Saturday, March 1, 2014

Trent Affair Goes Hot: An Alt Civil War Thought Experiment

I’m not sure I quite understand this picture, but it sort of conveys my point.

The other day I posted a review of John Boyko’s book on Canada and the American Civil War, which might not have been super-interesting to all you non-Canadians out there, but then I got thinking about the wargaming angle.  What if the Trent Affair had gone hot instead of being diffused?  In November of 1861, Britain and the United States were having a diplomatic row over two Confederate diplomats detained by the US Navy while travelling to Britain on the Trent, a British civilian ship.  As Boyko tells the story, a British ultimatum came within days of expiring, until Lincoln decided that one war at a time was enough and reigned in his secretary of state, William Seward.  So what if things hadn’t played out so sensibly?

Let’s assume that cooler heads hadn’t prevailed over the Trent crisis.  Perhaps Seward persuaded Lincoln not to release Mason and Slidell, the Confederate diplomats, or that there was another incident at sea involving a US and British ship, or what have you.  For whatever reason, it’s January 1862, and Britain declares war on the United States in the second year of its civil war with the Confederacy.  What we then have, I think, is a very interesting wargaming scenario.  

Here’s a map of Canada at that era.



As Boyko tells the story, there were roughly 4500 British regular soldiers in Canada, divided between Nova Scotia (primarily in the port of Halifax), Quebec or Lower Canada (primarily along the St. Lawrence in Montreal and Quebec City) and some in Ontario (Upper Canada).   In December, as the Trent Affair heated up, the Governor General, Viscount Monck, had persuaded London to send an additional 11,000 regulars to Canada, although most of these are in Nova Scotia and some made it to Quebec.  Unfortunately they arrived in the middle of winter, the St. Lawrence river is frozen, and there are no railways between Atlantic Canada and Ontario, so those troops are stuck in the east until spring.   Otherwise, Canada has roughly 40,000 militia available for call up, though their training and weapons are not of the best.  Other than citadels at Halifax and Quebec Cities, permanent fortifications are few and quite primitive.

At the same time, the Union armies in the east are recovering from two beatings, one at 1st Manassas and a smaller one at Ball’s Bluff.  General McClellan will spend the winter rebuilding and reorganizing the Army of the Potomac and by spring it will the powerful force that, historically, marched on Richmond in the Penninsular campaign.  In Richmond, Joseph Johnston is preparing his army, the strength of which, via Pinkerton’s so-called spies, is being greatly exaggerated in Washington.  In the west, let’s assume that the US victory at Fort Donelson still happens in February, 1862, and that Grant is getting ready to face the Confederates under Albert Sidney Johnston.  Meanwhile, in shipyards north and south, the Monitor and Merrimac are being prepared.

With me so far?  So let’s assume it’s March 1862.  Those British 11,000 British troops in Canada will soon be able to deploy west from Nova Scotia if they want to.  Presumably the Royal Navy has been deploying to Canada’s eastern ports in some strength, as well as taking up station in the West Indies, to break the US blockade of the Confederate ports.  Going forward, how do we handicap the opposing forces?  

At sea, I think, we can assume that the British have naval superiority along the eastern seaboard, given their superiority in numbers and experience, but the US Navy is a tough, professional force, and it survived succession with its officer corps mostly intact, unlike the US Army, so the Yanks at sea will be a tough opponent.   For now the US has the biggest and strongest naval forces on the Great Lakes.  

On land, I suspect it’s a different story.  The British Army has recent combat experience from the Indian Mutiny and the Crimean War, but how many of those combat veterans are still in the ranks?  Would the British soldier be any more effective than his US counterpart?   One of the surprising things about Boyko’s book was that desertion of British troops was always a worry when they were garrisoned in Canada; British officers were always worried when their troops were posted too close to the US border.   While the US army is still largely an amateur force in 1862, it’s had the whole winter to train and prepare itself under McClellan.  It may have bad strategic leadership once the campaigning season starts (not that British generals in the Crimea were always great either), but man for man, they can probably give the redcoats a fight.  Also, I don’t know how large the British Army was in 1862, but I suspect the same problems of cost and logistics of sustaining a large overseas force, problems which doomed the British during the American Revolution, would apply in this war.

