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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