The Queen’s Gambit, Civil War Style: In the opening of the 1862 battle of Antietam, Union General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was outnumbered almost 2 to 1 by the Confederates, but the rebels were fiercely defending their position on the Antietam creek. Facing the Union’s superior numbers, the Confederates were forced to abandon their supply depots and artillery pieces during the night of September 17, 1862; Union troops seized the abandoned artillery and turned it against the Confederate troops. The Union troops, with their artillery, then attacked the Confederates’ left flank on September 18, 1862, which was strategically unprepared for this kind of attack. Because of this, the Confederates were forced to retreat south of

The Queen’s Gambit is a classic chess opening, but its history reflects the many crises that have plagued the U.S. since the Civil War. It was developed by a purported Confederate spy named James McClellan, who was hanged for his betrayal. His gambit was to open the game with a move that would immediately put his king at risk, sacrificing material for tempo. Although McClellan’s gambit was unsuccessful, it was adopted and used by the Confederates in that very same period.

Jealousy, suspicion, and mistrust are common themes in the American Civil War. They aren’t the things you’d expect to see in a war that ended with the surrender of the South. But when you consider the fact that over a million men died, and the Union and Confederate armies were so close to each other that they were neighbors in the trenches, you have to wonder what happened.

Oh, for God’s sake.” Greg Gordon is surveying the terrain ahead of him near Charlottesville, Va., the ground mainly level with a few rocky hills and groves of trees presenting daunting obstacles. He knows the adversary is hiding behind those woods. Gordon isn’t happy with the hand destiny has handed him, so he must make smart decisions. In front of him, he places troops on horseback. Artillerymen are positioned and ready on his sides. It doesn’t matter if it’s chilly, gloomy, and raining outside. The troops will advance in a matter of seconds.

Shane McBee, on the other hand, is considering his own choices. “I don’t like that,” he adds as he considers the options. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” He thinks for a moment. Gordon moans as he finally makes his move—a unexpected one, a retreat. His attack strategy has been thrown off. He’ll have to reconsider everything now. Other guys mutter and groan in the distance, sometimes cheering. 

The backdrop for these contests is not a sprawling battlefield, but a DoubleTree Hotel about five miles from the University of Virginia campus, host to the annual Prezcon board gaming convention. Gordon and McBee are among dozens of players who have been playing in a tournament of the Civil War game Battle Cry, a popular tabletop game that hinges on both lucky die rolls and strategic maneuvers. The 2023 convention, held in late February before the pandemic closed down such things, drew hundreds of gamers for a week of tournaments. Hundreds of board games were in play, with several focused on the Civil War.

The Queen’s Gambit, Civil War Style Southern troops rush across the Battle Cry! gameboard, propelled by dice rolls and cunning game-player ability. (Melissa A. Winn photo)

Even in this digital age, board gaming appears to be on the rise, with well-known titles such as Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Clue flying off store shelves and filling online shopping carts. Board-based wargaming in particular, which became widely popular in the 1970s and ’80s, has also enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, according to game sellers and enthusiasts, with games such as Axis & Allies, Churchill, and 1775: Rebellion routinely topping rankings. Civil War games, including such titles as Lincoln, Fire and Fury, A House Divided, and Terrible Swift Sword among many others, have maintained a loyal fan base along with them.

The dedication is strong, as it is with many things connected to the Civil War. Gordon makes a choice at his Prezcon table. He declares, “I’m simply going to go for broke.” “Assault on the right flank!” yelled the commander. Let’s go, boys!”

The death toll is rising. The scene changes. The fight is on. 

Various types of board games have been around for thousands of years. Other ancient games such as pachisi (popularized in the United States as Parcheesi and Sorry!) and backgammon are still played today. An early version of chess dates from the 6th century in India, and other ancient games such as pachisi (popularized in the United States as Parcheesi and Sorry!) and backgammon are still played today. Soldiers had mastered checkers, chess, dominoes, and card games by the Civil War, and travel versions of these games were often packed inside haversacks with sewing kits, diaries, and photographs from home. “The soldiers, when not on fatigue duty, lounge about, smoking, playing euchre, cribbage, or chess,” according to an 1861 report of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans.

