RECAP: Battle of Old Church, May 1864

This past Saturday, Don M, Beth M, Luke F, Feyd-Rautha and I attended the Big Muddy Historical Gaming Association’s monthly game day at Miniature Market on Manchester. It was my first visit there – absolutely splendid facility – and we replayed the Battle of Old Church, an American Civil War battle that took place in May of 1864. From the wiki:

The Battle of Old Church, also known as Matadequin Creek, was fought on May 30, 1864, as part of Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant‘s Overland Campaign against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War.

As the opposing armies faced each other across Totopotomoy Creek, a Union cavalry division under Brig. Gen. Alfred T. A. Torbert collided with a cavalry brigade under Brig. Gen. Matthew C. Butler at Matadequin Creek, near the Old Church crossroads. After sharp dismounted fighting, the outnumbered Confederates were driven back to within 1.5 miles (2.4 km) of Old Cold Harbor, which preceded the Union capture of that important crossroads the following day.

Dave Harrison from BMHGA was the game runner, and from the start it was clear that the Confederates were at a disadvantage. Union forces were dug in at the corner of Old Church Road (not sure if that was its actual name, but that’s what we Rebs called it), plus sharpshooters in house on both sides, PLUS regiments in cover behind stone walls. Overall the effect was that of a classic L-shaped ambush, and we Confederates decided not to follow historical precedent and march right up the road, but instead (a) get our forces onto the board and off the road as soon as possible, while (b) curving left to try to advance quickly, take the weaker Union left flank, then sweep toward the crossroads and avoid the obvious trap.

Start: several Union regiments are visible in protected positions overlooking the road; the Confederates are bottled up in the foreground marching north.
Sections of the 3rd, 5th and 6th Alabama, plus the 23rd Alabama Sharpshooters, cautiously move up Old Church Road.
The Alabamian forces move forward and left, screening the movements of the 32nd, 45th and 53rd North Carolina, plus another battalion of sharpshooters, this time the 2nd North Carolina. “Get off the road! make way, make way!” was the rallying call here.

A few distant shots rang out, but initially the Confederate plan was working, and the rebel forces were pouring onto the road and clearing the way for their colleagues behind. In the meantime, the Alabama vanguard and supporting North Carolina forces made their way across the farm fields toward the Union flank.

5th, 6th and 23rd Alabama move toward the dug in 2nd Maryland; while 3rd Alabama holds in reserve to exploit the prospective breach and end-around the stone walls. The North Carolina forces spread out on the left side of the road, 2nd NC Sharps in front screening the deployment.
From the Union angle, the Confederate maneuvers kept several units out of the fray, but several other Union regiments began moving up to support the Marylanders and several Massachusetts regiments.
Union forces dug in at the crossroads. These units expected to be the bulwark of the defense, and a battery of 4-lbers were here as well.
The 2nd NC were ordered to suppress the cannon so that the rest of the Confederate forces could move across the open fields.

Once they’d gotten to effective range, the Alabamians began delivering a withering fire against the 2nd Maryland. But the wall held.

Both sides sent volley after volley at each other. Massachusetts regiments moved into the open gap to repel the 45ht North Carolina.
The Confederates were in for a long slog: several Union regiments moved into position behind the walls, providing a defense in depth that the rebs had little luck pushing back.
At this point the Confederate plan was still valid; lots of reel regiments were lining up to dislodge the Union regiments on the left flank. Despite the Union reinforcements, Confederate morale was high.
The 2nd NC sharpshooters pour fire onto the battery, reducing its effectiveness. But there was a lot of Union reinforcements moving into the crossroads area. What the North Carolingians were also unaware of was the capabilities of the Union sharpshooters, under cover in a farmhouse just to the right of the NC position.
Now formed in a long firing line across the enter left flank, the Confederates put stage two of their plan into action: destroy the Union left and move into the protected areas behind the walls.
The problem: Union support, moving in force to bolster the Maryland and Massachusetts regiments. Even without cannon, the Union numerical advantage was enormous.
The 2nd Maryland. Undoubtedly the MVPs of this fight, the Marylanders held the wall and stopped the Confederate advance, all under vicious fire.
Finally forced to abandon the wall (which was not much more than a speedbump at this point), the 2nd Maryland retreated. Casualties were extreme BUT rather than leave the field and allow their reinforcements to shoulder the task of pushing back the Confederates, 2 Maryland moved right to shut down the flanking maneuver of the 12th Georgia regiment.

