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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LESSONS LEARNED #16: “The military part of the military has been a success story. The Big Government part of the military has not.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 3rd, 2010

BIG GOVERNMENT DID NOT create the greatest military power of all time.  It’s not a top down success story.  It’s a bottom up success story.  You win wars by winning battles.  And you win battles with a rifle in your hands.  Those who matter don’t hear the clash of arms from afar.  They hear it from within the battle itself.

The successes of the military are due to the people who fight the battles.  They are not due to governmental bureaucrats.  In fact, you can say the fighting people achieve success despite the governmental bureaucrats.  I can give you a list of esteemed military personnel that would agree with me.  Here’s an abbreviated list:  George Washington and Robert E. Lee.   Of course, you can’t ask either of them because they’re dead.  But the history speaks for itself.  Their most difficult enemies were the politicians.  And the ones on their side.  Not the enemies’.

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY WAR was a lot like the Vietnam War, only without the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Both had the mightiest military power in the world taking on a military lightweight.  Therefore, both used Fabian tactics.  Like Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus, the underdog avoided major engagements with the enemy.  (Excluding the Tet Offensive, of course, which was very un-Fabian-like.)  Theirs was not to win.  No, theirs was not to lose.  For he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day. 

But the big difference between these wars was supply.  The Viet Cong and the NVA had the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  No matter how many of them you killed or how many of their supplies you destroyed, more just kept coming down that trail.  George Washington and his ragtag armies, on the other hand, were, well, ragtag.  Plead as he might for supplies the Continental Congress delivered little.  Including pay.  His armies were chronically under-supplied, under-fed and under-paid.  But still they carried on. 

When they took winter quarters in December 1777 on the barren hills on the west side of the Schuylkill River in eastern Pennsylvania, they had not received any supplies from the Quarter Master General since the previous July.  Now the winter at Valley Forge was not the coldest during the War, but it was cold.  Especially if you were barefoot and half naked.  And this was the condition of the average soldier.  While the British quartered themselves in the warm houses of Philadelphia and enjoyed the comforts of regular meals and warm beds, the Americans left trails of blood in the snow from their bloody, bare feet.  They slept by fire for warmth.  Shirts as well as blankets were lacking.  And there was a lack of food, for man and animal.  Hundreds of horses starved to death that winter.

But the British did well that winter.  Why?  Why did they have food, drink, clothing, blankets and forage for their horses?  Because not everyone felt the Spirit of ’76 as earnestly as others.  Thomas Paine, just before the Battle of Trenton a year earlier (at perhaps the low point of morale in the Army) wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”  There were no summer soldiers or sunshine patriots at Valley Forge.  They were in warm houses.  Well fed.  And making money.  From the War.  There were supplies, yes, but there were more profitable markets than Washington’s armies.

So while graft and speculation made some rich, the Army suffered at Valley Forge.  The Continental Congress did little for them.  The states did little for them.  They suffered that ordeal alone.  Together.  And they became better soldiers.  Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter of introduction for a Prussian captain, Baron Friedrich von Steuben.  He came with exaggerated credentials.  Franklin said he was a general under Frederick the Great even though he was only a staff officer.  And an unemployed staff officer at that.  But he knew how to make and drill an army.  And he did.  Washington held the Army together.  The men persevered.  And the army that emerged from Valley Forge could face any European army on the field of battle.  And they fought on.  And about 4 years later, General Cornwallis would surrender at Yorktown.

THE UNITED STATES offered the command of the Union Army in the American Civil War to General Robert E. Lee.  He declined.  He could not raise his sword against his own country.  Virginia.  So he would fight on the Confederate side in what they called the War of Northern Aggression.

There is an interesting exchange in the movie Gone with the Wind before war breaks out.  Rhett Butler is discussing the South’s prospects with his fellow southern gentlemen. 

RHETT BUTLER: I think it’s hard winning a war with words, gentlemen.
CHARLES: What do you mean, sir?
RHETT BUTLER: I mean, Mr. Hamilton, there’s not a cannon factory in the whole South.
MAN: What difference does that make, sir, to a gentleman?
RHETT BUTLER: I’m afraid it’s going to make a great deal of difference to a great many
gentlemen, sir.
CHARLES: Are you hinting, Mr. Butler, that the Yankees can lick us?
RHETT BUTLER: No, I’m not hinting. I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees
are better equipped than we. They’ve got factories, shipyards, coal mines…and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death. All we’ve got is cotton, and slaves and…arrogance.