So where do we go from here?  I suppose it depends on what kind of wargaming we want to do.   On the tabletop, we will likely be fighting War of 1812 battles with different figures, which sounds like terrific fun.   A US Civil War collection will do fine, and we’re still early war enough that all those cool figures like the 14th Brooklyn from Forgotten and Glorious or Perry Zouaves could be used.  On the Canadian/British side, there are all sorts of figures that could be used, from Crimean War ranges through to British home service uniforms for the local militia as seen here.  Of course, there are also those 1860s British figures that the Perrys are currently working on. At the height of summer, I suspect one could use Mutiny figures for some British uniforms, I’m not sure.  Tabletop naval games would also be interesting - lots of tense actions off New York or Boston as the US tries to defend its seaboard, and the question of whether the Monitor would make a difference.  I suspect a lot of Union ironclads would be produced as fast as possible for coastal defence.

I would love to see a board game using an eastern subset of the map above and extending it as far south as the Confederacy.  One day I might try and design one, but I don’t think now’s the time.   Here are the questions I think a game of that sort would have to answer.

1) How much of the Union’s military strength could it afford to divert to fight the British, including such projects as a replay of the 1812 invasion of Upper Canada?   Shelby Foote once said that the Union fought the Civil War with one hand tied behind its back, but at the beginning of 1862, Lincoln was in near despair with his army and finances, and said the bottom was out of the tub.  It’s an interesting question.

2) Related to (1), how does a British intervention help the Confederate armies, particularly in the east?  Will Joe Johnston and his lieutenants, Lee and Jackson, be able to take Washington DC?  Will the US be able to leave the same troop levels in the west, so that a victory at Shiloh (the beginning of the end for the CSA in the West) is still possible?

3) How will the naval war play out?  Will it simply be a matter of the US blockade being broken, so the CSA has better chances of procuring European armaments and supplies for its armies?

4) What are the strategic and logistical factors?  The US has its industry gearing up, and has a well developed railway network to move troops all over the place.  The CSA and the British in Canada have neither of these things.  The US can stuff a lot of men into uniform, but British troops would probably be a much more limited resource.

4) What are the political factors?   Does the war end if the Anglo/CSA side takes Washington or would the US government be able to move around, as it did during the Revolution?   How do you model Britain’s appetite to sustain the war?  Would the British be casualty adverse?   How badly do things go at home, given that the US is Britain’s greatest market for food at the time?  Also, how does slavery work?  Would it make sense to give the US an opportunity, should they win a significant battle over the CSA, to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, thus making it a lot harder for London to justify a continued war on behalf of a slave state ally?  What are Britain’s strategic goals anyway - a punitive campaign, or regime change in Washington?

So what are your thoughts?  What do you think would happen if the Trent Affair went hot and caused a was as outlined above?  What happens when the campaigning season starts in March 1862?  How would you model it, either on the tabletop or as a board game?  I’d love to hear your opinions.






  1. Fascinating thought experiment. I just finished the first volume of Shelby Foot's trilogy in January so this is right on point. The South was desperate to get France and England to weigh in. My gut tells me that if the Trent Affair went hot, poor Lincoln would have been in poor straights trying to manage and marshal forces for the norther border and the seas.

    I'm curious to hear what people think of the Union soldiers going toe to toe with the Brits. That, I haven' t quite wrapped my head around. I think it would have been pretty close, with leadership deciding the day or encounter.

    1. Hi Monty:
      France would be an interesting wild card in this scenario as well. France made noises early on about intervening in the ACW, but I suspect that if the Trent Affair had caused a war, Napoleon III may have sat it out and let the English bear the costs alone, possibly while trying to grab Mexico.
      As for the British vs the Union, it does bear pondering. We assume that the British were super soldiers, but I suspect any Union soldier who had spent 61-62 learning his craft would have been a capable opponent.

  2. This really requires a much longer answer but a few brief comments

    A. The troops in Halifax were not all stck for the winter. Between Jan and Mar nearly 7,000 British regulars and 18 guns with all equipment passed overland along the military road (now the TC). 6 regt inc 2 battn of guards and 9 batteries worth of artillery, 2 co of engineers, instructors etc.

    2 Don't disregard militia I'd have to dig abit for numbers esp since NS and NB numbers are not included in Canadian numbers but something like 30,000 and bring essentially the same stuff as US volunteers.

    3. Re the picture it may reflect the split in BNA, volunteers went south in thousands and fought on both sides but most for the north.

