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Fabian Strategy

The term "Fabian Strategy" is derived from the strategy employed by Quintus Fabius Maximus, dictator of the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War. Fabius avoided large battles in favor of smaller ones, harassing Hannibal's Carthaginian army in an attempt to break the will of the soldiers and wear them down through attrition. This strategy is usually utilized by a smaller force in a war against a larger military.

Washington has frequently been labelled the "American Fabius" for the strategy that he used against the British during the American Revolution. However, Washington's correspondence suggests that he was most likely unaware of the Roman general until 1778, over a year after he began employing the Fabian strategy. Washington regarded battle as a symbol of an individual's strength and courage, and believed avoiding battle was dishonorable behavior. His aggressive nature was evident in his early battles. At the Siege of Boston and the battles for New York, Washington displayed his willingness to fight. But the performance of the Continental Army demonstrated to him that his army could not stand up to British regulars in a conventional battle.

The Fabian Strategy was utilized out of necessity, as Washington realized that his highest priority was the preservation of his army, not defending territory. Washington referred to his strategy as a "War of Posts," in which his army should "on all occasions avoid a general Action [sic] or put anything to the risque [sic] unless compelled by a necessity into which we ought never to be drawn." His strategy of attrition, or strategy of erosion as scholars sometimes describe it, would keep the Continental Army intact while wearing down the British army. Unless his army enjoyed a distinct advantage, Washington believed he must avoid direct battle.

Washington instead resorted to swift raids against detachments of the enemy's army, such as the actions at Trenton and Princeton. Washington hoped this strategy would frustrate the British government, causing them to lose patience and eventually end the war. The Battle of Brandywine (September 11, 1777) was the only occasion between the disastrous defeats around New York City and the end of the war that Washington risked his army in a full-scale battle. Washington only took this chance because the revolutionary cause could not afford losing the capital of Philadelphia without a fight.

Washington at the Battle of Princeton, Johnson, Fry & Co. Publishers, 1857.

Washington realized that a protracted war would also be a serious threat to the American cause and would severely strain the resources of the burgeoning United States. Critics of his strategy would grow impatient with Washington’s lack of victories, which would lead to frustration amongst patriots. Members of Congress, including John Adams, frequently criticized Washington for his strategy and some historians believe the only reason Washington chose to make a stand at Brandywine in 1777 was due to pressure from Congress. Despite all of the pressures and criticisms he faced from the public and politicians, as well as his own natural tendency to fight, Washington's "War of Posts" made him the perfect strategist for the Americans during the American Revolution. As German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke noted, "You have produced in America one of the world's very greatest strategists - George Washington."

James Scythes
Instructor, History
West Chester University

Bibliography
Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Liddell Hart, B.H. Strategy: The Indirect Approach. London: Faber &Faber Ltd., 1954.

Palmer, David R. George Washington's Military Genius. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2012.

Weigley, Russell F. History of the United States Army. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967.

Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1973.