No.  The South’s prospects were not very encouraging.  And the North’s advantages would make up for her failings.  In time.

The American Civil War was not a war of Fabian tactics.  The First Battle of Bull Run (or the First Battle of Manassas as the Confederates called it) was a shock.  Casualties (killed, wounded and lost) were high.  About 4,800 in total.  No one had anticipated such carnage.  If that wasn’t enough to sober them up, then came Shiloh in the West.  This 2-day battle claimed about 23,750 casualties.  This exceeded the total of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War combined.  By the time the Civil War was over, casualties would top 1,000,000.  Over 600,000 Americans would eventually die.  Including a president.

Why such high casualties?  A couple of reasons.  This was one of the first wars benefitting from the Industrial Revolution.  Better and more powerful weapons created more powerful armies.  And a network of railroads brought them efficiently to the battlefield.  Unfortunately, these armies still employed Napoleonic tactics.  Mass in formation, fire and charge with bayonets.  Rifled barrels, though, replaced smoothbore muskets.  This tripled the effective range of an infantryman’s weapon.  Improved cannon, like the Parrot gun, made cannon fire more devastating.  So, while they stood en masse and fired, and marched forward with bayonet, they faced a withering, accurate fire.  Before the Battle of Cold Harbor, life expectancy in battle was such that soldiers sewed their name inside their jackets.  Why?  They wanted their fallen bodies identified and sent home for burial.

Another reason for the high casualties?  Two of the best armies in the world were fighting each other.  American was killing American.  In the beginning, the Confederates had the edge.  Robert E. Lee and General Stonewall Jackson were displaying by far the greater competence in battle.  But that was in the east.  In the west, Generals Grant and Sherman advanced along the Mississippi River with dogged determination.

At the Battle of Chancellorsville, though, Stonewall Jackson would fall from friendly fire as he reconnoitered the front.  He lost his left arm.  Lee would lament that Jackson may have lost his left arm, but he had lost his right.  Jackson would subsequently die from complications of pneumonia 8 days later.  A couple of months from that, Lee would be in Gettysburg, the ‘high water mark’ of the Confederacy.  And after 3 days of battle, he would lead his defeated army back across the Potomac.  Meanwhile, in the west, Grant had just taken Vicksburg and, as a result, control of the Mississippi river.

Lee’s foray into Pennsylvania may have not been a wise move.  It was only the second time a Confederate army invaded the North (the last resulted in the bloodiest single day of the war – Antietam).  Battle in the north favored the North.  Shorter lines of communications.  Better network of railroads.  Coal mines.  Factories.  It was a bold plan.  But a poorly executed plan.  The armies came into contact, after all, because barefoot Confederate soldiers looking for shoes came into contact with dismounted Union cavalry.  That’s what was in Gettysburg.  Shoes.  That, and one big-ass road intersection that brought all those armies together.

Lee’s forces started the Battle of Gettysburg prematurely because of singular defect in the South.  Supply.  Lee faced the same problems Washington did.  The Confederate Army was superior to the Union Army at many times.  They often outgeneraled the North.  And often outfought the North.  But they took heavy losses.  As did the North.  But, as Rhett Butler pointed out, the North was in a position to replace their losses.  The South simply was not.  It became a war of attrition.  And the north simply outlasted the South.  And had the time to become a superior army. 

The problem was the very thing they were fighting for.  States’ rights.  The north was able to wage total war.  The South, try as they might, could not.  States had some warehouses full of material, but a state allotted its material stores for its own regiments.  A state may have had a surplus of shoes, but they held them for their own soldiers while others went barefoot.

The southern soldier suffered beyond human endurance.  Days would go by without food or provision.  Some would pick up horse droppings and pick out undigested kernels to eat.  When they broke out of the siege around Richmond/Petersburg, they marched for days to promised provisions.  When they reached the rail cars, they opened them to find unneeded equipment.  Not food.  But they still fought on, emaciated as they were.  Until they found themselves surrounded near Appomattox Courthouse.  When faced with the choice of surrender or guerrilla warfare, Lee chose surrender.  He saw one country destroyed.  He did not wish to see another.

WASHINGTON DID PREVAIL in the end.  Despite his government.  Lee did not.  In part because of his government.  All the while the soldier in the fight persevered through great privations.  But never gave up.  They fought, and died, together.  For God.  For country.  And for each other.  All the while, no doubt, cursing their respective governments.

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