Monthly Archives: December 2016

A fresh look at the Swamp Fox

From Parson Weems to Walt Disney, Francis Marion has attracted his share of myth-makers.  Scholars, on the other hand, have been reluctant to take on the Swamp Fox as a subject, at least in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  While Scott Aiken’s military appraisal of Marion appeared just a few years ago, students of the American Revolution have had no full biography since the work of Robert Bass (1959) and Hugh Rankin (1973).  The publication of John Oller’s The Swamp Fox is thus good news for readers eager for a fresh look at the South Carolina partisan.

It’s at best questionable whether Marion “saved” the Revolution, as the subtitle puts it, but Oller makes an effective case that his contribution to independence was significant, perhaps more so than that of any of the other partisan commanders operating in the South.  The diminutive Huguenot first saw combat as a provincial officer during the Anglo-Cherokee War.  With the outbreak of the Revolution he secured a position in one of South Carolina’s infantry regiments, participating in the 1776 defense of Sullivan’s Island and the disastrous Franco-American attempt to retake Savannah in 1779.

It was in the aftermath of the fall of Charleston in 1780, however, that Marion began the partisan phase of his military career that earned him lasting fame.  Employing mobility and surprise to great advantage, hit-and-run strikes became Marion’s stock in trade.  While most of these engagements were small—”little strokes,” as Nathanael Greene called them—they dispirited Lowcountry Tories and British occupiers, disrupted enemy communications between Charleston and the backcountry, and funneled intelligence and supplies to the main American army.  They also forced Cornwallis to send detachments on wild goose chases in attempts to take his partisan corps out of commission.

Marion’s greatest triumphs came after Nathanael Greene’s assumption of command in the South.  Although Greene’s frustrations with partisan volunteers and militia are well known, he was far more attentive to Marion than Gates ever was, and his dispatching of Henry Lee to collaborate with Marion resulted in the fall of Forts Watson and Motte, important British posts connecting Charleston with the interior.  Oller does note those occasions in which Marion and Greene clashed.  Like most Carolina partisans, Marion was reluctant to see his men’s horses turned over to the regular army, and his exasperation with command reached such a point during the siege of Ft. Motte that he announced his intention to resign.  Oller also details Marion’s frustration with his squabbling and sensitive subordinates Peter Horry and Hezekiah Maham.  For the most part, however, he paints a portrait of a man who kept a viable volunteer force in the field against tremendous odds.  And while Eutaw Springs was the only large-scale battle of the Southern Campaign in which Marion participated, the performance of militia under his command in the first American line during that engagement impressed even Greene, who was often critical of irregulars’ conduct in open combat.

If Marion’s service with Greene is an exemplar of how regular and guerrilla forces can conduct successful operations together, part of that is due to the two men’s grasp of the link between waging war and cultivating public opinion.  Greene once wrote that harsh treatment of Tories was “not less barbarous than impolitick.”  Carrying on a war without restraint, he believed, was both morally wrong and counter-productive, since any insurgency requires the support of the population as well as the defeat of the enemy’s forces.  As Oller repeatedly demonstrates, Marion shared this desire to conduct the Revolution in a humane fashion.  He condemned the abuse of captured Tories, and did his best to prevent his men from pillaging civilians.  For a partisan officer engaged in the vicious conflict in the Carolinas, this was no mean feat.  (Indeed, Marion’s upstate counterpart Thomas Sumter used plundered slaves as recruitment bounties, a practice Marion opposed.)  This desire to ameliorate the war’s worst effects carried over into Marion’s civilian life.  In the South Carolina Senate, he allied with those seeking to soften implementation of an act confiscating the property of Tories.

Oller’s book is lean in its treatment of Marion’s life outside the Revolutionary War, but this is no fault of the author.  Information on Marion’s activities between the Anglo-Cherokee War and the Revolution is scarce, and as Oller notes, Marion was not an especially prominent state senator, and his legislative career thus left behind a rather unimpressive paper trail.  But there is enough in The Swamp Fox to give readers a sense of Marion as he lived outside the camp and battlefield.

