Book Review: The Swamp Fox – How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution by John Oller (Da Capo Press, October, 2016)
Books abound which assert various Patriot leaders at some point “saved” the American Revolution. Chronicled saviors range from the supremely famous (George Washington) to important contributors (Nathaniel Greene, Henry Knox and Marquis de Lafayette) and finally, even much lessor known figures (Seth Warner and Silas Deane). Other authors cite countries such as France and Spain as “saving” the American Revolution. John Oller’s new biography of Francis Marion subtitled “How Francis Marion saved the American Revolution” continues in this tradition. Given the large number of important Revolutionary contributors and twists and turns on the battlefields, it is a high bar for Oller to demonstrate that Marion saved the Revolution.
Oller delivers an eminently readable and interesting account of Marion’s life, the first full-length adult biography in over 40 years. He distinguishes between fiction, fact or folklore. For example, he analyzes primary sources to debunk several Parson Weems stories and to discern complex motivations reflected in William Moultrie’s writings. In a break from customary Revolutionary War accounts, Oller provides thought-provoking modern day contrasts such as comparing the British strategy of Americanization in the Southern colonies to the United States’ strategy of Vietnamization. Particularly enjoyable is Oller’s comparison of Marion’s deceptive capabilities to the Woody Allen character “Zelig”, who is the lead subject in the eponymous 1983 movie. However, the most interesting question Oller raises is “did Marion save the American Revolution?”
Oller’s thesis starts in 1780, after the destruction of two Continental armies including the largest Patriot surrender in the Revolution at Charleston, South Carolina. As a consequence, there were almost no Patriot forces opposing the British in the Carolinas and it appeared that southern Patriots’ fortitude to rebel was subsiding. In face of the Patriot collapse, Frances Marion, an influential plantation owner and Continental Army officer organized a local militia in northeast South Carolina.
Learning from his militia service during the French and Indian War and Native American conflicts, Marion adopted guerrilla warfare tactics which sapped British manpower and wrecked havoc on British supply lines. Opportunistically, he employed hit and run and ambush tactics to confront a numerically superior foe. Marion sought out weakly defended targets including various supply missions and isolated British fortifications. Often appearing and disappearing as military conditions evolved, Marion developed a reputation for stealthiness and deception. Serving under British officers, he also knew about their haughtiness regarding colonial militia and understood how to used their condescension against them when confronted on the battlefield.
Militia units under Marion’s leadership, fought in at least two-dozen battles, many times when there were no other patriot forces opposing the British. He thoroughly planned his attacks and disengaged when conditions were not favorable. Marion became a major thorn in the British side. British commanders sent the best cavalry and light infantry commanders to capture Marion including the famed Banastre Tarleton but to no avail.
When Gen. Nathaniel Greene reconstituted the Continental Army in the South, Marion provided valuable scouting, intelligence and screening support. Oller points out that Greene most always kept Marion between him and the British. In a testament to Marion’s value, Greene provided scarce ammunition and supplies to keep his militia in the field. However, Greene became frustrated with Marion who did not provide requested captured horses to the Continental Army. Putting these differences aside, Marion’s militia demonstrated versatility and verve fighting as a conventional military unit under the command of Gen. Greene at the bloody battle at Eutaw Springs.
Marion’s reputation was further enhanced by his battlefield ethics and leadership style. He endeared himself to his militia by not needlessly risking their lives. Marion only fought when there was a clear opportunity for victory and regularly retreated when confronted by superior forces. Further, Marion was careful to scout, gather intelligence and plan before his battles. He was notable among the Patriot militia commanders, as he did not allow his men to plunder and did not order needless reprisal killings. Marion had a profound dislike of the viscous Tory-Patriot cycle of vengeance, which rampaged over the Carolinas. Lastly, giving excess supplies to the local populace and issuing promissory scripts for confiscated supplies further increased Marion’s reputation. A South Carolina legislator after the war, Marion expressly wrote himself out of the general pardon for militia officers for confiscating civilian property and goods as he deemed he had nothing to fear.
Although well written and citing many primary sources, readers should be careful of some of Oller’s assertions. For example, he describes Charleston as the richest city in America without citing a source. It might be true that Charleston had a higher proportion of rich white people than other North American cities. However, if you count African American slaves as manual laborers, income and probate estate distributions are similar to Boston and other northern cities. See Jackson Turner Main’s quintessential “The Social Structure of Revolutionary America” for a quantification of wealth and income during this period.
Another uncertain assertion is that more Loyalists Americans served in British Army provincial units than Patriot Americans in the Continental Army. Force level estimates widely vary on both sides, ranging from 19,000 to 50,000 loyalist provincials and 175,000 to 250,000 Continental Army soldiers. If “in the southern theater” qualifier is added, Oller’s statement could possibly be true as the British brought many provincial units from the north to fight in the southern theater and militia units made up a large proportion of the Patriot southern forces.
The third disputable contention is Oller’s estimate that a musket is only accurate at fifty yards. Based upon the extensive discussion of musket accuracy on the Journal of the American Revolution (JAR), this estimate is low with significant complexity required for an accuracy assessment. I defer the JAR authors for the correct musket range and accuracy.
All three of these assertions are not central to Oller’s thesis that Marion’s leadership was critical to defeating the British in the Southern theater. As to what contemporaries thought of Marion’s contributions, Oller raises an interesting question on Marion’s military rank. While a Brigadier General in the South Carolina militia, he remained a Continental Army Lt. Colonel. Near the end of the war, Congress promoted Marion by brevet one grade to Colonel along with many other officers. Oller conjectures that Marion was not further promoted to brigadier general as contemporaries viewed Marion as too soft on Tories. It is an interesting question for future researchers to understand if this is true and why he his valuable military leadership did not lead to him becoming a general officer.
While it is hard argument to prove that Francis Marion alone was responsible for saving the American Revolution, he had a large impact on the Patriot campaigns to defeat the British in the Carolinas. Subsequent historians imparted the label of Swamp Fox on Marion and his exploits became legendary. Oller points out that “a casual drive across South Carolina reveals, he remains first in the hearts of those countrymen.” However, outside of South Carolina, one does not see many reverential signs and place names.
While noting a few areas where additional research support would improve accuracy, I highly recommend The Swamp Fox to both casual readers as well as to Revolutionary War historians. Oller recounts a compelling story of a fascinating Patriot whom his peers eulogized as exhibiting the “purest patriotism”.