How George Washington Used the Fabian Strategy During the Revolution

Faced with destruction after the Battle of Long Island, George Washington changed tact and avoided direct battles with the British.

Jun 26, 2024By Ryan Stalker, BA in History & Political Science

george washington fabian strategy revolution


After the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, the Continental Army retreated, surrendering control of New York City and its valuable harbor to the British. As his men marched, General George Washington, riding his favorite charger, Nelson, reflected on his army’s—on his—failure.


His rash decision to engage the British in a pitched battle had almost ended in disaster. It was only due to General Howe’s indecisiveness that his routed army could escape near certain capture. He needed to change tact. Here’s how Washington took inspiration from an ancient Roman statesman in using the Fabian strategy.


George Washington: British Militiaman & Novice Soldier 

George Washington as Colonel in the Virginia Regiment by Charles Willson Peale, 1772. Source: National Portrait Gallery


George Washington’s debut as a soldier came during the French and Indian War in 1753 when he led a diplomatic mission to several French forts in Pennsylvania. Despite failing to achieve his goal—to convince the French to abandon their claims—Washington’s bravery during the mission earned him a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel from Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie.


After gaining a victory at Jumonville Glen and suffering a humiliating defeat at Fort Necessity in 1754, George Washington voluntarily joined Brigadier General Edward Braddock’s advance towards Fort Duquesne.

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The expedition suddenly ended when the column was ambushed by a combined French and Native American force just under ten miles from their objective.


As the regulars formed ranks on the road, the French and their Indigenous allies fired at them from the tree line, picking men and officers off. Return volleys flew harmlessly into the dense woods.


Braddock himself fell, mortally wounded. Washington carried the general from the field. Although later retellings would claim that Washington led the disorganized retreat, this appears to be historical revisionism.


Like everyone else, George Washington fled as fast as he could. He obeyed a dying Braddock’s orders to inform Colonel Dunbar, the commander of the reserves, of the defeat and organize the army’s withdrawal. However, he conducted himself admirably and was given command of the reformed Virginia regiment by Governor Dinwiddie to defend the frontier.


Robert Dinwiddie by R. B. Dunwoody, 1760. The governor was one of Washington’s early patrons. Source: Encyclopedia Virginia


After a Herculean task of recruiting, reorganizing, and refitting, Colonel Washington and his men set about defending the frontier. Eventually, he and his Virginians accompanied the next attempt to capture Fort Duquesne. Learning from Braddock’s defeat, Brigadier General John Forbes vigorously attempted to defend his marching column from a similar ambush.


When scouts reported that a small French unit had been harassing the baggage train, Forbes ordered Washington to divide his Virginians into two units to find and destroy the enemy skirmishers.


This they did, killing one Frenchman and capturing several others. But as day turned to dusk, Washington’s column caught sight of a large force moving through the woods. Washington’s men spontaneously opened fire.


Shouts in English pleaded for his men to stop firing. Washington’s men had fired into their compatriots. Dozens of Virginians were killed or wounded in the exchange. This unfortunate friendly fire incident dashed Washington’s hopes for a commission in the British Army. After the conclusion of the Forbes Expedition, Washington quickly resigned his commission. It appeared his military career was over.


From Regimental Commander to Commander-in-Chief

Washington taking command of the American Army during the Siege of Boston in July 1775. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Somewhat ironically, Washington would get his chance for military glory by fighting against the very army he wished to join.


Before arriving at the Second Continental Congress in May 1775, Washington—as a Virginia gentleman and wealthy farmer—strongly disliked British economic policies in the aftermath of the French and Indian War.


Writing to a fellow Virginia planter in 1769, Washington didn’t mince words:


“At a time when our lordly Masters in Great Britain will be satisfied with nothing less than the deprivation of American freedom, it seems highly necessary that something shou’d be done to avert the stroke and maintain the liberty which we have derived from our Ancestors; but the manner of doing it to answer the purpose effectually is the point in question.”


Arriving in Philadelphia, Washington had decided on the manner necessary to maintain his liberty—he attended Congress wearing his old military uniform from the French and Indian War.


Washington was making his bid for command. Unsurprisingly, when the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, John Adams proposed Washington as commander of the Continental Army. This nomination was unanimously accepted the next day.


Washington arrived at Boston two weeks after the Battle of Bunker Hill and assumed command of his Continental Army.


Early Success, Hubris, & Aggression 

Washington watching the British fleet with his officers during the Siege of Boston. Source: Americana Corner


Washington arrived as the situation turned to a stalemate. Like most officers of Europe, Washington was convinced there was only one way to wage war: aggressively.


Unimpressed by the British decision to retreat behind a line of fortifications, Washington boldly—and foolheartedly—suggested an amphibious assault on Boston Harbor. His subordinates rejected this suggestion, preferring a siege over a risky engagement.