In any case, it was in his capacity as a soldier that Marion made his mark, and when it comes to military matters Oller makes the most of the available sources.  He employs primary sources to good effect, including the pension declarations that have proved invaluable to students of the Southern Campaign.  His book also benefits from use of the fine secondary work on the war in the South that has appeared in the past few years.  As a result, Oller is able to shed light on the many Marion anecdotes and apocrypha left behind in the wake of Parson Weems.  While he approaches the Swamp Fox legend critically, Marion himself emerges from this study with his reputation for enterprise and patriotism intact.  “Unlike so many heroes with feet of clay,” Oller writes, “Francis Marion holds up to scrutiny” (p. 247).

Longtime aficionados of the Rev War in the South will appreciate the insights in The Swamp Fox, but Oller’s book is also accessible to readers who are new to the subject.  Informed, illuminating, and engaging, it’s a welcome addition to the literature on the battle for American independence.

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Do history majors need the U.S. survey?

The U.S. survey course used to be a rite of passage for history majors, but more and more colleges and universities are dropping it as a requirement.  George Washington University is now one of them. 

The department eliminated requirements in U.S., North American and European history, as well as the foreign language requirement. Thus, it is possible that a student can major in history at GWU without taking a survey course on United States history.

The new requirements mandate at least one introductory course, of which American history, World History and European civilization are options. Yet, like at many elite universities, the introductory course requirement may be fulfilled by scoring a 4 or a 5 on the Advanced Placement exams for either U.S. History AP, European History AP or World History AP.…

This change was motivated by a need to “recruit students” and “to better reflect a globalizing world,” according to faculty comments to the George Washington University student newspaper, The Hatchet.

Faced with declining enrollment, from 153 majors in 2011 to 72 in 2015 to 83 in 2016, the history department decided changes were necessary, it reported.

Department chair Schultheiss told the Hatchet “the main gain for students is that they have a great deal more flexibility than they had before, and they can adapt it to whatever their plans are for the future. Whatever they want to do, there’s a way to make the history department work for them.”

I suppose this makes sense for students who already know they’re going to work on, say, the Byzantine Empire or twentieth-century Africa.  But discovery is an important part of the undergrad experience, as students sample a variety of subjects to discern what they want to do with the rest of their careers.  How many aspiring historians who have just declared the major know what subfield they’re going to specialize in?

Beyond that practical question, is there some sort of moral or civic imperative to make history majors at an American university take a U.S. history course?  Many critics of higher ed would probably say yes.  But given the increasing emphasis on education as preparation for global (rather than national) citizenship, and the growing appeal of transnational approaches to history, I suspect more colleges will make U.S. history optional, even for history majors.  That’s assuming state legislatures don’t try to step in and mandate otherwise.  Given the legislative involvement in higher ed that we’ve been seeing lately, that’s a distinct possibility.

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Foothills Conservancy acquires part of Cane Creek battlefield

More good news for preservationists and Rev War buffs!  A few years ago the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina initiated an effort to identify the location of the Battle of Cane Creek, where Charles McDowell’s Whigs faced off against Patrick Ferguson’s Tories in September 1780.  An archaeologist has linked the battlefield to a tract of land in eastern McDowell County, and the Foothills Conservancy has acquired the property.

Cane Creek wasn’t a large engagement, but it was an important prelude to the critical Battle of King’s Mountain.  McDowell’s men headed west after the Cane Creek fight to take refuge among the Watauga settlers of present-day East Tennessee.  Soon afterward, of course, refugees and overmountain settlers alike mustered and marched east for a showdown with Ferguson’s Loyalists.

I’m very glad to hear of the Foothills Conservancy’s success.  It’s a wonderful Christmas present for those of us interested in the Southern Campaign.

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Civil War Trust secures a truce at Princeton

Here’s some great news on a preservation fight this blog has been tracking for some time.

The Civil War Trust told The Associated Press it has an agreement to buy nearly 15 acres of land across from Princeton Battlefield State Park for $4 million. The group has raised $1.4 million to buy the land from the Institute for Advanced Study and will now begin fundraising for the rest, spokesman Jim Campi said.

The Maxwell’s Field site is where historians believe George Washington’s charge first struck British lines during the Battle of Princeton in January 1777. The land will be donated to the state to become part of the park.…

“This landmark agreement will enable us to preserve one of the defining moments in American history,” said James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust.

