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 came 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.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I’m taking a course in Historiography this term. I’m heavily into Ernst Breisach’s Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. So far, the focus has been on the emergence of Greek and Roman historiography and I have a small essay contrasting the two due this weekend. This is the kind of reading that “wets your whistle” (do people still say that?). We are given a glimpse of the broad picture – a sweeping brush across the centuries before the birth of Christ as men began slowly to understand the value of recorded history and commentary. But we are also introduced to bits of information that are hard to not pursue further. Case in point – a Roman civil war that occurred between 88 and 82 B.C. It was fought between the populares (“favoring people”) under Gaius Marius and the optimates (“the best of men”) under Lucius Cornelius Sulla.i
Romans killed and exiled Romans on a large scale. The Republic lived on as a mere shell in which the ambitions of men like Sulla, Pompey, and eventually Caesar governed events, often to the detriment of the Republic. For the first time Romans became aware that their life differed greatly from that of their ancestors and that the continuity of Roman tradition had been broken. That experience proved extremely disturbing. How did the past, seen as glorious and ideal, fit with the troubled present? Historical and quasi-historical works were written under the spell of this question.ii
What were the issues over which the bloodbath occurred?
Hmmm…. I’ll let you draw your own parallels to our own Civil War.
Of interest, it was Gaius Marius (left) who reformed the Roman Legion by turning it into a professional army open to men of any class. Volunteers signed up for twenty years and the promise of a pension (land grant) and spoils. Soldiering as a profession was born. The allegiance of the legionnaire shifted from country to commanding general as the awarding of a pension was dependent upon the persuasiveness of the general (not by law).
I’ll be adding several links to ancient military history…. including several sections in Bill Thayer’s LacusCurtius (good primary sources like Polybius: The Histories). He has also transcribed to the web The Histories of Appian which chronicle the Appian Civil Wars.
i, ii Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, 2nd Edition. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 52.