Leading Like the Swamp Fox: The Leadership Lessons of Francis Marion


August 8, 2022
by Jim Piecuch Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

BOOK REVIEW: Leading Like the Swamp Fox: The Leadership Lessons of Francis Marion by Kevin Dougherty and Steven D. Smith (Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2022)

The past decade has seen a resurgence of interest in Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, the Continental officer turned partisan commander who, along with Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, and several lesser-known officers, conducted guerrilla operations against the British in South Carolina from 1780 to 1782. Marion, the longest serving and most effective of the partisan leaders, was dubbed the “Swamp Fox” for his ability to emerge from South Carolina’s nearly impenetrable wetlands, strike a blow, and disappear back into the morass from whence he had come, thwarting attempts at pursuit. Several of the recent works on Marion, such as John Oller’s Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution(2016) and Craig Campbell’s General Francis Marion, Irregular Life of an Irregular Warrior (2016), cover Marion’s life and military operations, while others including Scott Aiken’s The Swamp Fox: Lessons in Leadership from the Partisan Campaigns of Francis Marion(2012) and the US Marine Corps Staff and War College’s General Francis Marion: The Swamp Fox and Marine Corps War Fighting Doctrine (2014), focus on Marion’s command abilities and the lessons that can be drawn from them. Kevin Dougherty and Steven D. Smith’s Leading Like the Swamp Fox: The Leadership Lessons of Francis Marionfalls into the latter category, as the authors examine various elements of effective leadership and demonstrate how Marion applied them in specific instances during the American Revolution.

Dougherty and Smith divide the volume into three sections. The first provides essential background information on the Revolutionary War and is itself composed of three parts. The opening portion discusses the importance of leadership during that conflict, employing the US Army’s current definition of “combat power,” wherein leadership, along with information, are the most important and all-encompassing of eight elements. The authors do an excellent job of avoiding presentism and placing the components within the context of eighteenth-century warfare; for example, they provide useful information on the weapons of the era and their capabilities. The next part of the section contains concise biographies of key leaders in the war’s southern campaigns, including Charles, Earl Cornwallis, Horatio Gates, Francis, Lord Rawdon, Nathanael Greene, Banastre Tarleton, and of course, Marion. The final portion of this section is an account of military operations in the South that provides context for the study of Marion’s leadership that follows. Although the section is brief, it is commendable for its accuracy, and the authors do not neglect any events of significance.

The second and largest section of the book examines eight characteristics of effective leadership and relates them to Marion’s military career. The eight analyses all follow the same pattern: the authors begin by defining the particular characteristic, using applicable material from the business world and the military, then employ cases from Marion’s experiences that demonstrate how he performed in that category, or in various aspects thereof. For example, in regard to a leader’s “frame of reference,” Dougherty and Smith illustrate Marion’s ability to adapt to the needs of different organizational structures through his rigid enforcement of discipline while in Continental service, and his acceptance of far looser standards when he commanded militia troops, whose cooperation was voluntary and who were unlikely to respond well to coercion. Other areas of leadership addressed are responsibility, interpersonal skills, communication, problem-solving ability, use of resources, resiliency, and growth. In every category, Marion proved himself capable and skilled. The only area where the authors find that Marion came up a bit short was in training subordinates capable of replacing him; as Dougherty and Smith note, Marion’s principal subordinates, Peter Horry and Hezekiah Maham, were not only incapable of cooperating effectively, but lacked Marion’s abilities as a battlefield commander, performing poorly in confrontations with Benjamin Thompson’s Loyalist cavalry in February 1782. These analyses also provide useful insight into why Marion chose to do certain things, pointing out, for example, that Marion’s constant effort to minimize battle casualties served not only to maintain the strength of his own force, but also made postwar reconciliation easier by avoiding the unnecessary killing and wounding of opposing Loyalists, who had been prewar neighbors of Marion and his soldiers and who would all need to come to an accommodation after the conflict.

In the volume’s final section, a conclusion summarizes the authors’ assessment of Marion’s leadership, an epilogue discusses Marion and slavery, and the appendix provides an informative guide to Revolutionary sites in the South Carolina lowcountry, with useful directions for those wishing to explore the ground where Marion fought.

The assessment of Marion as a leader is well done, supported by judiciously chosen examples, and serves to further burnish (if possible) Marion’s reputation as a military commander. Most readers with an interest in the American Revolution and its leaders will find this an engaging and informative work, though there may be a few who find the descriptions of, and references to, present-day management and command concepts a distraction. Careful readers may also note occasional discrepancies concerning troop numbers and casualties in the text, such as on p. 78, where American strength at Eutaw Springs is given as 2,276 and British at 1,793, while on p. 122 Greene is reported to have had “between 1,900 and 2,100 men” to oppose “between 2,200 and 2,400 British.” American losses at the Battle of the Waxhaws are likewise inconsistently stated, with a figure of 316 total casualties given on pages 36 and 61, but by page 98 the number has increased to 316 killed and 200 wounded. These, however, are minor shortcomings. In addition to its appeal to those with an interest in history, this book should also be valuable to anyone who holds or aspires to a leadership position in either the military or civilian employment. From personal experience working in both the private and public sectors, I can testify that leaders with the skills of Marion are rare, and that learning and applying the leadership lessons of the Swamp Fox would undoubtedly make many organizations operate more effectively, improve employee morale and productivity, and reduce conflict in the workplace. Therefore, while Dougherty and Smith have produced an excellent study of Marion as a commander for history enthusiasts, their work deserves to garner equal attention from those in the business community, business schools, public sector management, and the military.

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  • Francis Marion has always been one of my heroes. In the days where states taught state history, he was featured prominently in our classroom. Most of where he lived and conducted his guerilla warfare
    is where my family lived so I am well familiar with the area. He concern was not only winning but preserving the lives of the people. I have copies of IOU’s signed by him and for him for ‘corn, fodder and blankets’ from my many great’s grandfather. We don’t have leaders like this anymore.

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