THE OVERCOAT (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

On what I imagine to have been a pleasant September morning - being partial to autumn, I generally find September mornings to be pleasant - there rode a man who would be dead in ten days. 

Now, by rights, he shouldn't have been riding. This man - an intelligence officer - had two days prior disembarked his ship to make contact with one of his assets, an enemy commander who wished to defect, and in so doing, turn over possession of a key fort. Having made the agreement, our young officer was to return to the ship. But in the interim, the enemy discovered the ship and began firing at it, forcing it to flee without him. 

And so now, instead, he was on a horse, moving through enemy territory. His commander had been very clear at the outset of this mission that he was not to go behind enemy lines. His commander had also been very clear that he was to remain in uniform; if he was captured while out of uniform, the enemy could hang him as a spy. But I told you at the beginning how this story ends. He was disguised as a civilian, with papers identifying him as "John Anderson". He would hang because of it. 

Coincidentally, another article of clothing figures prominently in his downfall. After a day and a half of riding, "Anderson" came across three men. One of these wore a distinctive type of overcoat that Anderson had seen many times - part of the uniform worn by their allies from the continent. Thinking he had found comrades, he greeted them and identified himself as an officer. 

But. Like I said. You know how this story ends. The three men belonged to the other side. Here, your humble narrator asks for your indulgence of a brief but interesting digression, detailing how the man in the overcoat came to possess it. This man had a sweetheart and that sweetheart a brother, who was himself loyal to the same side as our doomed officer. While this man was visiting that sweetheart, he was captured by said brother, and imprisoned. He escaped the prison - jumped out the window - and acquired the overcoat so as to disguise himself and prevent his recapture.

Upon being told the three men were his enemies, Anderson tried to backtrack - I was just kidding, ha, ha, I'm one of you - but of course that didn't work. He was searched, and on his person they found plans for the fort's surrender. Now, this was a time and a place when illiteracy was the rule rather than the exception. There was a very good chance that they'd scratch their head at these scribbles, and take more interest in Anderson's handsome watch, which he offered to give them if they let him go. 

But it just so happened that the man in the overcoat was also literate, and so it was on 23 September 1780 that Major John Andre was detained as a spy, and Benedict Arnold's plot to surrender West Point was discovered. But it almost wasn't! In fact, it's highly probable that the thing would have gone off without a hitch, if not for the fact that a ship was fired upon, and that a man both wore an overcoat and knew how to read.

It's very "for want of a nail", and the thing is, so is much of history. It's one reason why I have no patience for wargames that treat these grand chains of accidents and coincidences as inevitable, or as the most likely result. To be clear, I'm not saying I necessarily want to roll a d10 on a Benedict Arnold Table, and on a "1" through "9", the guy leaves his overcoat at home and West Point falls into British hands. While that is likely to be statistically justifiable, it's also likely to be the sort of deviation that would distract from the usefulness and the usability of the model. Let's say my game is concerned with factors X, Y, and Z, and let's say further that event "A" didn't happen historically, but very easily could have. If allowing "A" to happen shifts the focus away from X, Y, and Z, then I'm not going to let "A" happen - that's not what the game is about. But if event "A" directly relates to those factors, then I'm not going to protect against it in the same way (though I'm likely to monkey around with the probability a bit). As always, the key isn't devotion to "accuracy" or "probability" in abstract, but to what specifically supports the argument a game is trying to make or explore.

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