The institute donated 32 acres to the state in the 1970s for the development of the park, said spokeswoman Christine Ferrara.

“We are confident that this new plan and partnership will enhance the experience of the park for all who visit,” said Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the institute.

Supporters of preservation say the tract is one of the most endangered historic sites in the nation, noting it’s where Washington’s successful charge helped raise morale and arguably saved the American Revolution.

Roger Williams, secretary of the Princeton Battlefield Society, said that the compromise gives the group and historians the ability to “interpret the battle to be able to give a sense of what happened on this land.”

Awesome!  Here’s some more info from the Civil War Trust.  Now all they have to do is raise the money.  Visit the CWT’s website to donate, and spread the word!

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A dinosaur in living color

One of the many dinosaur books I had as a kid was a coloring book that came with a sing-along cassette.  The only song from that tape that I still remember was about dinosaur colors.  “Colors of the rainbow, any will do/Dinosaur colors are up to you,” went the refrain.

That song always struck me as a real downer.  Being able to make your dinosaurs whatever color you wanted was little consolation to those of us who would’ve given our right arms to know what color they really were.

Well, we don’t have to wonder anymore, at least not when it comes to some dinosaurs.  One of the most exciting paleontological breakthroughs of the last decade was the discovery of melanosomes in feathered dinosaur specimens.  Examination of these microscopic structures allowed scientists to give us a much more precise picture of what some types of dinos looked like.  When news of this broke, I felt like the earth had shifted.  For the first time, we were dealing with something other than educated guesswork when it came to dinosaur coloration.

The only thing more exciting would be seeing an actual dinosaur in the flesh with its integument and coloration still intact.  And, ladies and gents, that’s exactly what just happened.  From National Geographic:

The tail of a 99-million-year-old dinosaur, including bones, soft tissue, and even feathers, has been found preserved in amber, according to a report published today in the journal Current Biology.

While individual dinosaur-era feathers have been found in amber, and evidence for feathered dinosaurs is captured in fossil impressions, this is the first time that scientists are able to clearly associate well-preserved feathers with a dinosaur, and in turn gain a better understanding of the evolution and structure of dinosaur feathers.…

Inside the lump of resin is a 1.4-inch appendage covered in delicate feathers, described as chestnut brown with a pale or white underside.

CT scans and microscopic analysis of the sample revealed eight vertebrae from the middle or end of a long, thin tail that may have been originally made up of more than 25 vertebrae.

Here it is, the tail of an honest-to-goodness dinosaur, still in the flesh after nearly a million centuries.  This is a wonderful time to be alive!

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Photo by R.C. McKellar, Royal Saskatchewan Museum via National Geographic (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/12/feathered-dinosaur-tail-amber-theropod-myanmar-burma-cretaceous/)

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Now tweeting professionally as well as personally

Here’s a bit of news for those of you who are kind enough to follow me on Twitter as well as this blog.  In an effort to facilitate networking with other historians and institutions and to develop a professional online profile, I’ve now set up a second Twitter account for myself: @mlynchhist.  I’ll be keeping my aspiring-early-Americanist hat planted pretty firmly on my head while tweeting at that handle.

I’ll still be tweeting at my original Twitter account (@mlynch5396), too, and will probably cross-tweet most of my historical stuff there.  It’ll just be mixed in with my exclamations on dinosaurs, religion, news, regional matters, the human condition in general, and whatever else strikes my fancy.

While I’m talking Twitter, let me encourage those of you who read the blog but don’t follow one of my Twitter accounts to keep up with me on that platform, too.  A lot of the links and comments on American history that I would’ve posted here a few years ago now end up on my Twitter feed, so if you’re interested in what I cover here, I’d love you to join in on the rest of the conversation.

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Resources for those looking to help Tennessee wildfire victims

More than 17,000 acres burned in the Smoky Mountains, seven precious lives lost, more still missing, 700 buildings damaged.  The situation in Gatlinburg is post-apocalyptic.

If you’d like to pitch in, Knoxville’s NBC affiliate has a list of organizations, businesses, and charities that are collecting money and supplies.  You can also make a $10 donation by texting “REDCROSS” TO 90999.

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