Hannibal, Fabian Strategy, Battle of the Monongahela, Battle of Long Island, General Charles Lee, General Prescott, Battle of Monmouth

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 19th, 2012

Politics 101

Quintus Fabius Maximus showed How to Win by Simply not Losing

How do you win a war where you can’t defeat your enemy?  Simple.  You don’t put yourself into a position where your enemy can defeat you.  You avoid major engagements with the enemy.  Making, instead, hit and run raids.  You disrupt their supply lines.  You pin your enemy down as they go on the defensive to fend off these small attacks.  Your objective in all these small actions is not to gain victories.  But time.  If time is on your side.  Which it usually is when a distant foreign power invades you.

In the Second Punic War Hannibal was winning every military engagement he entered.  The Carthaginians even crossed the Alps into Italy.  It appeared that no one could stop him.  So the Romans tapped Quintus Fabius Maximus to see if he could stop Hannibal.  Fabius quickly saw the futility in engaging Hannibal in open combat.  He was too good.  But he was fighting under a couple of disadvantages.  The first being that Carthage was a long way away.  On the far side of the Mediterranean Sea.  The second was directly related to the first.  Because of the difficulty of maintaining a large army in the field of a distant land Hannibal used hired mercenaries.  From Gaul (roughly modern day France) and Spain.  Who though they hated the Romans, they were in it for the money.  And that meant plunder.  Which you got from sacking cities.  The more cities you sack the more plunder you got.  So time was not on the Carthaginian’s side.  They needed a quick victory.  For they could not afford a long, drawn out war on Italian soil.  Which gave the advantage of time to the Romans.  Which Fabius used.  He avoided major engagements.  Absorbed small losses.  And gave up ground.  But he made each victory Hannibal got a costly one.  Where his losses were very hard to replace.  Because of those long supply lines and operating in unfriendly country.

Though a prudent military strategy it was not without political risks.  For people lose faith in you if you can’t show any victories on the battlefield.  And so it was the case with Fabius.  The Roman Senate relieved him of command.  His replacement went on the offensive.  And suffered terrible and costly defeats at the hands of Hannibal.  The Romans eventually returned to the Fabian strategy of Quintus Fabius Maximus.  And eventually drove Hannibal out of Italy.

The Americans proved they had the Skill and Fortitude to be Quite the Irritant with their Daring Capture of General Prescott 

George Washington had no intention of adopting a Fabian strategy during the Revolutionary War.  For he was a brave soldier who wanted to engage the enemy.  During the French and Indian War he accompanied General Braddock into the Ohio Country.  The plan was for the British to push the French out.  What happened was a massacre.  Battle of the Monongahela.  When General Braddock was mortally wounded the British broke and ran.  Washington rode through the chaos to rally the British and fought an orderly retreat.  He had two horses shot out from underneath him.  And 4 musket balls made holes in his jacket.  But he survived unscathed.  And well educated.  For the British force was a superior force.  In men.  And arms.  But it was big and cumbersome.  Designed for Napoleonic tactics in open field engagements.  Which proved useless in the frontier of North America.  A lesson Washington would not forget.

Well, one that he would remember.  Then never forget.  After some years had passed and he found himself in another war.  Only this time instead of fighting alongside the British he was fighting against them.  As commander in chief of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War.  And early on he wanted to engage the British on the field of battle.  Where he could hand the British a staggering defeat.  And bring the war to a swift conclusion.  In the second year of war he chose to do just that.  On Long Island.  In August of 1776.  And was lucky to escape the Battle of Long Island with much of the army.  For the British onslaught was overwhelming.  The British Army advanced with little opposition.  Washington quickly changed his strategy to one of survival.  The Fabian strategy.  And fought an orderly retreat.  Through Manhattan and New Jersey.  Until he crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.  He kept the Army together.  And gained time.  Of course, the downside to all of this was that the British advanced.  Seemingly unopposed.  Taking ground.  Causing the people to wonder if they picked the wrong man to lead America’s army.  In Congress.  And inside the Army itself.  Where a war veteran of the British Army, General Charles Lee, wrote to members of Congress critical of Washington, asking them to replace Washington with him as commander in chief.  He was in the rear of the American retreat through New Jersey.  Inexplicitly, taking his time.  Where he and his staff (away from the main body of his army) stopped for the night in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.  While the British were in pursuit.  And a British patrol surprised him in the morning.  At about 10 AM.  Over breakfast.  In his dressing gown writing a letter to his good friend Horatio Gates.  Another critic of General Washington.  Writing “a certain great man [George Washington] is most damnably deficient.”  He signed this letter as the British surrounded him.  And he became their prisoner.  Shortly thereafter that “damnably deficient” Washington crossed the Delaware and won the battles of Trenton and Princeton.

