Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Battle of Valcour Island, October 11th 1776

My visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History back in August, in particular the exhibit on the gunboat Philadelphia, gave me a little bit of an obsession, and I was determined to mount a game of Valcour Island as close to the 243rd anniversary as I could.

Why? Well, it's a pretty fascinating campaign and battle. After the American retreat from Quebec in the spring of 1776, both sides knew the British forces in Canada would be attempting to move south to link up with their forces in lower NY state, and that Lake Champlain would be the vital highway for the move. After all, there were little in the way of actual roads in the wilderness up there, and the lake is 120 miles of open water. The Americans seized or destroyed any vessels on the lake they could get their hands on to deny them to the British, and both sides undertook a rapid construction program to build up their naval forces. It was essential for the Americans to contest the lake and buy as much time as they could before the British could join their forces together. Both sides worked tirelessly through the summer months, and by October 9th the British were ready to begin their move down the lake.

Benedict Arnold had been given overall command of the American forces on the lake, and had several problems on his hands. His forces were undermanned, they were largely inexperienced, and they were significantly outgunned by their opponents. To attempt to fight the British on the open water in a battle of movement seemed to him to exacerbate all of his disadvantages, and so he determined on a strategy to try to offset his weaknesses. He would anchor most of his vessels in the narrow strait between the shore of the lake and Valcour Island, where the British would not see them as they sailed south, with the wind directly behind them. Then, when a significant portion of the British forces had passed well below the island, Arnold would move down to the southern tip of the island with a few of his vessels to make his presence known. He anticipated that the British would move to attack him right away, but that many of their armed vessels would have difficulty working their way back up wind to get into the fight - as indeed they did in the actual event, when the two sides met on October 11th, 1776. So Arnold gets his wish, and doesn't have to fight the full British force all at the same time. And the battle makes for an interesting, asymmetrical engagement and a challenging tactical situation. I won't go into the historical progress of the battle here, but instead just focus on the game we played.

I chose the rule set Flying Colors: Serpents of the Seas for the battle. A hex and counter game from GMT, it's the best system I know of for fighting large actions in a few hours, and is simple enough for beginners to learn the basics relatively quickly. The vessels at Valcour Island are all pretty small, but in this scenario there are 34 of them, and so any system with more detail would have added many hours to the game.

I made a few modifications to the rules, trying to improve some of the historical details. For example: the scenario set up has Arnold onboard the Royal Savage, but sources I read indicate that he had transferred his command to the galley Trumbull before the battle. This is also good for the American player, as Trumbull is further away from the British gunboats, and is a more survivable vessel for him. I also forbade any ship from using full sails. I felt otherwise the larger British ships would be in action much too soon, which historically was not what happened. And if the British won the initiative while at full sail and moved first, the British gunboats would be in among the fleeing American vessels instantly. And I tweaked the firing arcs of the gunboats. The game gives them a huge penalty for firing straight ahead, which is bizarre given that a 1 gun gunboat mounts its only gun in the bow. I also tweaked the bonus ships get for firing while at anchor, as it seems illogical to me. Ships at anchor bob around more, not less, without the relatively consistent force of the wind pushing on their sails. As a compromise, I gave them a +1 rather than a +2 as the rules prescribe.

It took me a while to build up my collection of little gunboats, and in fact most of them were not really finished at the time of the game. I'll post detailed photos of the models as I complete them fully.  They're a mixture of 1:1200 models from Langton and GHQ. Meanwhile, the construction of the terrain ate up a fair amount of time. Rather than purchase a pre made terrain mat with hexes, I chose to make my own tiles, so that I could scale the hexes exactly as I wanted, to make transport easier, and to give me a lot of flexibility. (I was also hoping it would be a little cheaper, but that was a bit naive...)

The water tiles are graphics taken from a digital map file, printed on 8.5 x 11 card stock, hand laminated with adhesive sheets, and trimmed on the sides so that they interlock. They are attached together with masking tape on the seams on the back. The island and shore and shallows sections are made of the same materials, trimmed to the proper contours. The land pieces were hit with green spray paint, and then covered with lichen to represent foliage.

In the photo below, the shore of the lake is along the left edge of the map, and there in the center is Valcour Island itself. The lighter blue hexes on the left by the land represent shallow water.

The American gunboats and other vessels are anchored in a line across the channel between the shore and the island, except for the three galleys, Trumbull (which Benedict Arnold is using as his flagship), Congress and Washington, and the schooner Royal Savage. In this view, the latter have already come about to flee from the line of approaching British gunboats, which are trying to surge forward and overwhelm them. On the far right side of the image, just barely visible, is the base of the British schooner Carleton, commanded by Lt. James Dacres. It has just entered the map, and will be followed over the next couple turns by the schooner Maria (flagship of Captain Thomas Pringle, who is commanding the British naval forces in the battle) and the sloop of war Inflexible.

Here is a closer look at the American line. In the first line are 6 gunboats, and the single masted sloop Lee, closest to the camera, in the shallows. Behind are two more gunboats, the small schooner Revenge, and the single masted sloop Enterprise, in the shallows. She is acting as a hospital ship, and in this scenario is not allowed to move until fired on.

A closer view of the American galleys and Royal Savage fleeing before the advance of the British gunboats.

Here you can see the gunboats have been pursuing the American vessels for several turns. A few gunboats have struck their colors already after suffering damage, but Royal Savage has been hit a number of times, and is in danger of striking as well. On the right, Carleton, Maria and Inflexible have moved up behind the gunboats.

The anchored American vessels are remaining in position, waiting for the British to come to them, as per Arnold's plan. 

Here, the British gunboats have pressed further forward, though four of them are out of commission. Royal Savage has struck its colors, and has suffered so many hits to its hull that it is awash, in danger of sinking. The three American galleys have nearly reached the line of anchored vessels, while the British schooners and sloop of war are moving up by the island.

The following three images are different views of the same moment in the game. 

Having reached the line of American gunboats, the American galleys, rather than pass through to try to find a safer spot, tack and pass in front of the line. As they do so, the British gunboats swarm up at close range. At the right of the picture, the British schooner Carleton trades fire with the American gunboats, and suffers significant damage. Before long she will strike her colors. Just south of her, the schooner Maria moves up to get into the fight, while Inflexible lags behind.

HMS Carleton has struck its colors, but HMS Maria has gotten into the action, and the galley Washington has struck as well. Congress and Trumbull are in bad shape. The yellow chits mark vessels that are in danger of striking, and that includes several more American vessels.

We were running short of time at this point, and it was decided to call the game. With the Maria getting into the fight, the Inflexible moving up in pristine condition, and most of the American vessels in a bad way, the British declared victory. Benedict Arnold has been captured, and while Carleton still will most likely not be able to link up with British forces further south in NY, it being so late in the season, we can only speculate what the loss of Arnold will mean for the battle of Saratoga and the cause of the Revolution.