    1. Thanks for the contribution Ross. The Canadian militia would be a factor, as they were in 1812. Considering that there were a few Union volunteer regiments as late as Antietam that went into battle essentially untrained, and innocent of the most basic tactics and evolutions, some militia might have outfought some US volunteer regiments.

  3. Re uniforms, Crimean would be no closer than Napoleonic . Mutiny figures in tunic would work, but apart from the Perrys new range RAFM' Riel Rebellion figures in pillbox are spot on and the NWMP would serve well as cavalry. If memory serves booted leggings were still official but knee boots becoming common and worn by the GGBG during the Fenian raids at least.

    Interestingly I have a photo of a NB militia company wearing peaked caps that look like kepis. Locally produced I would think.

    Also forgot, quite a few miles of RR in Upper and Lower Canada by then but it would take some digging for exact routes.

  4. 1862 by Robert Conroy deals with this exact situation.

    And if you want a laugh, Harry Harrison's Stars and Stripes trilogy gives it the "Hollywood" treatment.
    [ It's a book trilogy, but as ridiculous as most historical movies. ]

  5. Thanks, I'll have a look for Conroy and give HH a miss.
    Looks like this subject has been chewed on a lot:
    S.M. Stirling, who knows more about AltH than I do, weighs in on that thread and pretty much makes the case that the US would lose such a war quite badly, within a year, for purely economic reasons.

  6. A very interesting notion, Michael, and I think your canvassing of the likely issues is on the money. As it happens, this 'thought experiment' has been 'done' before, in Harry Harrison's series of novels on the matter (Yep: that Harry Harrison, of 'Stainless Steel Rat' fame). Now I very much enjoyed the Stainless Steel Rat stories, but this alternative Civil War I just could not get my head around. It led (in his novels) to world conquest by the USA.

    It began with the Mason and Slidell affair, in which the British government was about to send a stinging letter to the US. It seems that historically Prince Albert intervened and ordered its tone to be moderated, which it duly was. The US could back off without losing (much) face. But according to the novel, Prince Albert never sees the letter before its dispatch (ill, I think), the US can not accept its imperious tone without losing international credibility, and the war is on.

    So far, so plausible. But then it gets really weird. Part of the British effort involves an expeditionary force that lands (if memory serves) somewhere in the southwest - New Orleans, possibly. Before much happens, the Brits attack some town or other for some unknown reason, massacring a lot of civilians and generally annoying the hell out of their allies. The Confederacy incontinently switched sides, patched up its differences with the Union, upon which it was all-out war with the hated British.

    That the Brits for their part saw in this conflict an opportunity to realize their long-held ambition to reincorporate the United States into the British Empire (what?), and step up efforts to invade from the north as well as via its Caribbean holdings. The warrior is defeated in a single ship duel with Monitor (why a competently commanded ocean going warship should sacrifice all its seaworthy advantages to fight a close combat with what was really an inshore gunboat, albeit a well protected and heavily armed one passes my comprehension), the British invader repelled; the Canadan colonies are lost; and at last the US intervenes in Ireland, and, helped by the invention of a Maxim-type machine gun, expel the British occupiers, follow up across the Irish Sea and eventual avenge what happened in 1813 to the White House, put the Houses of Parliament to the fire. The later events occur in the later novels (I think it was a trilogy).

    I gave up halfway through the first novel as being so implausible an alternative history as to be not worth my time reading. If you like this sort of thing, though, You might like the alternative histories of Harry Turtledove...

    Much more interesting is the notion of Britain's intervention. I think it would have made the difference between the Confederacy's survival and demise, myself, not so much from the augmentation of the South's military, as from the easier acquisition of arms and food supplies (less need for profiteering blockade runners), and hence the studier morale of the soldiery to stay with the colours.

    But we do run up against the issue of slavery, and Britain's negative attitude towards it. The Brits, no less than the Americans, could be pretty supple about allying themselves with unsavoury regimes or ideologies, but it is possible they might bring pressure to bear concerning manumission for military service that Patrick Cleburne long advocated, and Robert E. Lee eventually came round to suggesting. How this might have 'taken' is hard to say with confidence...

    1. I read that series of books as a teen. In the last book America invents steam tanks and takes London.

    2. Thanks Ion, that's an excellent review and warning about Harrison. It seems like a very bizarre and not very well thought out plot.
      Re your last point, it's a fascinating point as to whether the Confederacy would have considered some form of manumission as the price for British support. Given that, historically, they didn't arm a handful of black troops until the last few days of the war, I doubt they would have been so clever.

