The Strategy of Victory
How George Washington Won the American Revolution
Da Capo Press, Boston, 2017, 328 pages
Book Review published on: February 8, 2019
Thomas Fleming, recipient of Boston University’s Burack Prize for lifetime achievement, died in July 2017 at the age of ninety. A writer of fiction and history since 1960, The Strategy of Victory: How George Washington Won the American Revolution became his final work. He adeptly leverages his writer’s prowess in crafting narratives plus his historian’s attention to detail and perspective, and crafted a book that relates how George Washington initiated and responded to events to achieve victory in the American Revolution. While it misses the mark on its claim as “a unique and insightful grand strategic overview,” it does present the challenges Gen. Washington faced to balance ends, ways, and means to secure victory.
The Strategy of Victory excels as an easy read for those who aspire to learn more about: immediate political-military issues within and between the Colonies and Great Britain, operational challenges to field, sustain, and employ forces; and descriptions and consequences of tactical battles. It commences with the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, and continues past the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the war through to the battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. The latter engagement resulted in Great Britain’s withdrawal from forts in the Northwest Territory and cessation of supporting Native American partisans in 1794.
A major strength in this book is its coverage of the “Southern Campaign.” Fleming sets the stage, then devotes two chapters, 17 percent of the book, to engage the reader. He exploits primary sources, brings to life field commanders and soldiers, and expertly depicts the operational and tactical challenges and actions of the Battle of Cowpens. His presentation is valuable for both novices and experts, and will benefit any staff ride of that battlefield.
Sufficient evidence is absent to meet the book’s claim to be a “grand strategic overview” on the back cover. The geopolitical context with the changes in Europe’s alliances since the War of Austrian Succession, the French-Indian/Seven Years War, impact of the Enlightenment, and Great Britain’s colonial policies are absent. Not until chapter four, “The Perils of Fabius,” does the author briefly mention Quintus Fabius Maximus and his “avoid decisive engagement” strategy he employed during Hannibal’s invasion in the Second Punic War. Fleming does report that Washington’s papers and letters do not specifically mention Fabius or a Fabian strategy. The author does cite a June 1777 letter from Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton to New York politician Robert Livingston wherein Washington’s aide muses, “I know the comments that some people will make on our Fabian conduct. It will be imputed to either cowardice or to weakness ….” He accurately predicts politicians, the public, and generals will criticize Washington and demand a decisive engagement, or request a change in command, similar to what Fabius experienced. The book would benefit from a chapter that addressed Rome’s initial losses to Hannibal, the selection of Fabius, articulation and examples of Fabian strategy, the Senate’s and people’s injured pride with avoiding direct engagement, their response, and the tragedy of Cannae. For those interested in a background on the Fabian Strategy and Washington’s adoption and adaption, please see Thomas Nelson Winter’s “The Strategy that Gave Independence to the U.S.”
Despite the absence of a grand strategic overview, Fleming does excel at presenting the challenges George Washington faced and overcame to secure victory. The Strategy of Victory provides excellent material for a case study on applying Arthur Lykke’s definition of balancing ends (objectives), ways (how, tasks, policies), and means (resources, assets to achieve a desired end state). The reader sees how Washington and his subordinates address competing subordinate objectives, biases against a standing army, distinctions on how militia and regulars perform, personal interests, the impotence of Congress, and the reluctance of states to support.
Fleming artfully weaves into his pages interpersonal rivalries, inter-state politics, political-military relations, character flaws, heroics, and anecdotes from primary sources. The reader predominately interested in “grand strategy” with a comparison and contrast on how President Washington compares with other strategic leaders should forego this book. The remainder who: have an interest in the application of “military strategy” in the Revolutionary War, a desire for an engaging history of the War for Independence, or a specific interest in the oft overlooked Southern Campaign will discover The Strategy of Victory is an excellent account of its subtitle, “How George Washington Won the American Revolution.”
Book Review written by: Robert Spessert, Fort Gordon, Georgia