Undeterred by his rejection, Washington continued preparations for an invasion of Quebec. This force was soundly defeated on December 31, 1775, during an attempt to storm the city. Major General Richard Montgomery, the commander of the expedition, was killed. Colonel Benedict Arnold was wounded. The battle was an unmitigated disaster that threw the Northern Department into disarray.


Nonetheless, a few months later, Washington was able to decisively end the Siege of Boston by placing captured British artillery atop Dorchester Heights to bombard the British fleet.


The British, not wishing to repeat the bloodbath at Bunker Hill, decided to withdraw. Washington triumphantly entered the city, convinced of his army’s—and his—ability to defeat the British through conventional tactics.


A Close Call: The Battle of Long Island 

The disorderly route of the Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island. Source: Newsday


Washington’s desire to engage the British in open battle would soon be challenged by the near eradication of his army near New York City. Correctly predicting that the British would need a major Atlantic port to support their war effort, he began moving his army to New York City in early 1777.


Despite fortifying his defensive positions for months, the Continental Army was soundly and swiftly crushed after a feigned attack convinced Washington and many of his officers to reposition their forces.


After siphoning off thousands of troops to assist Lord Stirling’s men at Battle Hill, the Hessian forces launched the coup-de-grace, slamming into the American flank. The Continental Army routed and retreated to Brooklyn Heights.


The American situation was desperate. They were pinned against the East River with no strategic depth; if their lines were broken, there would be nowhere to run. The situation seemed desperate, but Washington was saved by General William Howe’s decision to envelope and starve the Continental Army into submission rather than launch a costly frontal attack that may have carried the day.


The Continental Army limped across the East River under the cover of night and a dense fog early in the morning on August 30, 1777, evading the British fleet. Despite their withdrawal, the losses suffered during the battle—not to mention the desertions as Washington fled across New York and New Jersey deep into the fall—brought the Continental Army to the edge of ruin. A change was needed.


The Lessons of the Past: The “Delayer” 

A statue of Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, the namesake of the Fabian Strategy. Source: Schönbrunn Group


Unlike many of his peers, Washington never received a formal college education. Despite being called “too illiterate, unlearned, [and] unread for his Station and reputation is equally past dispute” by John Adams, Washington was no fool.


He was a student of history, and he was familiar with the writings of Livy, Polybius, and Plutarch. Through these men, Washington—ever the want-to-be soldier—studied Roman military history. Like most commanders of his day, Washington wanted to follow the example of Hannibal Barca. The Carthaginian general trounced Roman armies at the Battle of the Terbia, the Battle of Lake Trasimene, and the infamous Battle of Cannae.


Conflicts were decided by decisive battles, not by skirmishes.


Hannibal is widely regarded as one of—if not the best—generals of all time. So, how did the Roman Republic defeat him? By surviving.


After the defeat at Lake Trasimene, the Romans appointed a dictator to lead their war effort. The ex-consul Quintus Fabius Maximus was an experienced military commander who decided on an unthinkable strategy: not to fight.


Fabius was no neophyte in the art of war but decided not to go toe-to-toe with the Carthaginian general. Instead, he’d wear him down. Hannibal was deep in enemy territory with little hope of reinforcement or resupply. Instead, Fabius would shadow Hannibal’s army, staying far enough back that he could observe their movements but far enough away he couldn’t be ambushed.


The Death of Paulus Aemilius at the Battle of Cannae by John Trumbull, 1773. Source: Yale University Art Gallery


He ordered his men to ambush Hannibal’s foragers and to scorch the earth. Not a sheaf of grain would remain for Hannibal to feed his army. Time would be the decisive factor. Despite the soundness of his actions, the people of Rome vehemently rejected his strategic vision. It was cowardly. It was un-Roman.


To pressure Fabius to give battle, Hannibal began plundering central Italy—the most valuable land in the Republic. Fabius dutifully followed and encamped atop a hill, watching the destruction. He would not be goaded into battle.


When his second-in-command disobeyed orders and attacked Hannibal, he was immediately outmaneuvered. Only the timely intervention of Fabius prevented a total Roman defeat.


Unfortunately for him—and Rome—the people elected not to appoint him as dictator for another year. Two consuls were elected the following year to replace him. One of these men, Gaius Terentius Varro, won by promising to defeat Hannibal in an open battle.


This he attempted at Cannae on August 2, 216 BCE. He failed. Rome lost anywhere from 48,000 to 57,000 men on the field that day—the worst defeat in Roman military history.


Fabius would never hold office again, but the Senate heeded his advice without question. The Romans would employ the Fabian Strategy for the rest of the war, ultimately defeating Hannibal after he was forced to defend Carthage itself at the Battle of Zama in 204 BCE, being starved into submission in Italy.


