Strategy of Attrition in New Jersey and Italy: How George Washington and Quintus Fabius Maximus Waged War

Authored by:  Daniel T. Murphy


George Washington’s father was a tobacco planter who died when the future president was only eleven years old.  As a result, according to David McCullough, because of the family’s reduced circumstances, Washington had only seven or eight years of schooling by a private tutor.  Unlike many of his Virginia contemporaries, Washington had “no training in Latin or Greek or law.”[1] Yet, he ironically waged a war of attrition against British forces in New Jersey and Pennsylvania during the years 1776-1781 that very much resembled the Second Punic War waged by the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus against Hannibal of Carthage in 218-203 B.C.

Washington was described as being a “man accustomed to respect and being obeyed,” yet “amiable and modest.”[2]  John Adams said Washington would have “great effect in cementing and securing the union of these colonies.”[3]  Likewise, Romans saw in Fabius “soundly-based judgment,” that he “never acted on impulse,” and was “steadfast and resolute in all circumstances.”[4]  Fifteen years prior to the American Revolution, Washington had proven himself as a Colonel in the French and Indian War.  Fifteen years prior to the war against Hannibal, Fabius had led the Roman legions in a victory over the Ligurians in Tuscany.  Thus, we are comparing two battle-tested commanders.

In the American Revolution and in Rome’s Second Punic War against Carthage, Washington and Fabius both explicitly opted to fight wars of attrition against their adversaries.  Washington opted for an attrition strategy because he led a developing yet recently degraded army with limited operational capabilities.  For Fabius, it was because he commanded a remnant army and faced an adversary that was knocking at the gates of Rome.  Washington intended to use time to exhaust the British army, to either cause the British people to become weary of the fight, or to eventually strike the British army when its forces had become sufficiently depleted, and strike when the time was right.  Fabius similarly sought to exhaust the Carthaginian army.  Washington’s and Fabius’s attrition warfare strategies can both be examined via the Clausewitzian trinity dimensions of people, military and government.


Most importantly, both Washington and Fabius recognized that, in their particular conflicts, it was Clausewitz’s second dimension – the military – that was most critical.  For both commanders, the army was the center of gravity, and the army would need to survive at all costs.

When Washington was defeated in New York in 1776, the future of the Revolution became questionable.  According to Russell Weigley, “Washington’s first object in his defensive war was to defend not any geographical area or point but the existence of his army.  If the army could be kept alive, the Revolutionary cause would also remain alive.”[5] British forces used amphibious and maneuver warfare tactics to defeat Washington’s Continental Army in New York in November 1776.  For Washington, it was a significant learning event.  As a result, he essentially sought to avoid any full-scale confrontation with British forces for the remainder of the War, stating explicitly that a decisive battle with the British army was “incompatible with our interests.”[6]  Washington recognized the “amazing advantage” the enemy derived from their command of the sea, and that it kept American forces “in a State of constant perplexity and the most anxious conjecture.”[7]  Thus, Washington adhered rigorously to the principle of concentration of force, insisting that he would not divide his army.[8]  And he spent significant effort on recruiting and retention.  In a 1777 letter to Congress, he wrote “I must beg you will write to the Assemblies of the different States, and insist upon their passing a law, to inflict a severe and heavy penalty upon those who harbour deserters . . . Our Army is shamefully reduced by desertion.”[9]

Similarly, when the Roman army was defeated, and the Consul Flaminius was killed in the battle at Lake Trasimene in 224 B.C., Rome’s future existence became questionable.  The Carthaginian general Hannibal had transited his army across the Mediterranean to Spain, had then crossed the Alps into Italy, and after killing Flaminius and fifteen thousand of his troops, had been laying waste to the Italian peninsula.  As Romans had done when facing previous existential threats, they elected a temporary dictator with total government and military authority.  Like the Congress in Philadelphia selected a battle-tested Virginian aristocrat, Rome selected a battle-tested patrician aristocrat.  Like Washington, Quintus Fabius Maximus realized that what remained of the Roman army after Trasimene needed to be kept alive at all costs.

Fabius understood that Hannibal’s army was not incredibly large (although he had a powerful cavalry), and it was poorly supplied.  He urged Romans to “have patience and on no account to engage a commander who led an army that had been hardened in many contests for this very purpose of forcing a decisive battle.”[10]  Instead, in Clausewitzian fashion, they should allow Hannibal’s strength, which was currently at its peak, to “waste away like a flame which flares up brightly but has little fuel to sustain it.”[11]  In other words, Fabius wanted to wait for the culminating point at which the capabilities of the recently defeated Roman legions would be sufficiently restored, and Hannibal’s capabilities would be sufficiently degraded.  So, Fabius and the Roman army essentially followed Hannibal up and down the Italian peninsula for fifteen years.  When Hannibal stayed still, so did Fabius.  When Hannibal marched, so did Fabius.  Fabius typically camped his army in the mountainous areas nearby Hannibal’s army so that he could watch over Hannibal’s movements, and simultaneously reduce his own exposure to the Carthaginian cavalry.[12]  When opportunities arose, Fabius made harassing attacks, as he did at Casilinum where his army killed eight hundred of the Carthaginian rear guard.[13]  As a result of these tactics, Fabius earned the nickname “Cuncator” (lingerer).  Like Washington, Fabius had many critics, but was confident in his strategy of attrition – “I should be an even greater coward than they say I am if I were to abandon the plans I believe to be right because of a few sneers and words of abuse.”[14]


While Washington and Fabius both understood that the survival of the army meant the survival of their cause, they also appreciated the government dimension of the Clausewitzian trinity.  Thus, they both spent a considerable percentage of their efforts aligning their strategies with their respective civilian government leaders.

