Tag Archives: Francis Marion

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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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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Romancing the Swamp Fox

J. L. Bell has dug up a wonderful item, which he shares at Boston 1775.  It’s a letter from Peter Horry to that notorious disseminator of spurious anecdotes, Mason Weems, regarding the liberties Weems took with material Horry supplied for a biography of Francis Marion.

Thank God Horry didn’t live long enough to see The Patriot.

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Country music star Josh Turner admires Francis Marion

He admires him so much, in fact, that he named his new kid after him.  A fine choice.

I don’t know much about country music, but I’ve heard enough about Turner to know that he has a great voice and is one heck of a nice guy.  Congratulations to the family.  This calls for a cigar and a rousing chorus:

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Unconventional warfare at its most ruthless

Remember during the invasion of Panama, when Noriega was holed up in the Apostolci Nunciature, and the American troops set up loudspeakers and blasted rock music around the clock to try to break his will?

It might shed light on why the British finally evacuated South Carolina.

Incidentally, I had no idea until I saw the credits at the end of this clip that Disney’s Swamp Fox series was based on the biography of the same name by Robert Bass, who also wrote books on Thomas Sumter and Banastre Tarleton

All three books contain a fair amount of romanticization and legend, but are still valuable resources on the Revolution.  That’s assuming, of course, that you can still read after listening to the incessant repetition of that song, which could turn even the most ardent history buff into a babbling lunatic.

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The Patriot: Considering Creative License

My mom is a high school principal and English teacher, and from time to time she uses film clips in her classes to liven things up.  Her American Lit students are doing a unit on the Revolution, so the other day she asked to borrow my DVD copy of The Patriot, intending to show a scene or two just to set the mood.  To her surprise, the students really got into it, and they ended up watching quite a bit.

Very few of my fellow Rev War buffs seem to share my positive view of this film.  In fact, several years ago I attended a fine symposium on the Revolutionary War in the South, and one thing shared by practically every attendee with whom I spoke was a strong dislike for this movie.

It’s not hard to understand their dissatisfaction.  The Patriot plays pretty fast and loose with the historical record of the Revolution in the Carolinas.  Here are some examples:

The chronology is warped beyond all recognition.  The film begins sometime around the run-up to independence, then jumps forward to the fall of Charleston.  This places most of the action after May 1780, but a subsequent montage seems to show the much earlier encampment at Valley Forge.  Furthermore, the DVD menu identifies the climactic battle as Cowpens, which took place in January 1781, but a bit of dialogue places this sequence in October.

That last battle merits some additional attention.  Although it’s supposedly Cowpens (depicted here in a rather inaccurate painting), it bears a closer resemblance to the larger battle at Guilford Courthouse.  Cornwallis is in command during this sequence, but he was not present at Cowpens.  Nor was Nathanael Greene, who is depicted leading a council of American officers on the eve of the battle.  The film’s Greene also seems to have a southern accent, while the historical Greene was from Rhode Island.

An earlier sequence depicts the American defeat at Camden in August 1780.  In the film, this battle unfolds across a picturesque open field.  The actual engagement took place in a swampy, wooded area.  Furthermore, the movie’s Continentals flee this battle en masse; in actuality, the militia ran in the face of British bayonets, abandoning the Continentals under Johann de Kalb.  On a side note, de Kalb’s wounds in the battle cost him his life, and his remains lie in a Camden churchyard.  On my first trip there in 2001 I visited his grave, and was surprised to find a small movie theater just down the street where The Patriot was showing.  It’s a small world.

Mel Gibson’s Benjamin Martin character is a mish-mash of several backcountry commanders.  The most obvious parallel is Francis Marion, visible in the center of this painting.  An early draft of the script actually had Marion as its star.  Like Marion, Martin is a partisan commander who takes refuge in the South Carolina swamps.  Martin loses a son named Gabriel in battle; Marion lost a nephew by that name.  Yet Martin also bears a similarity to Thomas Sumter, who took up arms when British troops burned his home.  Martin commands the militia at Cowpens, a role performed in actuality by Andrew Pickens.  At the same time, he devises a defense in depth, with the militia firing two volleys before retiring to the rear.  Here Martin becomes a fictional Daniel Morgan, the rough-and-tumble commander whose skillful use of militia and regular troops at Cowpens ended with a tactical masterpiece.