Of course, Washington was likely influenced by his own experience in the French and Indian War as well. He remembered the effectiveness of the hit-and-run tactics of the French at Monongahela, of how a superior force was defeated by an inferior one in an irregular battle.


The Implementation of Fabian Tactics 

Alexander Hamilton by Charles Willson Peale, 1799. Hamilton served as Washington’s aide de camp throughout the Revolution. ​​Source: The Schiller Institute


While it would take time for the strategy to be put to paper, Washington’s change in tactics after Long Island is noticeable. Militiamen in New Jersey and Philadelphia were ordered to harass British supply lines and attack foraging parties. The Continental dispatched skirmishers to join in the chaos behind British lines.


Washington attacked the Hessians at Trenton on Christmas night, 1776, winning a minor strategic victory that served as a major morale boost to the Continental Army. His next engagements—the Battles of Assunpink Creek and Princeton—were again minor tactical victories but major political victories.


As his men settled in for the winter, the Continental Army worked with militiamen to harass British and Hessian patrols, foragers, and supply trains. While Washington would engage in multiple pitched battles throughout the war—Brandywine and Germantown— these battles were fought more for political reasons. Unfortunately, as Fabius found almost two millennia earlier, many in the Continental Congress were dissatisfied with this strategy.


As John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail:


“I am sick of Fabian Systems in all Quarters. The Officers drink a long and moderate War. My Toast is a short and violent War. They would call me mad and rash, but I know better. I am as cool as any of them and cooler too, for my Mind is not inflamed with Fear nor Anger.”


John Adams was Washington’s Gaius Terentius Varro. Luckily for Washington and the United States, Adams never commanded armies in the field. Washington held his ground, fending off at least one attempt to remove him from command for cowardice and passivity.


Robert Livingston by Gilbert Stuart, date unknown. Livingston was the recipient of Alexander Hamilton’s letter explaining Washington’s strategy. Source: The Gotham Center for New York City History


In a letter from mid-1777, his subordinate, Lt. Colonel Alexander Hamilton, placated a friend of his from New York. In his letter, we gain intimate knowledge of Washington’s strategic shift.


“I know the comments that some people will make on our Fabian conduct. It will be imputed either to cowardice or to weakness…The liberties of America are an infinite stake. We should not play a desperate game for it or put it upon the issue of a single cast of the die. The loss of one general engagement may effectually ruin us, and it would certainly be folly to hazard it, unless our resources for keeping up an army were at an end, and some decisive blow was absolutely necessary; or unless our strength was so great as to give certainty of success. Neither is the case. America can in all probability maintain its army for years, and our numbers though such as would give a reasonable hope of success are not such as should make us entirely sanguine…

Our business then is to avoid a General engagement and waste the enemy away by constantly goading their sides, in a desultory teazing way.

In the mean time it is painful to leave a part of the inhabitants a prey to their depredations; and it is wounding to the feelings of a soldier, to see an enemy parading before him and daring him to a fight which he is obliged to decline. But a part must be sacrificed to the whole, and passion must give way to reason.”


This letter shows that Washington and Hamilton reached the same conclusion Fabius had—while they lamented leaving their people “a prey to their depredations,” it was a necessary evil. Their intention to merely “maintain [their] army for many years” and simply “waste the enemy away” is pure Fabian.


The British had an ocean to cross and a transcontinental empire to manage. All Washington had to do was survive.


Washington: A Legacy of Heroism? 

General George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1779-1781. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Historians have debated Washington’s wartime strategy for centuries after the Surrender at Yorktown.


Some, such as Lt. Colonel Dave Palmer, have argued that Washington was a gifted strategic general who was no “mere Fabian.” Others, such as John Ferling, posit Washington as a strict Fabian who actively avoided pitched battle except when absolutely necessary. Yet others, such as Ron Chernow, claim Washington adopted Fabian tactics but always wished to defeat the British in the decisive battle.


It’s impossible to know for sure which—if any—of these positions are correct, though it seems Washington made a conscious decision to avoid a pitched battle with the British and wage an attritional war.


Contrary to what a millennium of Romans, Congressional Delegates, or military historians may believe about the inherent cowardliness of the Fabian strategy, both Washington and Fabius ultimately defeated superior opponents. Washington—admittedly with much help from the French—managed to defeat a transcontinental empire and forge a nation. Fabius managed to save Rome against one of the best battlefield commanders of all time.


Had either of them been defeated, then the world today would likely look very different.

Author Image

By Ryan StalkerBA in History & Political ScienceRyan is a contributing writer who’s never lost his passion for history. Especially interested in the intersection of conflict and identity, Ryan has also worked as a scriptwriter for various political, history, and true crime YouTube channels. He holds BAs in History and Political Science from Oakland University. In his spare time, Ryan enjoys playing video games, reading mythology, and watching all the documentaries he can get his hands on.