01 June 2008 by Published in: General musings 7 comments

I have just finished John Ferling’s excellent Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence. Ferling is a retired professor of history, and this book is the product of a lifetime’s work on his part. And it shows.

This is, without doubt, one of the finest books on the American Revolution ever written. It’s a military history of the Revolution meant to be the companion volume to his A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic , which is a political history of the Revolutionary War. It covers the war completely, with enough detail to give the reader a good overview of what happened and ideas of where to look for more if that’s of interest. He focused on the strengths and weaknesses of the commanders on both sides and demonstrates rather amply that the American victory in the war was, indeed, nearly a miracle.

One of the things that I really appreciated about the book was how Ferling managed to place the war in North America squarely in the context of the global geopolitical situation. Only by seeing the entire picture can one truly understand how the chain of events that brought about the unlikely American victory over the finest standing army in the world came to pass. Few books do that, and I found Ferling’s efforts to do so to be among the most useful aspects of the analysis.

The central thesis of Ferling’s book is that George Washington designed and brilliantly implemented a Fabian strategy to win the war. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a Fabian strategy, here’s a quick primer on it. Fabian strategy is an approach to military operations where one side avoids large, pitched battles in favor of smaller, harassing actions in order to break the enemy’s will to keep fighting and wear that enemy down through attrition. Generally, this type of strategy is adopted by smaller, weaker powers when combating a larger foe. In order for it to be successful, time must be on the side of user, which must be able to avoid large-scale actions. Also, Fabian strategy requires a strong degree of will from both politicians and soldiers, as frequent retreats and a lack of major victories can prove demoralizing.

Fabian strategy is named for the Roman emperor Quintus Fabius Maximus. Given the task of defeating the great Carthaginian general Hannibal in 217 BC, following crushing defeats at the Battles of Trebbia and Lake Trasimene, Fabius’ troops shadowed and harassed the Carthaginian army while avoiding a major confrontation. Knowing that Hannibal was cut off from his supply lines, Fabius instituted a scorched earth policy intended to starve Hannibal’s army into retreating. Taking advantage of shorter interior lines of communication, Fabius prevent Hannibal from resupplying his army while also inflicting several minor defeats on his army.

Ferling very convincingly argues that Washington came up with the idea of implementing and executing a Fabian strategy, and that, with only a couple of exceptions (most notably, the September 11, 1777 Battle of Brandywine, where he was soundly thrashed), Washington adhered to the strategy throughout the eight long years of the Revolutionary War. He also argues, again quite effectively, that Washington’s most able and most dependable subordinate, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, did an even better job of implementing the Fabian strategy to counter the British Southern Strategy. Although Cowpens was the only battle that Greene won, his tactics inflicted such heavy losses on Cornwallis’ army that he was forced to abandon the Carolinas, make for Virginia, and adopt Yorktown as his base of operations. That, in turn, made the surrender of Cornwallis’ army and the negotiated peace a foregone conclusion.

The book is brilliant, and I recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the Revolutionary War.

It also got me wondering what would have happened had the Confederacy implemented a Fabian strategy from the beginning of the Civil War. There certainly would not have been three invasions of Maryland. Robert E. Lee was probably far too aggressive to execute such a passive means of waging war, so it is unlikely that it could have happened. However, it certainly makes for interesting speculation. What do you think?

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  1. Ray Todd Knight
    Sun 01st Jun 2008 at 9:19 pm

    Sounds sort of like what Joe Johnston was trying to do in the Atlanta Campaign. Too bad Jeff Davis couldn’t see the bebefits of such a stategy. But I doubt the South ever could have held on for eight years.

  2. Dave Powell
    Mon 02nd Jun 2008 at 7:01 am

    I disagree that Johnston was interested in a Fabian Strategy. Johnson instead fell back on classic Jominian terms. He was not interested in avoiding a major battle; instead he wanted to induce Sherman into an attack, and once defeated, counter-punch.

    A Fabian approach was completely unworkable for the South for a couple of reasons:

    1) there were no areas ‘safe’ from Union occupation. Fabius’ power base – Rome and other major cities – could remain inviolate because Hannibal could not beseige them. He lacked the force and the supplies to do so. In the Am Rev, the British never had the manpower to come even remotely close to holding the bulk of the countryside – the Rebels could hold places like Carlisle or Albany safely, giving them safe havens. In the ACW, there was no place the Union army couldn’t get to or occupy.

    2) One of the South’s principle war aims – the protection of slavery – would be destroyed outright. Even before the EP, wherever Union forces appeared in strength, for all practical purposes, slavery ended. A Fabian approach would only speed this process along.

    Dave Powell

  3. David
    Tue 03rd Jun 2008 at 6:48 am

    Suggest you read “Retreat to Victory?: Confederate Strategy Reconsidered” by Robert G. Tanner.

  4. Fred Ray
    Tue 03rd Jun 2008 at 11:24 am

    Actually, Fabius was a consul and briefly a (legal) dictator but never an emperor (these were still 200 years away). The Romans adopted the strategy out of desperation because they realized they could not defeat Hannibal in the field. They did, however, keep up a strategic offensive against Carthage elsewhere, notably in Spain.

    I would compare Washington’s strategy more with Giap’s in IndoChina against the French. Start with guerrillas, then progress to militias, then to a field army capable of defeating the enemy in a pitched battle. With allies, of course, which the Confederacy never had.

  5. Ken Noe
    Wed 04th Jun 2008 at 9:50 am


    I copied this to John, he said thanks.


  6. Wed 04th Jun 2008 at 10:32 pm

    Thanks, Ken. I really appreciate your passing that along to him. I thought it was one of the very best books on the Rev War I’ve yet read, and I’ve now read about 40 of them. In addition to being a sterling researcher, John can write, too. As you know, just because one has the right letters after one’s name doesn’t necessarily a writer make. That’s simply not true in John’s case.


  7. toby
    Mon 09th Jun 2008 at 7:16 am

    Good post, one slight “nit” to show off some of my knowledge of Roman history.

    Fabius was not a Roman emperor… he official position was Dictator, from which we get the word. The war with Hannibal was fought in the period when Rome was still a Republic. They elected two Consuls annually to run the state jointly, but in times of emergency a Dictator was elected for a year only.

    In Fabius’ time, an “imperator” (from which the word emperor derives) meant a victorious general.

    One point about Fabius is that his strategy succeeded in saving Rome and weakened Hannibal. Later the Romans went on the offensive under Scipio Africanus, invaded Africa, and forced Hannibal to evacuate Italy. Hannibal was defeated and went into exile.

    The morale is that a Fabian strategy may weaken an enemy, but complete victory might require a higher level of risk than a Fabian strategy would allow.

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