister, it turns out they were never made by Tarleton. No matter, Tarleton remains an intriguing character even without the charge up the steps.

While lacking Tarleton's social polish, his opponent at Cowpens, Daniel Morgan, is no less interesting, considering his rise from frontier brawler to brigadier general. In the final analysis, Morgan was an infinitely better tactician and leader of men, the lack of an Oxford education notwithstanding. Rawdon and Coates were less colorful than their colleague Tarleton, but both were better tacticians and leaders. Buford was neither. Meanwhile, the architect of the American victory in the Carolinas was actually a rather mediocre field commander, but made up for it by being a brilliant strategist. The genius and charisma of Robert E. Lee was certainly foreshadowed by his ancestor 'Light Horse Harry', and Francis Marion had both qualities in abundance. Of all the leaders present in this quad, the mercurial Sumter is the greatest paradox, brilliant at times, but more often wrecked by his own impulsiveness as at Quinby Bridge.

Leadership, after all, was what 18th century battles were all about. Few were decided by sheer firepower. Accounts by contemporary observers note that less than 2% of the muskets fired in a volley would actually hit anything. This is certainly borne out by the American casualties, 72 out of approximately 1,000 participants, despite a half-hour fire fight between the Continentals and British line at less than a hundred yards. Tarelton's losses were almost ten times that, and the vast majority of those were prisoners. That is why there are very few outright 'kills', and even results which render companies ineffective, do so only for awhile. Good leaders, or at least leaders that have sufficient standing with the regiment, will keep men in the field in the face of ever mounting reverses.

This brings up the role of the bayonet and the saber. Very simply, they were decisive, but only against troops who were already shaken by the exchange of musketry. The Shock Combat table intentionally rewards an opponent who is charging into the rear or flank of his disordered foe, preferably with cavalry. Also intentional is the fact that a melee between even numbers is more likely to hurt the attacker than the defender.

A minor point. The Maryland, Delaware and some Virginia troops have higher movement allowances because they were drilled by the ersatz-Baron Von Steuben to march at the faster European pace. Though many of the state troops who participated in these battles were veterans of the Continental army, they had been out for awhile; I estimated that their discipline would have slackened somewhat with time in the civilian world, so they march at the slower pace.

Waxhaws is the both the exception and the proof of the above. While actual casualties (as opposed to the bag of prisoners) were fairly light at the other three battles, the Americans suffered truly horrendous numbers of dead and wounded at Waxhaws, mainly because their leadership was bad. It is also one of the few battles won by cold steel alone. It is also notable because it established Tarleton's reputation in the colonies as a monster.

The sequence of play was designed specifically with the crucial moment at Cowpens in mind: the seeming retreat by Howard's Continentals and their sudden about-face to discharge muskets point blank into the onrushing British. In game terms, the British charged in their half of the turn, only to have the Americans (with Move & Fire orders) turn around and fire, causing the 7th Fusiliers and Legion infantry to rout at the end of the Mutual Fire Phase. The Americans charged in their half of the turn, finishing those two regiments.

Hobkirk's Hill is a good place to talk about the effect of terrain in the game system. Some might question why a woods that can block the line of sight does not affect combat or movement. The reality is that battles were seldom fought where the linear formations could not be brought into action. Most of the accounts of this battle remark that the approaches to the hill could not be seen from the top. This did not stop Greene from forming his men at the top and charging down, or Rawdon from seeing what was happening to him on both flanks once he and Greene were engaged. The conclusion I have drawn is that where woods had an effect, it affected both sides equally and the only real result was to cut down on the range at which combat was initiated. The same is true of hills. They barely rate as such: the slope of Hobkirk's for instance, rises less than a foot per yard.

Quinby Bridge is an interesting battle for a whole host of reasons, none of which have anything to do with archetypes of Revolutionary War combat; it is, quite frankly, both a freak and a universal example of command gone awry. The mutual hostility between the ranking commander, Sumter, and his subordinates, Marion and Lee, and their subsequent desertion, would have been an interesting development in any battle in any period, while the hesitation of Lee's cavalry at the bridge is a classic example of failure of initiative. Coates and his command should have been cut to pieces at the bridge. That he was not is solely a tribute to his ability and that of his subordinates. Which leads us once again back to leadership. Coates was playing with the infantry equivalent of the New York Mets. His regiment had only been 'in-country' two months, and still had a long way to go in learning the basics, like how to fire their muskets. That is why his unit is represented as one huge, unwieldy regiment rather than a more flexible 'brigade' with separate battalions. (Yes, technically it was all one regiment, but we are talking about tactical arrangements here, not administrative conve niences.) Not unexpectedly, they also have lousy morale. The one thing keeping them together is Coates, who, like all the leaders in the game except the army commanders represents the entire command structure of that regiment. A good individual leader is still important, however, and losing him will cause the command effectiveness to erode much more rapidly than loss of an average leader. In some cases, like Buford at Waxhaws, anybody else is probably an improvement, and so command effectiveness sometimes goes up when a really poor leader is killed.

The partisans are another anomaly peculiar to Quinby Bridge. Loyalty among partisans was not so much to the cause, as to the man who had recruited them. That is why their death affects their own troops, but does not particularly affect anyone else.

Though small by modern standards, the four battles represented had ramifications far beyond what their numbers suggest. The British attempt to subjugate the South was a shoe-string operation; at its height, less than 12,000 men were committed to conquer an area of 177,000 square miles: a little better than one man for every 1500 square miles. Without the help of the local population, the British were not so much conquering the South, as passing through. Losses like King's Mountain and Cowpens did more than just reduce the available British manpower, although that would have been serious enough, it dampened loyalist enthusiasm, and drove Cornwallis to desperate lunges in search of the decisive battle that would break rebel resistance and win the South for the Crown. On the other hand, victories like Hobkirk's Hill paradoxically hastened the British defeat, because they bled the British of combat power while leaving the territory surrounding the battlefield even less secure than before.

Issue 1: American Legions: The Battle of Cowpens

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