For an entrepreneur called Milton Bradley, the start of the war was particularly significant. Thousands of memorial pictures of then-presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln were produced by Bradley in 1860. Bradley’s pictures showed an unbearded Lincoln as he looked throughout the campaign, but after the freshly bewhiskered president was inaugurated, Bradley’s images became outdated. Bradley might have been doomed if he hadn’t channeled his frustration into a new board game he called The Checkered Game of Life, in which players experienced ups and downs based on the spins of a teetotum, a top-like spinner that was the precursor to the plastic version that the game of Life uses today. Rather of obtaining prominent positions and beautiful homes as in the current game, players in the original game had to choose between a “happy old life” or a slew of horrible consequences including prison, “intemperance to poverty,” and “gambling to ruin.” Bradley soon recognized that making the game portable for Civil War troops was a profitable tactic, and in 1866 he received a patent for it. 

The war inspired other games as well. The New York State Library has a copy of a Chutes and Ladders-type game dating to 1862 called The Game of Secession, or Sketches of the Rebellion. Based on a die roll or the spin of a teetotum, players moved along a fork-tongued serpent divided into 135 spaces, with Union victories allowing advancement and Confederate victories signaling a retreat. The playing board depicts generals, soldiers, and both Lincoln and his counterpoint Jefferson Davis, along with key army and navy scenes. Land on spot number 79, illustrating the virtuous “Mrs. Columbia” holding “little Jeff Davis,” and you’ll have to go back a demoralizing 44 spaces. But land on space 59 bearing the slogan “The Union: may it be preserved at any cost!” and you’ll get three extra throws. (The game’s publisher, Charlton & Althrop of Philadelphia, also became known for printing pictorial envelopes depicting Union soldiers on them.) 

The faces of 31 famous Union generals, including Ambrose Burnside, George McClellan, Benjamin Butler, and David Hunter (in a jaunty feathered hat), are featured on the light squares of a checkered gameboard held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which dates from 1862. The board might have been used by a soldier in camp, according to the Met, but “its craftsmanship and immaculate condition indicate it was made, marketed, and kept for patriotic usage at home.” In 2019, a bigger, 15 by 15 version of this gameboard sold for $3,500 at auction.

The Queen’s Gambit, Civil War Style Because he portrayed the president without a beard, Milton Bradley’s Lincoln picture, on the left, failed to win over the people. Bradley, on the other hand, took a risk on The Checkered Game of Life, a board game he created. That bet paid off handsomely, netting the entrepreneur a fortune and establishing a long-lasting brand identity. (Dallas’ Heritage Auctions)

Civil War games were and are intended to be played by the 20th century and into the 21st century, rather than simply for “patriotic usage at home.” With the publication of Tactics, the first title released by well-known gamemakers Avalon Hill, board wargames arguably entered the modern age. Avalon Hill (which still exists today in name but under new corporate management) released the game Gettysburg on the eve of the Civil War centennial in 1958, creating a generation of Civil War aficionados and gamers. David A. Powell, a Civil War novelist and former game designer who resides outside of Chicago, was one of them. Powell adds, “My father attempted to play Gettysburg once and he put it away.” “I discovered it in his closet and requested permission to take it. My collection currently stands at about 400 wargames.”

Gettysburg, designed by pioneering game designer Charles S. Roberts, set important precedents in that the game’s different units were modeled after the actual size of the units on the battlefield in July 1863, and they had to enter the gameboard via the same routes as their historical counterparts, dealing with whatever advantage or disadvantage this created. Because traveling down the diagonal in a square grid covered more distance than moving across the sides, the second version of the game included a hexagonal grid, which eliminated diagonal distortion in game play. Hexagons provide for equal mobility in all directions. Most modern wargames use either this technique, known as hex-and-counter, or blocks (which represent different kinds of troops) or cards.

“One of the things that interested me about wargames is they act as living maps,” Powell says. “When you read or write military history, everybody says, ‘I wish you had more maps.’ A wargame can provide you with a living map.”

