Friday, August 12, 2016

Cyprus Incident: Action at Rocky Top Hill.

Since I started my investigation into the mystery of Fort MacDuff and the secret Cyprus Hills Expedition, I have managed to get my hands on a copy of an old journal full of useful information. It was found in the attic of an old farmhouse on the Fulford Road in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, my grandfather's farmhouse as it happens  but my Uncle had never mentioned it to me. The journal predates my family's immigration to Canada so it was not a family matter, purely a passing curiosity. The journal is incomplete and if the author ever identified himself or explained why he was keeping a journal about a secret expedition, that information was on one of the lost pages. However, it appears that the author was one of the officers of Montreal militia who volunteered. It also appears that volunteers came from all across the country as individuals and served in adhoc units not in their original battalions. It seems that many clung to their traditional unit allegiances despite this but it helps explain the lack of information in official sources.

The first fragment of interest describes the journey westward. Apparently the volunteers travelled in small to medium sized groups by steamer then railroad to Bismarck then by oxcart train north. Along the way they met a party of armed men moving south, not just any men, but largely Irishmen claiming to be part of the Irish Guards of Assiniboyo  (no doubt a corruption of Assiniboia), a soon to to be Free State. These claimed to be returning from a punitive expedition against the Nonami clan of the Nakota. (Ahh, so, not the Blackfoot after all! This makes sense since the victims in the later Cyprus Hills massacre were largely Assiniboine ). Apparently they told the story of how they and a party of US Regulars pursued a raiding party of Indians north only to be ambushed. As the whiskey flowed, the Irish boasted about their great deeds in battle but were a little vague on details.

The battle as the Irish Volunteers reported it.

Upon this slender reed this game was founded.

Battle of Rocky Top. Aug 10, 1872

Since my ready use American forces are still small I decided to start with a One Hour Wargame using 1 unit per 1 unit. The Indians under Chief Walks Tall had 4 units of warriors, all assumed to move mounted and fight on foot using a mix of new and obsolete firearms and bows, are returning from a raid. The US force under Lt Colonel Lannigan was pursuing with 1 cavalry, 1 artillery and 4 infantry units. Since all units contained at least a proportion of ACW combat veterans and/or Indian fighters, the volunteers were not down graded for this scenario. The scenario begins with the raiding party south of the river with the pursuing US forces off table. The victory conditions revolve around holding the hill at the North end of the table. (The Hill being actually in Canada despite the lack of border signs.)

For campaign narrative purposes the Colonel is under orders to pursue the raiders and punish them if possible, preferably before reaching the border but under no circumstances to allow the volunteers to carry out a massacre of non-combatants that would cause a fuss back east, especially if they strayed north of the border.  In scenario terms he was tasked with capturing the rocky hill.

I started the game and played through 3 or 4 turns using Orders dice but soon found that the speedy Indians were entrenched on the hill before the Americans, hampered by PIP rolls and 2 adverse chance cards,  had managed to cross the river. The whole thing felt very artificial. Why were the Indians still waiting? Why  didn't they ride off?

After briefly considering changing scenarios I decided that I just needed to flush it out a bit. The only thing I could think of was that there was a camp full of non-combatants behind the hill. That would change their strategy all together and give them a reason to delay and fight. I also decided to revert to using a combined initiative and chance deck instead of rolling for orders dice.

I pushed the hill forward, added a tepee to mark the edge of the village and reset the troops. For game purposes I declared the Rocky Hill to be to the North.

First Blood. A hasty attack is repulsed. 
  I split the Indian force into two equal groups, one crossing at each ford but decided to roll for the American units. This gave me 1 column with a cavalry and an infantry unit and another with the gun and three infantry. I decided to put Lannigan with the cavalry.  Seeing the amount of firepower being ranged against them the  western party, including Walks Tall, beat a hasty retreat towards a patch of woods and the hill. On the Eastern flank the braves decided to try to slow the enemy and do a little damage if they could.