  7. Would also be interesting to see how the American public would react to an in invasion.
    Also yo see what the war time goals of England would be. I honestly think that troop for troop the British and Union would be on equal footing when it comes to scraping and the field would be decided by the leadership on hand.

  8. I seriously doubt the British would invade. Too much man power and money required. Reinforce Upper and Lower Canada and some border raiding/skirmishing as the Union second rate troops guarding the north and the British/Canadian militia faced off, but I think most of the British efforts would be naval in support of the Confederacy. Break the blockade and in turn blockade the north and strangle their economy.

    1. The Union's First Rate Troops would probably have been no match for the Brits! Being British, I'm not saying this in any sort of jingoistic or flippant manner but the ACW was generally fought by citizen armies and not fully professional armies like that of Britain (I'm not sure at all about the Canadians?).


    2. The British would be lucky to put a weak Corps in theater in the 1860s. The Union would just plain outnumber them. And the Army of the Potomac isn't just another horde of spear wielding natives....

    3. James,

      With all due respect, I think you may be wrong. If there was the political will in Britain, one must assume this to be the case, it is not within the bounds of reason that North america may have faced an invasion on the scale of the Crimea. Remember, this is a "what if" scenario.

    4. Interesting exchange. Bedford, I'm curious why you would rate the British so highly compared to the US?

  9. I think that these releases by the Perry's is inspired!

    Very m uch looking forward to seeing and reading about what you do with the project.

    Being a 'period' that I know very little about, barring the ACw of course, this should be really interesting!!


  10. So many interesting points here Michael. To start off I looked at doing this in the late 1980s in 15mm but had issues finding appropriate British miniatures to field. This came about while doing my under-grad and found an interesting report on the military build up in Canada and Bermuda during the American Civil War. I remember that there were 40,000 troops stationed in Canada. I assume it was a mix of regulars and militia. Now if I could find the correct figures in 15mm I may have to have a go at it again.

    Now to the questions…

    First off the North had manpower available. This could come from the new Army of the Potomac. If the British blockade or threaten to do so, the Union is not going to allow General McClellan to head to sea and the Peninsula. Likely he would be cut off. If he goes overland he has the added army commanded by General McDowell that was covering Washington while the Army of the Potomac was away originally. These are the troops to send north against Canada and add in militias from New York, Pennsylvania, and the Upper Midwest.

    Number two, taking Washington was not going to defeat the North, you need to destroy their will power. Johnston and Jackson can take the war to the North but there are few chances of doing this and ending the war. Lee tried it three times and failed. I also do not see any reason why this will affect the Western theater much. British troops may be added to the Confederate armies as advisors and specialists to help fill out the ranks.

    The naval war is fascinating. Ironclads, Ships of the Line, torpedoes and forts, I need to breakout my copy of Ironclads. I see the British raising the blockade and imposing one on the North. There will be cruiser battles and raiders out on the high seas. I can see the British raiding the coast to keep Union manpower tied down as well. Maybe even a bombardment of Ft McHenry again.

    Logistics is tough. The British will be supporting only a small army in the field. So I do not think this is much of an issue, unless they plan on conquering the entire United States. Not much chance there.

    The South will be able to bring in all the supplies they need or at least can pay for. They will run out of hard currency fast and will go into debt to the British (and French?) Lend Lease anybody?

    The blockade may make tough demands on Union industry. While having the means to supply industry with canals, the lack of ocean traffic may make it difficult on the North.

    The political factors are the toughest. What can Britain get out of the war? Weakening the United States is possible, but at how high of a cost. Can Britain get France to be part of this venture and pay part of the cost if for no other reason to be given a free hand in Mexico. The war can also expand. Russia put a fleet of ships in San Francisco during the American Civil War during a war scare. Will Russia help the North?

    Lastly slavery. Slavery will come to an end for no other reason than it is the price for British assistance. The South was pragmatic regarding slavery. While Patrick Cleburne was an early advocate of arming colored troops it was done as early as the Battle of New Orleans when troops were short. I see the CSA ending slavery, but the blacks will not have their freedom in a way we understand today.

    I have to say this was a nice little thought experiment. Now if someone can tell me were to find British troops in 15mm or 1/2400 scale ship I will get started.


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