In the end, the Confederate tactics failed due to a combination of two things: first, the sheer volume o Union troops in the area, as well as the speed with which they were able to deploy; and second: the 2nd Maryland, which nearly singlehandedly stopped the Confederate forces from taking the Union left flank like they wanted.

End game: significant Confederate losses, unprotected rebel positions, most of the North Carolina contingent wiped from the field. The Union forces were clustered at strong points, controlled the road, and still had sharpshooters in strategic positions.

Victory: UNION. It was a helluva fight but the Confederates were doomed pretty much from the start. History had not been kind to the Confederates, either:

Skirmishers from Butler’s brigade easily pushed the squadron of Pennsylvanians back to Matadequin Creek. Devin sent in two more squadrons from the 17th Pennsylvania and Maj. Coe Durland led them in a charge that restored the original Union picket line position. Assuming that he faced only a token force, Devin provided no more reinforcements. However, at 3 p.m., an attack by Butler’s main force overwhelmed the Union pickets, who fought a vigorous delaying action to prevent the South Carolinians from crossing over the creek. Devin deployed two additional regiments on either side of the Pennsylvanians—the 6th New York to the right and the 9th New York to the left. Butler deployed the 4th South Carolina to the west of the road, facing the 6th New York, and the 5th South Carolina to the east, facing the 9th New York. He left the 7th South Carolina in reserve.[4]

As Torbert surveyed the scene, he realized that three regiments would be insufficient to resist the Confederate brigade, so he ordered the rest of his division to move up. Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt‘s reserve brigade was the first to arrive, and his 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment replaced the 17th Pennsylvania, which had run low on ammunition, in the center of the line. On the right end of the Union line, the 6th New York and the 2nd U.S. pushed back the 4th South Carolina, which was soon reinforced by the Charleston Light Dragoons. The Confederates built breastworks out of logs from Liggan’s farm. On the left end, the 9th New York met heavy resistance from the 5th South Carolina, which was protected by the 40-foot banks of the Matadequin. Merritt attempted to outflank the Confederate position with the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, commanded by Capt. Charles L. Leiper. Although they managed to cross the creek to the left of the 9th New York, they were stopped in heavy hand-to-hand combat with the South Carolinians and Leiper was severely wounded.[5]

The stalemate was broken by the arrival of the Michigan Brigade under Brig. Gen. George A. Custer. He deployed his 5th Michigan on the right of Bottoms Bridge Road, the 1st and 7th Michigan on the left, and the 6th Michigan in reserve. Their attack flanked the Confederates on both ends of the line. As Butler’s men fled to the rear, his reserve regiment, the 7th South Carolina, counterattacked in an attempt to maintain the line. The superior Union numbers and firepower—the Michiganders were armed with Spencer repeating rifles and Torbert had deployed horse artillery, a weapon that Butler did not have available—carried the day. Although almost all the fighting in the battle was dismounted, Col. Frank A. Haskell and Maj. Edward M. Boykin (cousin of the famous Confederate diarist, Mary Chesnut) led the 7th on horseback, and both were severely wounded during the charge. The 20th Georgia Battalion arrived at the end of the battle and were almost swamped by their colleagues racing away on horseback. The Union troopers pursued the retreating Confederates with enthusiasm. Butler eventually rallied his men at Old Cold Harbor and Torbert’s men bivouacked about 1.5 miles northeast of the intersection.[6]

Big Muddy holds game days the first Saturday of each month at Miniature Market, but their November day is one of their biggest of the year. I encourage you to try it out!