The Swamp Fox

The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, by John Oller ★★★★

This book chronicles a portion of the history of the Revolutionary War that was never taught in school. More lives were lost and more battles were fought in South Carolina than in any other theater of the war, yet scarce mention is made of it in school. Oller, in writing this biography of Francis Marion, had the challenge of contending with the large number of myths that grew up surrounding the swamp fox, such as the near-total mythical presentation of Marion as found in Mel Gibson’s movie The Patriot. Oller describes a brief description of Marion’s life before and after the Revolutionary War. However, most of the book involves how Marion became a warrior in the war, and how he rose in prominence to eventually become a brigadier general in the war.

The Revolutionary War was both a rebellion against Great Britain as well as a civil war against the loyalists who wished the 13 colonies to remain a part of the British Empire. Besides the patriots and the loyalists were a substantial number of people who would flip-flop between British and Colonial allegiance, which included a number of folk who would first fight in Marion’s brigade, and then fight for the Crown. Several factors led to this vacillating behavior. First, the US could not afford the war, and thus was only able to pay soldiers as IOUs. Many of the soldiers had families and farms that had to be taken care of, meaning that they would come and go with the army as exigencies allowed. Secondly, soldiers desired to be on the winning side, and so would switch sides as the winds of victory blew one way and then another. Thirdly, a problem especially for Marion, was that Marion refused to allow his soldiers to pillage the homes and farms of loyalists, feeling that it would only further inflame the loyalists’ flames against the patriots. In contrast, Thomas Sumter and most other leaders would allow his soldiers to gain reimbursement for their soldiering by helping themselves with the property of the enemy. Marion maintained strict discipline with his soldiers and yet treated them most kindly, evoking harsh punishment and even the death penalty only to the most flagrant offenders.

The British were another issue. Though they claimed adherence to the Christian faith, their behavior with the treatment of the enemy was no better than the savage Indians or Japanese in WWII. Integrity was not a virtue among the British who often cried foul with any alleged violation of the international laws of war and then felt no compunction to keep those laws themselves. It is a wonder that many of the elites in the young USA desired friendly relations with Great Britain in the postbellum period. It is quite unlikely that Britain has developed virtue following the Revolutionary War, leading me to wonder why the USA wasted effort in saving them from the two major wars of the twentieth century.

It is well known that colonels and generals tend to have strong egos. In the South Carolina campaign, this created the most serious issues. Marion and Sumter did not get along and had completely different approaches to the war. Officers serving under Marion were also a great source of trouble which led to many instances of subordinates failing to properly execute orders from Marion, resulting in many partial victories over the enemy. Only late in the war would Marion allow direct confrontation with the Red Coats; otherwise, he would choose strategic skirmishes, that seemed to harm the British war effort far more than grand-scale direct confrontations.

Marion’s greatest virtue was that of being able to forgive his enemies, and he sought reconciliation and soft treatment for the loyalists with whom he had to battle during the war. Patriots who caused much grief to Marion also were forgiven, and a few of them worked together with him in the South Carolina legislature. Marion truly paints a picture of a virtuous soldier.

This book is a wonderful source to read. Much was not taught in school; as an example, the Revolutionary War persisted for several years following the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. Eventually, the patriots were victorious even in South Carolina, driving the British out of the interior of the state, and then out of Georgetown, and ultimately out of Charleston. The book was read entirely while camping at Echo Canyon State Park. My only misgiving with the book is the absence of maps. There were a total of three maps, but many battles and placenames cannot be found within the maps provided in the book. If the author ever issues a second edition, I dearly hope that more maps are also provided.