While some members of the government clambered for a decisive engagement (including an invasion of Canada), Washington was constantly cautioning in his letters to Congress that “We should on all occasions avoid a general action or put anything to the risk unless compelled by necessity.”[15]  At times he seemed to be fighting an information warfare campaign with his own leadership, reiterating his strategic logic on a daily basis.  In a letter to John Jay he underscored why the Continental army was not ready for anything other than attrition warfare – “In the present depreciation of our money, scantiness of supplies, want of virtue and want of exertion, ’tis hard to say what may be the consequence.”[16] Likewise, Fabius was constantly re-selling his attrition strategy to the Senate and other members of the civilian leadership in Rome.  Several influential leaders wanted to replace Fabius with his Master-of-the-Horse, Marcus Minucius, who argued for an immediate pitched battle.[17]


Both Washington and Fabius were also attuned to the populace.  The one occasion when Washington risked a decisive engagement with British forces was at Brandywine in September 1777, because he appreciated the people dimension of Clausewitz’s trinity, and determined that he could not give up the nation’s capitol without a fight.  Earlier in 1776, Washington recognized that the American people were reluctant to continue the war.  New York had been a disaster, and the British blockage was beginning to have an effect on the American economy.  Washington knew that the people needed to see a success.  The daring Christmas raid across the Delaware against Trenton was intended to do just that.  The victory shifted public opinion back in favor of the Revolution.  The funding came in.  The government authorized Washington to “use every endeavor,” including bounties, to convince the troops to stay with the army.[18]  And, the army’s fighting ability was kept in tact – Truly an example of the dynamic nature of Clausewitz’s people, government and military trilogy.

Similarly, a main reason why Rome won the war against Hannibal was because Fabius, in most cases, was conciliatory to the Italian towns that had been terrified into cooperating with Hannibal.  Rather than punishing collaborators, Fabius opted to “reason with them sympathetically . . . without inquiring too closely into every case of doubtful loyalty or treating every suspected person harshly.”[19]


After Trenton, Congress told Washington what Rome had told Quintus Fabius Maxiumus two thousand years before – That he was “entrusted with the most unlimited power, and neither personal security, liberty, nor property be in the least degree endangered.”[20]  Washington’s answer to Congress was “I shall constantly bear in mind that as the sword was the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first thing laid aside when those liberties are firmly established.”[21]  And at the end of the conflict, Washington did not need any coercion to lay down his sword.  Similarly, Quintus Fabius Maximus’s greatest hour was when the Carthaginian conflict had ended, and he willingly gave up his dictatorship in the name of democracy.  He was one of the last Roman dictators to do so.

Copyright Daniel T. Murphy 2012


David McCullough, 1776 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).

John Adams to Abigail Adams, June 11, 1775, in Adams Family Correspondence (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1963).

The Life John Jay With Selections from His Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers by His Son, William Jay in Two Volumes, 1833.

Plutarch, Fabius Maximus.

George Washington Letter to the President of Congress, January 31, 1777, Washington, George, 1732-1799. The writings of George Washington from the original manuscript sources.

Russell Weigley, The American Way of War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973).

[1] David McCullough, 1776 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 44.

[2] McCullough, 43.

[3] John Adams to Abigail Adams, June 11, 1775, in Adams Family Correspondence (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1963), 215.

[4] Plutarch, Fabius Maximus, 1.

[5] Russell Weigley, The American Way of War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), 12.

[6] Weigley, 14.

[7] Weigley, 12.

[8] Weigley, 14.

[9] George Washington Letter to the President of Congress, January 31, 1777, Washington, George, 1732-1799. The writings of George Washington from the original manuscript sources: Volume 7, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library, ttp:// (accessed April 3, 2012).

[10] Plutarch, 2.

[11] Plutarch, 2.

[12] Plutarch, 5.

[13] Plutarch, 6.

[14] Plutarch, 5.

[15] McCullough, 207.

[16] George Washington to John Jay, May 10, 1779, in The Life John Jay With Selections from His Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers. by His Son, William Jay in Two Volumes. Vol. II., 1833, (accessed April 3, 2012).

[17] Plutarch, 8.

[18] McCullough, 286.

[19] Plutarch, 20.

[20] McCullough, 286.

[21] McCullough, 286.