The speed of the cavalry took me by surprise and they rode onto the table and straight into contact with the ford triggering a fight. After an inconclusive round the cavalry pulled back.  This allowed the Indians to fire into the infantry achieving 2 hits on 2 dice. Lannigan spurred forward through the hail of bullets and steadied B company (cancelling 1 hit). On the next turn B company fired getting a hit on the Indians which they converted to a retreat, jumping on their ponies and galloping off. The cavalry seized the opening and splashed over the ford to attack the now exposed flank of the remaining unit of warriors.  The cavalry did lose some impetus in crossing but were supported by the infantry. It was 3 dice vs 1 and Lannigan was astonished to see the first stragglers racing back in disarray. He briefly considered spurring forward to inspire them but the day was young and the bugles were already sounding the recall and rally.  Across the stream the Indians hopped on their ponies and fell back, a job well done.

The next few turn turns saw the US struggling to get men and guns over the fords and deploy while the Indians took up positions in the woods on either side of the battlefield as well as on the rocky hill. Suddenly the young Captain in command of A company found a shallow gully that allowed him to move forward unseen while the gun opened fire and surprise the Indians in the woods. (chance card - free move between turns).
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At the same time as A company charged the woods to the West, B company charged the woods on the East.  Both attacks were complete successes sending the Indians flying with losses though A company also  lost a man.

With both American wings moving rapidly past the hill while the volunteers and gun moved against the centre to provide fire support, it looked like a done deal but the rocky hill provided good cover and the fleeing Indians rapidly rallied and used their ponies to regroup on the hill before the assault went in.

At close range the Indian fire is devastating, the cavalry and A company are routed and Colonel Lannigan grievously wounded.

The first assault was met at close range by a storm of bullets and arrows from hidden enemies. When Colonel Lannigan went down the heart went out of the men and the survivors of B company hunkered down to trade pot shots with the enemy. As the sun set, the volunteers couldn't stand the inaction anymore and rising to their feet they stormed the hill with wild cries. The Rifle Association was bloodily repulsed but the Irish, disregarding their losses all but routed the Chief and his band and crowned the hill. It was too little too late. The American morale had dropped to nothing while the Indians were in fine fighting spirits despite their losses and the sun was setting. It was time to get the wounded and get out of there.

In technical game terms Blue's army morale was 3 units or leaders lost while Red's army morale was 2 units or leaders lost. Blue had lost their commander and 2 units while Red had lost 1 unit. The scenario victory condition was for Blue to capture the hill by the end of turn 15. Blue had captured one square of the hill on turn 15 but not the rest and his morale was broken so that didn't count, it just gave the Irish some bragging points.

Looked at another way, the US lost 12 out of 23 figures while the Assiniboine lost 6 out 13. (By the way the rules assume roughly 10% of hits are killed, seriously wounded or missing, the rest are what might be termed temporary or "shock" hits.)  Since it had various turns of advantage and lasted 15 out of 15 turns with no decision till the end of the 2nd half of the last turn, it was a close game no matter how you look at it and was an hour well spent.

The next battle will probably involve a "discussion" about the exact map coordinates of the Battle of Rocky Hill and of the chosen building site of Fort MacDuff. It seems some "latitude" may have been taking with the calculation in each case.  


  1. Ross Mac,

    What a splendid little skirmish ... and well done the Nonami Indians! Chief Walks Tall certainly lived up to his name.

    I look forward to the next instalment!

    All the best,


  2. Stirring Scenario Ross- played out well with the Toy Soldiers...I'm sorry to bring this up - though have you contemplated doing this particular Scenario in 1/72nd scale - using Airfix Union Troops vs Airfix Indians? Cheers. KEV.

    1. Not for a second. I'm not all that interested in the american indian wars, this whole thing is about building a backstory to allow me to put as much as possible of my existing collection of antique and replica toy soldiers on the table.