Washington kept to his Fabian strategy throughout 1777.  Avoiding major engagements.  Favoring hit and run skirmishes that proved a great irritation to the British.  Capturing their supplies.  Even capturing some prominent prisoners.  Like British General Prescott.  Commander of all British troops in Rhode Island.  Where a small force led by Lieutenant Colonel William Barton captured him in Providence, Rhode Island.  In bed.  Naked.  Entertaining a lady.  In a city surrounded by a British Army.  And the Royal Navy.  Showing that the Americans had the skill and fortitude to be quite the irritant.  Key to any Fabian strategy.  Such a high ranking officer would prove valuable in a prisoner swap.  He could get a high ranking and highly valuable American in exchange.  But, instead, they traded him for General Charles Lee.

Lee’s Actions at Monmouth forced General Washington to Fall Back to a Fabian Strategy

While prisoner Lee got pretty chummy with the British.  He was, after all, a former British officer himself.  So he talked.  Saying the Americans were foolish if they thought they could beat the British.  He said George Washington was ignorant and indecisive.  He attacked his character.  He even wrote a letter to General Henry Clinton who succeeded General Howe.  Congratulating him on his promotion.  He may even have drawn up a plan for the British to defeat the Americans.  Perhaps under the threat of being tried for desertion from the British Army.  Or simply for his hatred of Washington.  And the Congress that denied him supreme command of all American forces.  Washington knew nothing of this at the time of the exchange.  And welcomed him back as a brother.  Taking him back to his quarters where his wife, Martha, entertained him with a fine dinner with musical accompaniment.  Even gave him a room for the night behind her sitting room.  They held breakfast the following morning as Lee was late getting up.  It turned out that he brought a woman in through the back door and slept with her.  The wife of a British sergeant.

The following June the Army emerged from Valley Forge.  A much better army than the one that entered Valley Forge.  For it was during that horrible winter that Baron von Steuben whipped the Continental Army into shape.  They were now as well-trained and well-disciplined as any European army.  And Washington was eager to put it to the test.  General Clinton was evacuating Philadelphia and heading to New York.  Washington convened a council of war for advice.  He wanted to engage the British during their retreat.  General Lee said bringing on a full-scale engagement would be “criminal.”  Thanks to the American victory at Saratoga the previous October the French joined the Americans in alliance and were sending over troops and support.  Lee wanted to wait for the French.  And let the British return to New York unopposed.  Avoiding any large scale engagements until the French got there.  He persuaded the other officers to go along with him.  So Washington strengthened his flanks.  And sent out an advanced guard to establish contact with the enemy.  Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s aid-de-camp, was frustrated by this timid response.  He wrote that these deliberations “would have done honor to the most honorable society of midwives, and to them only.”  General Nathanael Greene shared Hamilton’s frustration.  And wrote in a letter to Washington “people expect something from us and our strength demands it.”

Washington placed the Marquis de Lafayette in command of this advanced guard.  But when the Army made contact with the British Lee took command.  Washington learned the British were leaving Monmouth Courthouse and ordered the attack.  To fall on the British rear.  But Lee hesitated.  Then ordered a retreat.  Without giving any specific orders of where to retreat.  Or a new plan of attack.  Or a plan of retreat.  Troops just started to walk back from the front.  Without any exchange of fire.  When Washington saw the retreat it infuriated him.  He rode up and found Lee and demanded the general explain himself.  Apparently he did not have a good answer for Washington yelled at Lee until the “leaves shook.”  By this time the British learned of Washington’s intent and wheeled about and were attacking the Americans.  Washington took command and organized the Americans in a defensive line.  In a day of pitched battles Washington held the line.  Fought the British to a draw.  Thanks to von Steuben.  Whose work made the American Army as good as the British Army.  And Washington.  Who could turn around and rally a retreating army.  He wanted to continue the attack that night but his men were spent.  The heat and fatigue of the long day beating them in the end.  By morning the British were gone.  As was a great opportunity to win a major engagement.  And to greatly weaken Clinton’s army.  Which made it safely back to New York.  Where it stayed for the rest of the war.

Had the Americans attacked the British first.  Had they taken the initiative.  Had Lee not wavered with indecision at the Battle of Monmouth the Americans could have shattered Clinton’s army.  When they were in the open.  Leaving British-occupied New York open to attack with no effective British Army between the Americans and that British occupation.   Which would have had no choice but to evacuate the city while the Royal Navy could still get them out.  And without the safe harbor of New York the Royal Navy would have had to evacuate, too.  Following Saratoga this could have very well ended the war.  Even before the French arrived.  Had the Americans attacked first who knows what might have happened.  That draw could have very well been a victory.  John Laurens (on Washington’s staff with Hamilton) wrote his father Henry in Congress.  He said that Lee was paralyzed by indecision.  And that he should be tried for misconduct.  Which they ultimately did.  They court-marshaled Lee for his actions at the Battle of Monmouth.  Which proved to be his last actions in the war.  With a large army entrenched in New York protected by overwhelming naval power there wasn’t anything Washington could do now.  Forcing him to fall back to a Fabian strategy.  Watching Clinton in New York.  While making hit and run raids.  To annoy the British.  And buy time.  Much like Fabius.  Wearing down the British.  Making the price of victory too great.  And after another 4 years or so of war, that’s what the British would conclude.  That the price of victory in that far distant land was too great.  Instead they would negotiate peace.  With the United States of America.  A sovereign and independent nation.

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