To be sure, leading an indirect campaign was not an instinctive step for Washington. He was naturally aggressive and inclined to be impatient. But like everyone else, generals are altered by the extravagant pressures of war, and Washington, relatively young at the age of forty-four when he took top command, could observe, reflect, and adjust more than most senior commanders. The George Washington of 1777 would not be the same man he had been in 1775. At the war’s outset, he did not understand three of its key elements: the role of the militia in the fight, the kind of war he needed to pursue, and the allied intervention that would eventually reshape the war.
There were three stages in Washington’s evolution. First, in 1775 and much of the following year, he was inclined to take the offensive. Second, after a string of stinging setbacks around New York City in the summer of 1776, he shifted to a war of posts. This interim step was, again, not a Fabian approach, but was rather a retreat into fortresses from which he would invite the enemy to bring the fight to him. American troops may not be able to meet British regulars on the open battlefield, Washington was calculating, but perhaps they could fight from behind barriers. The stunning American victory at Bunker Hill a year earlier was the model for this.
But when Washington tried it in the New York area later in 1776, this approach of entrenching failed miserably. So by early 1777 he was reluctantly figuring out a third approach—that is, what an indirect, Fabian strategy might look like. He would pursue this for years, only occasionally offering battle when politics forced him to or when the British left an opening.
Winning battles does not necessarily win wars. Indeed, losing a battle can sometimes be an advantage, because a tactical setback can sometimes result in a strategic gain, if by engaging the enemy one slows his movement, distracts him from other targets, or just wears him down. For example, Benedict Arnold’s confrontation of the British on Lake Champlain in October 1776 resulted in him being “defeated soundly, but the tactical defeat proved an immense strategic gain. The lengthy naval arms race prevented [Major General Sir Guy] Carleton [the British commander] from conquering upstate New York before the winter of 1776–77.” That in turn gave the Americans time to rebuild their forces and go on to win the Battle of Saratoga in the same area a year later.
Astute chroniclers of military operations therefore focus not just on battles but on what actually wins wars. As Mark Kwasny describes it, the Revolutionary War began with a militia fight in Massachusetts. In the South, it mainly was a war of skirmishes. And even in the cockpit of the war, the middle colonies area surrounding New York City, more often than not it took the form of “partisan war”—that is, an irregular or guerrilla war waged in the shadows, often by part-time fighters operating in small, fluid units and then melting back into the civilian population. Part of Washington’s education was recognizing that this was indeed the nature of the war in which he was engaged. The British persisted in perceiving the war as similar to the conventional eighteenth century European dynastic fights they knew, writes R. Arthur Bowler. They were wrong, he finds: “It proved instead to be a popular war, a war in which the people were involved.”
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