Other successful companies followed Avalon Hill, including Game Designers Workshop (GDW), Simulation Publications Inc. (SPI), and Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), which exploded in the ’70s and ’80s on the strength of its roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons. In A House Divided, a GDW title first issued in 1981, the game is played on a mapboard of the 1860s United States, with boxes indicating a city, town, fort, or other military location. Rather than the simple “my roll, your roll” action of most board games, this game hinges on four actions per player turn: movement, combat, promotion, and recruitment. Restrictions exist, too: Only Union forces can move via the Potomac River, and the Confederacy doesn’t automatically win if D.C. is captured, but must meet other conditions, too. (And this is one of the simpler Civil War board games.) As S. Craig Taylor wrote in the book Hobby Games: The 100 Best, “It seems that some wargames are intended to be admired, and some wargames are intended to be played. A House Divided falls squarely into the latter category.”

The Queen’s Gambit, Civil War Style The bright visuals on an 1862 game that is equal parts pleasure and Union propaganda feature an American eagle eating the serpent of secession. If they land on a square commemorating a Federal win, they advance; if they land on a square commemorating a Confederate victory, they fall behind. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

According to Grant Dalgliesh, vice president of Columbia Games, a veteran gaming business established by his father Tom Dalgliesh, there are three kinds of wargamers: competitors, socializers, and dreamers. Grant explains, “The dreamer sees himself riding the horse.” “My publishing approach tends toward the first and second categories, but I don’t forego the elements that enable dreaming.”

Bobby Lee, Sam Grant, Gettysburg: Badges of Courage, Shenandoah: Jackson’s Valley Campaign, and Shiloh: April 1862 are among Columbia’s Civil War titles. The business, which was founded in 1972, is credited with inventing the hardwood block technique, which is now widely used in wargaming. Many gamers want the “fog of war” aspect, in which players must commit their troops without knowing precisely what their opponents’ assets and capabilities are. Blocks stand erect on the board, facing the player who owns them; a number on the top edge indicates the strength of the brigade or battalion. Blocks are rotated as they receive blows, displaying decreasing numbers until they’re entirely gone.

Civil War board game, like reenacting, enables history buffs to immerse themselves in the past for an extended period of time. “I’m drawn to what we term ‘monster’ games in the hobby—multiple maps, days, weeks, and months to play, and 50- to 100-page rule books,” says David Powell. “[Those games are] an attempt to make you feel the same way you do when you’re reading a Gettysburg book.”

The Queen’s Gambit, Civil War Style The faces of 31 Union leaders are included on this 1862 gaming board. To be sure, not all of them were capable strategists who could lead to triumph. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brian D. Caplan Collection)

It’s the conclusion of a long day of gaming at Prezcon. Greg Gordon seems to be tired yet happy. He’s also acted as the gamemaster for the Battle Cry competition, which means he’s spent hours keeping track of wins and losses, addressing queries, and keeping many games running well. On a lesser scale and with far lower stakes, similar to what a general commander would accomplish on the battlefield.

The competition has become more fierce as the number of players left has decreased. Gordon observes the crowds: players who have long ago misplaced their games; faithful, patient wives; and gamers who have drifted over from other parts of the conference, all waiting for the results. He describes the game as “extremely graphic.” “It enhances the whole experience.”

Something else keeps them there, too: that indescribable sensation of finding others who share your passion for your pastime, individuals who would pore through rulebooks and play for hours simply to claim a piece of history for themselves. They know they’ll have to pack up their troops and move on much too soon.

Kim O’Connell is a writer living in Arlington, Virginia, whose work has appeared in magazines such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Atlas Obscura, National Parks Traveler, and others.

In the 1860’s, the US Civil War was in full swing, and the North was gaining the upper hand in the war. The Union’s military commanders and political leaders had to make the best decision as to whether to split their forces by attacking both the South’s capital, Richmond and the South’s second city, Atlanta. The Union General in charge of the Richmond siege, Ulysses S. Grant, ordered an attack on the Confederate capital. The Confederacy was fully prepared, and the battle would go down in history as one of the war’s bloodiest. The Siege of Petersburg would last much longer than anyone expected, and the Confederacy’s losses were high, but the South still wasn’t ready to give up.. Read more about shows like queen’s gambit and let us know what you think.

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