Fabian Strategy and the American Civil War

One of the concepts Millett and Maslowski mention in their book, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America, is the Fabian Strategy. It refers to an approach by one side in a military conflict who avoids big decisive battles in favor of small engagements designed to wear the opposition down, reducing their will to fight and their numbers by attrition.

The term is attributed to Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (ca. 280 BC-203 BC), a Roman commander who used the technique in fighting Hannibal during the Punic Wars. He harassed Hannibal’s army through small engagements and cut off their supply lines but avoided getting pulled into a decisive battle. Needless to say, the strategy requires time to succeed. Because of this, it also requires the support of the governing powers on the side that adopts it because there is no decisive showdown event. In Fabius Maximus’ case, the Romans politicians listened to his detractors (peer commanders) and replaced him with men who would confront Hannibal head on. They were resoundingly defeated at the Battle of Cannae (pictured right). The Romans eventually went back to the method of battle avoidance and harassment as designed by Fabius and eventually succeeded in driving Hannibal back to Africa.

The Fabian Strategy was used during the American Revolution by Continental forces against the British. While politically unpopular, Washington agreed to adopt it. Interestingly, the idea for its use NathanBedfordForrest.jpgcame from Nathaniel Greene.

I’d be interested in thoughts from my readers on use of the Fabian Strategy during the American Civil War. While I have yet to study in depth the exploits of Nathan Bedford Forrest (pictured right), my sense is that this kind of harassment of the enemy was a forte of his Tennessee Cavalry. I’ve also heard the phrase  “removing the Fabian” associated with Sherman’s march through the south. No doubt this refers to the ferreting out of harassing guerrilla-type forces.

7 Replies to “Fabian Strategy and the American Civil War”

  1. Is it a war of attrition as many say it is? It would appear to be the opposite at many times. For example Washington was more inclined to keep the army intact than actually inflict casualties on the British at times. Also if the Viet Cong and NVA used the Fabian strategy they were fighting against an enemy who was following the attrition strategy. If this is the case than it would appear the army using the Fabian strategy is inclined to trade victories, land, and even casualties for time.

  2. Does anyone know the name of the painting and/or painter of this portrayl of the Battle of Cannae? I am doing a school project on the Battle of Cannae and the Fabian Strategy in my Latin and History classes, yet none of my instructors are familiar with this painting. Thank You!


  3. I just heard a paper at the recent Soc. for Military History conference is Utah in which the presenter argued for an interp that GW was a practitioner of a Fabian strategy. Many in the audience disagreed. I will try to track down the name of the speaker and re-post.

  4. Renee,

    I have read a book addressing this question: “Retreat to Victory? Confederate Strategy Reconsidered” by Robert G. Tanner, ISBN 084202882x. It convinced me that a Fabian strategy could not have worked for the Confederacy. I recommend it.

    Larry Freiheit

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