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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Miniature Wargaming and Teaching Civil War History

I have played with toy soldiers since I was 5 years old. Whether I knocked them down with rubber bands or blew them up in forts with firecrackers, I played daily. When HO scale soldiers came out by Airfix, I played with them also but in a different way. My brother and I drew our own game boards, built our own terrain and we reenacted Civil War battles by creating our own set of rules.

I still wargame, but not with the real small figures. I use the 54mm (1/32 or 1/35 scale) figures. I got back into the hobby while teaching U.S. history in high school. Always fascinated by Civil War tactics, I decided to use toy soldiers to illustrate how to use linear tactics to fight battles in the era of muzzle loaded weapons and direct fire artillery.

At first, my students balked at the idea of playing with “army men,” but once it caught on, they loved it. They had to construct their own infantry regiments, and artillery batteries. If infantry, they had to determine whether they were armed with smoothbores or rifles. The idea was not to necessarily recreate the exact historical event, but to teach them how so many variables could affect the outcome of a battle. They had to determine their unit’s morale, figure out how much ammunition they took into a fight, learn very basic formations, maneuvers, and commands and then decide how best to deal with them in the heat of combat.
Besides accidentally learning tactics, they inadvertently learned something about themselves. Very often, they had to write after-action reports to explain what occurred during the engagement. Many accusations of cowardice, and negligence on the part of other commanders showed up in the reports, as well as some “fudging” of the facts on the part of their own units. 

Luckily, because I taught a Civil War course, I got away with using class time to game and teach. My administrators viewed the chaos and the noise as highly motivating yet when I tried to create a wargame club for after school activities, I had to call it an historical simulation because “war” seemed too belligerent. Go figure.

Because of the time required to play a game, I had to develop a system where the game could be picked up and stored. At one point, our librarian allowed me to cover the board with a sheet so we could leave it set up. It was best when I had my own classroom, where I could keep an eye on it. I had my own room for about 20 years but then had to float from room to room because I did not teach a state tested subject, which produced different challenges.

More often than not, we used masking tape to mark troop positions on the board when we picked up. The unpainted figures went into bags with the students names on them. The labeled board was leaned against the wall in the back of the room. Despite all of those hurdles, some of my fondest memories of teaching evolved around the games.

I quickly learned a great deal about my students. I had rules lawyers, who argued about every little thing, which they did not like. Fairness freaks complained about the effects of canister upon massed troops as unfair. The cheaters replaced lost pieces upon the field when my back was turned. Self-appointed generals quickly organized their commanders into teams. The bored students issued commands without looking at the field, which led to incidents of “friendly fire.” The sports enthusiasts did not handle defeat very well. Others “took care of” obnoxious officers by allowing them to hold untenable positions and be wiped out.

Others behaved rather badly. One student ate a cavalryman. Thank goodness, he was a plastic one. A Confederate color bearer disappeared from the board never to return. A few pieces ended up being crushed under foot. An aggravated student kicked the table and cried. At times, conducting a game seemed comparable to watching visitors at the zoo, standing outside of the monkey cage, trying to get the simians to behave more like monkeys. Overall, I enjoyed the experience as much as the students, but it took time to develop and time to analyze what had happened and correlate it to actual Civil War incidents.

They and I observed that no plan survived the first shot, that once the combat gets going, it draws units into a vortex, which all too often ignores the initial objective. I have seen some particularly goal oriented students allow their team mates get embroiled in the fighting as a diversion, while they sidestepped the action, unnoticed, and did what they had been directed to do. 

If you would like to hear more about how to orchestrate gaming, either for yourselves or for your students, please, leave a comment on the blog site and I will address your questions in another blog.


  1. Hello,

    I am a first year teacher, and would love any information, materials, or guides that you had to share. I teach a single section of US History, as well as three sections of Modern World History, and would love to try this with my students. During my student teaching last year I utilized wargaming lite to show the Schlieffen Plan, and it was a huge success.

    1. You can reach me at