The Swamp Fox
How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution
DaCapo Press, Boston, 2016, 400 pages
Book Review published on: May 19, 2017
John Oller’s The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution may be the best Marion biography to come out in recent years. Oller’s extensive research strips away the myths and legends of previous biographies in depicting a man of unquestionable character that became one of the fathers of modern guerrilla warfare. Oller’s Francis Marion is singularly responsible for resurrecting the spirit for independence in South Carolina and reversing the tide of defeat for American patriot forces.
August 1780 was a precarious time in the fight for American Independence. Two months earlier, Americans had suffered their worst defeat in the war when British forces captured Charleston along with Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln’s Continental Army. British forces wasted no time in defeating the Continental Army at Camden, South Carolina, and a large group of militia forces at nearby Fishing Creek, South Carolina. Believing the war in South Carolina to be at end, thousands of its citizens swore oaths of allegiance to King George III, including a few prominent patriot statesmen who sought British protection. The British Southern Strategy was to roll up the Carolinas and Virginia, trapping George Washington’s Army in New York, and with British forces advancing from the South, they were off to a good start. However, a diminutive forty-year-old former Continental Army officer, Francis Marion, was not ready to give South Carolina to the British.
Following Charleston’s surrender, Marion immediately made his way to Williamsburg, South Carolina, where he took command of the local militia. Marion and his small militia effectively disrupted the British Army’s Southern Strategy, compelling Gen. Charles Cornwallis back into South Carolina to address the threat posed by Marion to the British Army’s lines of communication and British efforts to pacify the state. Marion’s small militia defeated or successfully evaded endless attempts to destroy it by numerically superior British forces led by Banastre Tarleton, James Wemyss, John Watson, and Lord Rawdon.
Marion understood guerrilla warfare. He would wait till dark to move or attack, keep constant patrols out for warning, and quickly dissolve his force when threatened by an overwhelming British force. Marion gained local support in protecting nearby families and their property from plundering British patrols. Moreover, Marion would often attack on three sides, but not four, observing men were less likely to fight to their deaths if they had an escape.
Oller’s research counters traditional narrative of Marion operating out of a single base camp in the swamps. Actually, Marion operated from numerous outposts due to British Army efforts to destroy him, and he used swamps only to escape pursuing British forces.
Marion’s force was as unique as its leader. Its ranks included Native Americans, mixed race, slaves, freedman, and farmers. Marion and his men were often surrounded on all sides by the enemy, completely cut off from other American forces and supplies. They operated with the barest of necessities and dressed in rags. Their numbers were often in the dozens; they experienced high turnover due to desertions, sickness, and declining patriot successes on the battlefield. However, there were periods when Marion and his small militia was the only patriot force between the British and the fall of the Carolinas.
The final stages of the American Revolution were fought and won in the South. Marion returned home to rebuild his plantation that had been destroyed by the British and to serve several terms in the South Carolina State Senate. It is for this reason that Marion is rightly celebrated for his contributions to the cause for liberty. Historians and students of the American Revolution alike will be impressed with Oller’s depiction of Marion and his efforts to resurrect the spirit for independence in South Carolina during the dark days of 1780.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas