War of the States, War of the Empires
A Comparison of Battles in Europe and America of the 1860s
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
August 2017

Sociologists and historians have known for over a century that war is contagious. Social upheavals, technological change and economic shifts often result in multiple conflicts. So it was in the period 1859-1871, when the American Civil War took place as well as wars between France and Austria, Austria and Denmark, Prussia and Austria and finally Prussia and France. Plus the Poles rose against the Tsar in a bloody revolt, and Garibaldi overthrew the King of Naples and tried to knock off the pope. The pope’s army also fought the Royal Italian Army in an ill-fated crusade.

Though these wars took place at the same time and used the same weapons for the most part, there are some key differences. We’ll take a look at the Civil War and the European battlefields in this piece, and how those differences translate into game terms.

The Bayonets of 1859

Though only five years passed between the last battle of the Crimean War and the outbreak of war in 1859 between France and Piedmont on one side and Austria on the other, this conflict usually marks the start of the 1860s cycle of violence. The Minie rifle had become the standard infantry weapon, and the French now introduced rifled artillery as well. Battles could now be fought at greater range, with weapons capable of inflicting even greater damage.

The war had two major battles, at Magenta and at Solferino. Solferino’s carnage famously caused Henri Dunant to found the International Red Cross to care for wounded soldiers. But the actual flow of the battle had a profound effect on other observers as well.

“The Zouave” by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

When the United States split into warring factions two years later, many troops (mostly Northern, but some Southern as well) marched off to the front uniformed as Zouaves. These colorful French regiments, formed from French colonists in Algeria, wore baggy pants, bright shirts and tousled caps. And fought very well; though it looks clownish today the Zouave uniform signalled toughness and spirit to the young men of the time. Southern units soon received gray uniforms modelled on those of the Zouaves’ toughest opponents, Austria’s sharpshooting jäger battalions.

On the battlefield, the French achieved success with mass bayonet charges. Austrian troops, having little practice with their new Lorenz .57-caliber rifled muskets, failed to adjust for the curved arc of fire of their new weapon and the French soon entered a “safe zone” as they drew near the Austrian lines. But very few noticed the ballistic problem at the time; instead, the Austrian army adopted the dreaded stosstaktik of massed charges.

The Confederate side attracted the bulk of the pre-war U.S. Army’s professional officer corps. These men brought with them the latest thinking of the day: the same conclusion drawn by the Austrians, that the bayonet charge would overwhelm firepower. And Confederate armies paid the price, just as the Austrians would. Historian Grady McWhiney’s bizarre proposition that Southern troops charged due to their Celtic heritage is demonstrably false; they did it because their generals believed it would work.

In our games, the Confederate and Union troops are not distinguished by special rules. In both Gettysburg and Chickamauga & Chattanooga, designer Dave Powell neatly took care of the Southern penchant for the offensive in the victory conditions. The Confederate player must attack in order to win the game.

In Battles of 1866: Frontier Battles, when troops execute a frontal assault they can attempt to close with the bayonet, which prevents the defender from retreating to reduce casualties and increases losses for both sides (a valid tactic when the attacker has a greater numerical edge). But the defenders get to fire first against a frontal assault, which can be devastating. The frontal assault is actually a very useful tactic when deployed judiciously; unfortunately for the Austrian player, some of his corps commanders are not so judicious and may attempt to launch bayonet charges whether the player wants them to or not.

Elite or Not

From the beginning, the series rules first provided in Gettysburg for War of the States/War of the Empires were intended to serve games set on both continents. In retrospect that was probably an error in judgement; we knew even then that it would be a couple of years at best before a game set in Europe would appear even had Gettysburg been a runaway success.

This caused confusion among some players, as the rules mention elite units yet there are no elite units in Chickamauga & Chattanooga and by the time Battles of 1866: Frontier Battles was released, there were none in that game either, despite the presence of the Prussian Guard and Austria's light cavalry. At this scale, there's just no need for additional elitism beyond that already conveyed by the game's morale system.

That reflects an element of historical game design I strive for whenever possible, but all too rarely achieve: to make the underlying game system yield historically valid results without scads of special rules. In this case, the morale ratings of elite units, interacting with processes like the Cold Steel and light cavalry rules, make the units elite without any additional rules for their eliteness.

Another measure of a unit's combat value is the number of steps with which it is represented. For the most part, a European brigade has more steps than a similarly-sized American division. A Prussian or Austrian brigade losing a step will usually see its combat strength reduced by just one factor, while a Union or Confederate division might lose two or three combat factors per step. That’s not a comment on American bravery but rather on the personnel systems that made Prussian, Austrian and Italian divisions more cohesive than American ones.

European armies contained a much greater proportion of long-service regulars, and the two societies handled replacements in very different fashion as well. The American armies often recruited entirely new regiments, while allowing the old ones to run down. This deprived new soldiers of the experience of old hands, but did provide new colonelcies for the politically connected. European armies by this time usually recruited their troops from geographic districts, and each regiment usually had a “replacement” battalion at its home station which fed new men into the field battalions as they suffered losses. This gave greater unit cohesion and allowed regiments to pass on experience. It also meant that every unit should have a cadre of tough, older non-commissioned officers.

Order Battles of 1866: Frontier Battles right here.

Order Chickamauga & Chattanooga right here.

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.