For an eighteenth-century planter, Benjamin Martin is a pretty progressive guy when it comes to race.  He owns no slaves, relying on free blacks to work on his farm.  When a slaveowner signs over one of his laborers to serve in the militia, Martin insists that the slave sign up for himself.  In actuality, Thomas Sumter used the confiscated slaves of Tories to pay enlistment bounties.

Col. William Tavington, the film’s villain, is obviously based on Banastre Tarleton, the notoriously aggressive young commander of the British Legion depicted in the portrait at right.  Tarleton’s unsavory reputation in the Carolinas is the stuff of legend today, and made great fodder for American propaganda at the time.  Compared to his fictional counterpart, however, he was an absolute Boy Scout.  Tavington shoots a young boy in cold blood, burns civilians alive in a locked church, and (in a deleted scene available on the DVD)supervises the torture of captured American militiamen.  Tavington dies a particularly unpleasant death at Cowpens/Guilford.  Tarleton’s independent command at the real Cowpens was a disaster, but he survived, and in fact was one of the few British soldiers to escape the field.  He suffered a nasty hand wound at Guilford but served through Yorktown, returning to England to live to a ripe old age.  Although he never again saw active command, he was made a general in 1812.

In the film, Cornwallis and Tavington keep up a running feud.  In reality, Cornwallis relied heavily on Tarleton during the Carolina campaigns of 1780-81 and lavished him with praise on numerous occasions.

In other words, The Patriot takes place in a wartime South Carolina that’s similar to, but hardly identical with, the real thing.  To me, that’s no big deal.

Dramatic works operate by their own logic.  We judge them based on whether they’re credible, not whether they’re factual.  It’s only when their creators present them as “the truth” that they become legitimate targets for this type of criticism.  Screenwriter Robert Rodat slapped the “based on a true story” label on the script draft mentioned above, but the finished movie makes no such claim.  In fact, by changing the namesof characters and the details of certain events, the filmmakers assert their intention to present us with a fictional story rather than a reconstruction of history. 

Most of the movie’s discrepancies are the result of conscious choices, not errors, and in the context of drama they make pretty good sense.  The movie’s approach to slavery, for example, garnered some especially harsh criticism.  But since diversity and tolerance are our values du jour, I don’t think an American audience could have sympathized with a slaveowning hero, no matter how common the practice in the film’s actual setting.  It was a sensible choice to serve the goal of telling a story.

Whether or not that story works is a matter of taste, and of the principles of plot and character, action and setting, and all the other factors by which movies either succeed or fail.  The world of The Patriot isn’t exactly the same as the world I’ve found in the historical record, but for a few hours, at least, it’s a pretty compelling place to be.

(I obtained the images here from Wikimedia Commons.)

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The Revolutionary War on film

I’ve been looking up early American course syllabi recently to see if I’m on track with my ideas for teaching a colonial course this fall.  Not long ago I ran across a website with teaching resources, including a list of films dealing with early American history. 

For reasons I’ve never understood, the Revolution hasn’t fared well on the silver screen.  There are a few period films that I enjoy watching.  1776 remains a personal favorite of mine, because it helps restore some of the suspense and urgency that two and a half centuries have worn away from the debate over independence.  I’ve also got to confess that I’m a fan of The Patriot.  It’s a compelling story told well, and it focuses on the critical war in the South, even if it plays fast and loose with the facts.  A&E’s made-for-TV films The Crossing and Benedict Arnold: A Queston of Honor also deserve an honorable mention.  I haven’t seen HBO’s Adams miniseries yet, but I’ve heard some great feedback.  Still, the Revolutionary War can’t match the Civil War or WWII in terms of number and quality of film adaptations.

This hasn’t always been the case.  As the filmography at the above website shows, the Revolutionary War was a pretty popular subject during the infancy of moving pictures.  From the early 1900’s to the 1920’s, filmmakers were turning out Revolutionary War stories at a surprisingly high rate.  Similar projects often appeared close to the same time: Paul Revere and Nathan Hale were both popular subjects in the 1910’s, and Francis Marion got his own film in 1911 and again in 1914. 

It’s clear that moviemakers were interested in the Revolution from the first days of putting stories on film.  It’s also clear that interest in making Revolutionary War films didn’t keep up with this initial burst of enthusiasm.

There are a lot of stories from the War of Independence I’d like to see on the screen, but it doesn’t look like it’s happening anytime soon.  Countingdown.com lists quite a few WWII movies in the works, but I couldn’t find any Revolutionary War-related projects in any genre.  Maybe the current Founding Fathers craze will bring more filmmakers around.

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