Book review: The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, by John Oller (Da Capo Press, 2016)
Given the important role that Francis Marion played in the American Revolution, it is surprising that no biography of the famous South Carolinian has been published since Robert D. Bass’s The Swamp Fox: The Life and Campaigns of General Francis Marion, which first appeared in 1959 and was reprinted in 1974. While the Bass biography provided adequate coverage of Marion’s life and military service, it suffered from a lack of citations, making it nearly impossible to identify the sources Bass used. Also, at the time Bass wrote, much material relating to Marion’s Revolutionary activities was scattered across numerous archives, and apparently Bass incorporated few if any of these sources in his work.
John Oller has taken advantage of the publication of several document collections containing correspondence to, from, and about Marion to flesh out Bass’s work and provide a more detailed portrait of his subject. These sources include the Papers of General Nathanael Greene and The Cornwallis Papers, the latter of which provide insight into how Marion’s British adversaries viewed him and his operations, thus providing balance to the work. Oller has also made extensive use of articles and other secondary sources on Marion that have appeared since the publication of the Bass biography.
The author takes a balanced approach to his subject, acknowledging Marion’s military abilities and humanity in the often barbarous South Carolina civil war of 1780-1782, yet avoids lapsing into the hagiography that undermines many biographies. Oller persuasively demonstrates Marion’s importance in keeping the Revolutionary movement alive in South Carolina during the British occupation of the state, yet he does not hesitate to note that during this period Marion took part in only about two dozen military engagements, many of them little more than skirmishes. Nevertheless, it is clear that Marion’s mere presence as a threat to British control of South Carolina had an impact on the war far greater than any one of Marion’s battles.
Oller acknowledges the difficulties to be overcome in separating Marion’s actual activities and accomplishments from the heavy encrustation of folklore that surrounds the “Swamp Fox” legend. He carefully navigates past this obstacle, providing solid coverage of Marion’s Huguenot family background along with the little that is known of Marion’s youth. In examining Marion’s service during the Cherokee War of 1759-1761, Oller asserts that Marion’s involvement in the brutal campaign against the Natives was the source of his later abhorrence for unnecessary violence, a trait that was consistently seen in Marion’s conduct during the Revolution.
Marion’s early service in the War for Independence is well covered, including his role as lieutenant colonel commanding the 2nd South Carolina Continental Regiment and his actions during the British raid on Charleston in the spring of 1779 and at the Franco-American siege of Savannah later that year. The majority of the book, however, covers Marion’s activities as a partisan leader beginning in August 1780, operations that earned him the nickname “Swamp Fox.” Oller argues that Marion’s leadership abilities were rooted in his personal dedication to the Revolutionary cause and his understanding of the particular attitudes of the militia, which required him to modify the tough discipline he had exercised as a Continental commander. These personal qualities, reinforced by successful engagements against the Loyalist militia, won the devotion of his followers, although the commitment of many rebel militiamen waxed and waned as the fortunes of war shifted from one side to another. Oller does a fine job presenting Marion’s activities within the larger context of the campaigns in the South, allowing readers to understand the overall military picture and Marion’s place within it.
Marion’s greatest achievement, Oller believes, was that his repeated defeats of the Loyalist militia undermined British officers’ confidence in their local supporters and resulted in royal authorities making little serious effort to create an effective Loyalist militia, thus forcing leaders like General Charles, Earl Cornwallis, to rely on regular army troops to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The consequence of this was a dispersion of British strength that provided new opportunities for partisans like Marion to strike the enemy in detail. Although Oller does not criticize the Loyalist militia’s rank-and-file for their often poor performance relative to their American counterparts, he does argue that the rebel militia’s superiority was the result of better leaders, of whom Marion serves as the prime example.
Oller also examines Marion’s relations with his counterparts, finding that the “Swamp Fox,” because of his experience as a Continental officer, tended to work well with Continental leaders such as Gen. Nathanael Greene and Lt. Col. Henry Lee, but experienced more difficulty dealing with militia officers, particularly Gen. Thomas Sumter. Oller explores the complex, sometimes hostile relationship between the two partisan generals, portraying Marion in a more favorable light than Sumter; this view is widely shared by historians. In covering the July 17, 1781, battle at Shubrick’s Plantation, during which Greene had placed Marion under Sumter’s command and the former was so angered by Sumter’s conduct that he refused to serve under him any longer, Oller justifies Marion’s reaction and implies that the campaign would have been more successful had Marion been in command rather than Sumter.
As Oller’s discussion of Marion’s operations shifts toward the final months of the war, the author includes an account of Marion’s dual role as state politician and field commander, and how having to juggle these two incompatible positions may have contributed to Marion’s defeat at the hands of a Loyalist detachment in February 1782. Oller concludes the volume with a look at Marion’s postwar career and his efforts to promote reconciliation between rebels and former Loyalists. Overall, the book succeeds as both a biography and a military narrative.
Unfortunately, despite its general strength the volume is marred by several instances where the author includes flawed information. Oller repeats the long-dispelled myth that American general Horatio Gates was marching to attack the British in Camden on the night of August 15, 1780, when documents have clearly shown that Gates planned only to occupy a position closer to Camden. The author also attributes the cause of the 1759-1761 Cherokee War to the Cherokees’ alliance with France, when in fact the Cherokees were allies of Britain, and the war began after a party of Cherokees who had served with the British in Pennsylvania were murdered by Virginians during their journey home. Oller also misstates the definitions of the terms “cavalry” and “dragoons,” confusing the latter with light infantry, which may mislead readers. In his description of the Battle of Eutaw Springs, Oller again repeats myth rather than more recent and accurate information, describing the British army as equal in number to the American forces, when in fact the American force was substantially larger, and retelling the tale of rebel troops looting the British camp and reveling in the luxurious abundance of food and drink found there, another incident that has been refuted.
These problems do not seriously undermine the value of the volume, but need to be noted. A far more serious problem, however, is the format of the citations. Instead of using the standard form of numbered footnotes or endnotes, an unusual system is employed that is both clumsy and difficult for readers to follow. In the endnote section, only page numbers are given, along with a brief quotation from the text that is followed by the sources used for that section. For page 28 alone there are nine such listings, forcing any reader who wishes to identify a source to jump back and forth between the text and notes to identify the portion of the text in question and then the sources on which it is based. This awkward system is likely the fault of the publisher rather than the author, and the same is likely true of the book’s inaccurate subtitle: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, an exaggerated claim that Oller himself never makes.
The Swamp Fox is a long overdue update and expansion of the Bass biography, and its more detailed and nuanced portrait of Francis Marion is capably done and will be welcomed by historians. Unfortunately, those wishing to probe more deeply into the life and career of Marion will find the bizarre citation format an obstacle that will require much patience to surmount.