Category Archives: American Revolution

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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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

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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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Archaeology, Historic Preservation

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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Filed under American Revolution, Historic Preservation

Bring on the Rev War books

I’ve been so busy reading history for school that I haven’t had time to…well, read other history books.  Some interesting Rev War titles have hit the shelves this year, and I’m hoping to sink my teeth into a few of them over the holidays.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

Doing history with lock, stock, and barrel

Having read about and researched backcountry Rev War battles for years, it seemed high time I loaded and fired a flintlock rifle for myself.  I got the chance a couple of days ago, thanks to some of our living history volunteers at Marble Springs.

I’m not that familiar with modern guns, so on the rare occasions when I fire them, somebody usually has to walk me through it.  (“Here, pull that thing back.  No, not that one.  Wait, the safety’s still on.”)  The weird thing about preparing to fire the flintlock was that I pretty well knew what to do at each step, since a lot of the books I’d read described the whole process from start to finish.  It felt a bit like doing something you’d done many times before but hadn’t done for a long while.

The biggest surprise was the recoil—or rather the lack of it. Compared to the modern weapons I’ve fired, the flintlock was very easy on the shoulder. It was more like a firm nudge than a kick.

It did take quite a bit more effort to ram the round than I expected.  Of course, I’d read enough about eighteenth-century weapons to know that you needed a fair amount of elbow grease to load a firelock with a rifled barrel.  But the experience of actually doing it for myself drove the lesson home, just as my brief stint as a Rev War artilleryman a few years ago gave me a more visceral appreciation of statements I’d read in veterans’ accounts.  I think that visceral sort of knowledge is useful, even if you won’t always be able to convey it in your research and writing.

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Filed under American Revolution, Reenacting

A septet of early American links

This hasn’t been America’s finest week.

FWIW, I did run across some interesting items relating to early America over the past few days, some of which I’d planned on posting earlier.  Other than that, I’ve got nothing, other than to commend some wisdom from a long time ago:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.…So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Cor. 13:1-3, 13 (ESV)

Here are the links.

  • Archaeologists have identified the site of the 1779 Battle of Beaufort/Port Royal in South Carolina.  There’s some good news.
  • The National Park Service has acquired the site of Werowocomoco, where Powhatan held court in the seventeenth century.
  • Looks like the Continental soldier look is back in.
  • If you were going to pick seven sites every American history buff should visit, which would they be?  Here’s one list.
  • Historians of religion are weighing in on Eric Metaxas’s new book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  Metaxas claims that colonial America was a haven of religious freedom.  As John Fea explains, that was only true for certain colonies.  Proselytizing for the wrong church in Massachusetts or Virginia could’ve gotten you flogged…or worse.
  • Meanwhile, Robert Tracy McKenzie finds Metaxas guilty of misreading John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” remark.  Like a lot of people, Metaxas takes the quote as a statement of proto-Amrerican exceptionalism.  It was actually a warning, reminding the Puritans that if their “errand into the wilderness” failed, the whole world would see their downfall.  “Rather than puffing up the Puritans with claims of a divine mission,” McKenzie writes, “Winthrop intended his allusion to ‘a city upon a hill’ to send a chill down their spines.”
  • A Thomas Jefferson letter dating from the end of the War of 1812 turned up in an attic.  It can be yours for $325,000.

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Filed under American Revolution, Archaeology, Colonial America, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Still life at Sycamore Shoals

I finally got to see the updated visitor center exhibit at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.  The exhibit narrative offers a pretty good crash course in the history of Tennessee’s Revolutionary frontier, using some lovely murals, audio, artifacts, and a few tableaux with life-sized figures.

You can stand eye to eye with Dragging Canoe while listening to an audio dramatization of his speech denouncing the Transylvania Purchase.  He delivered these remarks in March 1775, just a short distance from where the exhibit gallery now stands.

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When Cherokee warriors launched an assault on the settlements in July 1776, one prong of the assault struck Fort Watauga.  Here’s Ann Robertson employing a little frontier ingenuity, using scalding water against a warrior intent on setting fire to the fort’s wall.

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Of course, another important moment in the history of Sycamore Shoals came in late September 1780, when the Overmountain Men mustered there for the march that took them to King’s Mountain.

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In terms of original artifacts, the highlight is this pair of kettles from Mary Patton’s gunpowder mill.  Born in England, Patton lived in Pennsylvania before migrating to the Watauga region with her husband.  The Pattons’ mill supplied five hundred pounds of gunpowder for the King’s Mountain expedition.  I think these material links to East Tennessee’s Rev War years are pretty darn special.

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If you wanted to identify one site as ground zero for Tennessee’s frontier era, Sycamore Shoals would be as good a spot as any.  It’s nice to see the place get the sort of modern exhibit it deserves.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History