Small Wars Journal

Battle of Rowlett’s Station, Redux

Sun, 07/24/2022 - 10:12pm

Battle of Rowlett’s Station, Redux

By Jim Rohrer


Insurrection is possible in any nation where a portion of the population is dissatisfied due to long-standing grievances.  In the United States, we might assume that insurrection could not be successful because the US military is reputed to be the best in the world, vast sums of taxpayers’ funds having been invested to develop high-tech weaponry. On the other hand, even primitive tribesmen have been effective against modern armies.  This raises the question: could American insurgents be effective against the American army?

This is an important question and not one that can be answered definitively.  However, wargaming can begin to shed light on the matter. Wargaming has been described as a qualitative research method [1].  As such, it cannot formally test hypotheses or establish causal connections.  However, it can clarify some issues and suggest testable hypotheses.

The purpose of this exploratory study was to investigate the effectiveness of insurgents against the modern army in a particular tactical scenario.  Results are contingent on the validity of the wargaming method (the rule set).  The findings may have implications for national security.


The Scenario

The American Civil War is well-documented, thus facilitating replaying the battles.  In this article, a replay of the battle at Rowlett’s Station, Kentucky (1861) is described.  I changed the year to 2025 to test the effects of modern equipment on the process and outcome of the battle.  One-Hour Wargames[2] provided the general approach, but that book does not cover the modern era, so I modified the World War II rules by adding a helicopter gunship squadron and light scouting vehicles.

In this battle, insurgents had destroyed the railroad bridge over the Green River at Rowlett’s Station, Kentucky.  A company of infantry was sent by the northern army to provide security during bridge repairs.  They crossed on a temporary pontoon bridge.  The insurgents were lying in wait. The mission objective for the insurgents was to disrupt bridge repairs.  After shots were exchanged, the objective for the defenders was to destroy or rout the insurgents so repair work could resume.  


Rules and Order of Battle

In this set of rules, each side always has six units.  I believe this makes sense here because insurgents will choose to concentrate their limited resources to achieve a force multiplier effect.  The regular army must relocate its superior firepower in response to where the attacks occur.  This involves a delay.  The insurgents will withdraw when the defenders are reinforced.  This was a solo wargame; only one player was involved (the author).  Both sides executed their portion of the battle as planned, so few decisions were required.

In this battle, the bridge defenders (Blue army) had four infantry platoons (tiles marked with an X), one tank (on the north side of the river, marked with an oval) and one Apache helicopter gunship (marked with the bowtie symbol).  The gunship could not arrive until the third round.

The attackers (Red army) had three infantry platoons, two units of light recon vehicles (marked with the cavalry slash), and one mortar unit.  The cav units hit with minus two.

Units could move or shoot in one turn but not both.  The board was 2x2 feet.  Infantry could move six inches and cav could move eight inches.  The helicopter could move anywhere on the board.

Terrain on the board included the river, two stands of trees and a hill.  A town was on the southeast side but did not figure into the battle. The trees and the hill provided cover as well as concealment.  Cover reduced the hits by ½. Armor on the tank and the gunship counted as cover.

All units except the mortar shot line of sight.  One die was rolled for each shooting unit.  The number of hits was the number showing on the D6 (except the cav; the cav hit minus two).  Each unit could take 15 hits before being taken out of action. 


Battle Report

In Round 1, the insurgents (Red army), who were concealed, fired on the infantry bridge guards (Blue army) who had formed a perimeter. They concentrated their fire and scattered one of the platoons.  On their turn, the Blue army rushed the hill.  They could not remain in the open. The tank began firing from its position on the north side of the river. 

In Round 2, the Red cavalry unit on the hill moved to the dense forest in the center.  The Red units in the center concentrated their fire on one of the Blue infantry units.  The Red mortar chose to ignore the tank.  The Blue infantry platoon suffered several hits.  On their turn, the Blue army finally started landing some hits on the Red infantry platoons.

This pattern continued in Round 3, but on the Blue turn, the gunship arrived above the central stand of trees.  It scored some hits, as did the infantry and the tank.  However, in rounds 4 and 5, the gunship was hit 14 times, so it was forced to withdraw.  This allowed the Red army to concentrate its fire again on the Blue infantry that were dug in on the hill.

I called the battle over at the beginning of the Round 7.  The Blue army had lost three infantry platoons, leaving them with only one.  The Red army had lost two infantry platoons but the still had one infantry platoons, two cav units and the mortar.  The surviving Blue infantry platoon was dug in on the hill and hopelessly outnumbered.  The insurgents had won the battle.

In the replay, all Blue infantry platoons were scattered after 12 rounds.  The gunship withdrew after 13 hits.  The Red army had one cav unit and the mortar unit left at the end.  This was more costly for the insurgents than the previous try, but the mission objective was accomplished: repairs to the bridge were halted.

In the second replay, the gunship could have withdrawn after 11 hits but chose to remain on site.  It was shot down. The battle was over after six rounds.  One Blue infantry platoon remained.  The Red army had one infantry platoon, two cav and the mort still operational.



This battle shows us that the superior firepower of the government forces will not allow them to immediately overcome insurgents if the insurgents concentrate their attacks and fade away before reinforcements can arrive.  At any given location, the insurgents can bring more ground forces to bear than the government has immediately available.  The net effect is a frustrating situation in which the insurgents seem to have the advantage, provided they strike fast and hard and withdraw before they are outgunned.

In the 1861 battle, 500 well-drilled Indiana Germans were guarding the bridge repairs.  They were attacked by a Confederate force of 1350 soldiers, including cavalry and Texas Rangers. The cavalry assumed a charge would carry the day for them, but the Germans formed square and only suffered 40 casualties. History judges the battle to be a draw.

In this modern redux, insurgents did not recklessly charge into a defended position.  They maintained concealment and cover, relocated units quickly as necessary, and concentrated their fire on one platoon at a time.  In this exercise, the insurgents had not planted improvised explosive devices and they did not have inexpensive but lethal drones at their disposal.  These weapons would have tipped the outcome in favor of the insurgents and we might expect they would have won more decisively and sooner.

This exercise was intended to model a single event.  In an actual insurgency, the modern army would occupy the rebellious area, seek to win the hearts and the minds of the population, and harden their defensive positions.  All of this takes time, vast sums of money, and political support. As the example of Afghanistan shows, insurgents can be patient and may prevail in the end.   

Wargaming a variety of tactical situations involving domestic insurgents would help to identify ways and means for responding to their actions.  Most professional wargamers who are in the military can be expected to approach these questions with a different methodology, one with an emphasis on group process and incorporation of greater complexity [3].  Others could use linear programming in computer simulations to assess the probable outcomes arising from different events and responses to those events [4].  

The limitations of this study are apparent.  Only one investigator was involved so the results of the games may be biased. The simplifying assumptions underlying the exercise may have been unrealistic, introducing fatal flaws.  The rule set may be too simple.  Accordingly, replication of the exercise by other wargamers, using different rules, is necessary.  At the same time, the analysis demonstrates that independent wargamers, working alone, can model important issues and produce findings that can be evaluated and perhaps explored by military research facilities [5].  Wargaming does not yet qualify as a science because predictions derived from it are uncertain.  Nevertheless, it can be a useful tool. [6], [7]


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Picture 1.  Configuration of forces at start.  The Blue infantry is set up to defend the bridge from a perimeter.  A tank supports the infantry from the north side of the river.  A helicopter gunship squadron is available to be called but cannot enter until Round 3.  The Red army has cavalry units (light recon vehicles) concealed on the flanks.  Three infantry platoons and a mortar unit are concealed in the dense trees in the center.