December 01, 2016


The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution. By John Oller. Da Capo. $26.99.

     The American Revolution was not won by any individual, but the search for “big man” heroes is an ongoing one that started with George Washington, still a prime candidate, and has continued through the years with focuses on this or that indispensable person without whom the colonies would have failed to establish the United States. The whole premise is nonsense, especially when the American Revolution is seen in the geopolitical terms in which Great Britain largely viewed it (the New World was in large part a new location for ongoing Old World balance-of-powers conflicts between the British on the one hand and the French and Spanish on the other). Still, there are always new candidates for the mantle of “indispensable man,” the latest of whom has duly emerged in a well-researched biography by John Oller – a book that shows its academic seriousness by having 250 pages of narrative and more than 100 of notes, bibliography and index. Oller’s subject is Francis Marion (c. 1732-1795), a South Carolinian of French Huguenot descent who joined the fight against the British in 1780, at the age of 48. Marion weighed 110 pounds, stood five-feet-two-inches tall, and was knock-kneed – not the physical portrait of a fighter of any repute. He was a plantation owner and, scarcely surprisingly in his time and place, a slaveholder. More to the point for the American Revolution, he proved to be a master of what we now deem guerrilla tactics, disrupting the regular British army in more than two dozen engagements – which is a better word than “battles,” because Marion was a master of harassment, of worrying the enemy from its fringes, of avoiding direct confrontation in favor of attacks that would keep the larger, far-better-equipped British army of General Charles Cornwallis off balance and prevent it from marching north from South Carolina to join General Henry Clinton’s troops in New York and trap Washington’s army between the two forces.

     Oller writes something just short of hagiography where Marion is concerned, although he is uncomfortable acknowledging the quite ordinary fact of Marion owning slaves – Oller eventually declares that Marion does not appear to have been a cruel master, which sounds like damning with faint praise. But this foray into political correctness and imposition of the values of the 21st century on the 18th is only a small part of The Swamp Fox. Most of it is about the facts and fiction surrounding Marion and the difficulty of separating them. Certainly Marion’s use of guerrilla tactics was notable, but it was scarcely new: Marion himself said he learned it from the Cherokee during the French and Indian War, in which Marion served as a lieutenant. Certainly Marion had more-moderate views of the rapine of warfare than other combatants did: a strict disciplinarian, he specifically forbade his men to plunder and commit other punitive acts after victories. In fact, defeated Tories who swore allegiance to the new nation were given full pardons and allowed to keep their property. And certainly Marion did have many victories: almost all his engagements against the British were successful, including one notable direct battle – an exception to Marion’s usual method of fighting – in which Marion’s forces ambushed a British column on a bridge near Charleston, killing 25 soldiers and wounding more than 80 while suffering only one dead and three wounded themselves.

     Few except dedicated students of American history will realize how serious the war in South Carolina was in Marion’s time: Oller, whose research is nothing if not meticulous, notes that of the thousand colonists killed in battles in 1780, 66% died in South Carolina – and of the 2,000 wounded, 90% were injured there. So Marion’s contribution surely came at a crucial time for the Revolution. But there were so many crucial times, so many crucial places – as is only to be expected in a war that dragged on for six years – that highlighting Marion’s role as the one that “saved” the Revolution is at the least an overstatement. Still, Oller’s book is packed with fascinating tidbits for those who cannot get enough of military histories and/or accounts of the American Revolution. For example, Marion’s sobriquet, “Swamp Fox,” was given to him by an admirer, but in fact he kept out of swamps if at all possible, avoiding insects and diseases by maintaining encampments on high, dry land whenever he could. In truth, it is arguable whether Oller’s book is rich in detail or overloaded with it – the descriptive decision will depend on the extent to which a reader is gripped by Oller’s narrative. And that in turn will depend on the reader’s response to the rather effusive praise that Oller heaps on Marion and the substantial credit he gives Marion for derailing a potential death blow to the American Revolution. Marion has not gone wholly unnoticed in recent times: a Mel Gibson film from 2000, The Patriot, was loosely based on Marion’s activities, and there was even a Disney TV series based (again loosely) on Marion (1959-1961). The Swamp Fox is, however, the first full-scale biography of Marion in more than 40 years, and is intriguing for the way it sheds considerable light on a man whose name now adorns 29 American cities and towns, 17 counties, a university, a national forest, and a park on Capitol Hill – more locations, Oller notes, than have been named for any Revolutionary War figure except George Washington.

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