For military history fans and people intrigued by the heroes of the American Revolutionary War, John Oller’s biogrpahy, The Swamp Fox How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution is a captivating book about a remarkable American hero. The real Francis Marion (a.k.a. “The Swamp Fox”) is a lot different than the character played by Mel Gibson in the movie The Patriot. Prior to reading the book, my perception of Marion was that he was a reckless cowboy, who thumbed his nose at military convention. That view is the opposite of the actual Francis Marion. In fact, author John Oller has done a good job presenting the life and service of a very complex and fascinating Revolutionary War hero.
The Heroic Journey of Francis Marion
Oller’s biography is diligently researched. It begins with a comprehensive look at Marion’s early life and background. Born into a Huguenot family in colonial South Carolina, Marion’s upbringing and experiences in the French and Indian War significantly shaped his character. His service in the French and Indian War is similar to other Revolutionary War heroes like George Washington and Daniel Morgan. During his service in the French and Indian War, Marion fought against Cherokee Indians. In doing so, he learned a lot of hit-and-run (i.e. guerilla-style) tactics, which he would use during the Revolutionary War.
At the outset of the American Revolution, Marion served in the Continental Army and received a captain’s commission. His service included a post at Fort Sullivan in Charleston Harbor and later at Savannah. During his time on garrison duty, we get an interesting picture of Marion’s focus on discipline. He wanted his soldiers to maintain good order and discipline particularly in military appearance. He also punished excessive drinking. In this respect, he was a very by the book officer in the manner of George Washington.
Marion was also a teetotaler. He eschewed alcohol and preferred a mixture of water and vinegar. As a result, this habit led him to flee from a party in Charleston that had heavy drinking. Marion escaped by jumping out of a second floor window. In the process, he injured his foot. As he recovered outside of Charleston, the British laid siege to Charleston and eventually captured it. Thus, Marion eluded being taken prisoner. After the British captured Charleston, Marion began his guerilla campaigning in the spring of 1780.
Marion’s Revolutionary War Service
The book focuses mostly on Marion’s military career during the Revolutionary War. He was a constant thorn in the side of the British. As his tactics developed, he became famous for quick hitting raids. In many cases he would attack at night using mounted militiamen. He also employed guerilla style tactics that included ambushes and luring the British into long chases in the swamp country. Thus, the British were constantly trying to capture him, but he was always a step ahead.
Ultimately, British General Earl Cornwallis sent Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton to capture the Swamp Fox. Marion led Tarleton on a wild chase through the dense swamps and thick woods of South Carolina’s low country. When Tarleton finally gave up, he scornfully said, “As for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.” He then went back to chasing Thomas Sumter aka “The Gamecock”. While Tarleton could not get Marion, he did give him the famous nom-de-guerre i.e. “the Swamp Fox”, which has remained to this day.
Did the Swamp Fox “Save” the American Revolution?
Oller’s assertion that Marion “saved the American Revolution” is based primarily on his service in late 1780. During this time, the American army was on its heels in the Carolinas. General Horatio Gates had just lost the Battle of Camden in August 1780. As a result, there was a clear opening for the British to exploit the chaos and disorganized state of Continental forces. However, Marion continued to win small but strategically meaningful victories. They were strategically important because they prevented Cornwallis from making a move into North Carolina, which was his ultimate goal. Marion helped check Cornwallis’s ambitions. In doing so, he bought the Continental Army time to regroup until ultimately General Nathanael Greene took command in December 1780.
There is certainly a degree of truth in Oller’s assertion. At the same time, there were many other militia units that achieved significant victories to include one at Musgrove’s Mill and the Battle of Kings Mountain. Also, Thomas Sumter’s fight at Blackstock’s Plantation did achieve a bloody blow to Tarleton even if it was not technically a victory. Thus, while Marion’s fighting was impressive, it was not the singular reason the war was supposedly saved. He played an integral part in the larger effort.
The Swamp Fox’s Leadership
John Oller’s biography contains a lot of useful leadership lessons. Marion’s command was plagued with challenges to include constant recruiting woes. The militia would come and go as they pleased. This continually complicated his efforts. But, Marion continued to lead by example. He was always in the field and sharing in the hardship with his men. In return, Oller asserts that he was highly revered by his men.
While Marion’s guerilla tactics were unorthodox, he did not thumb his nose at doing the right thing. In fact, he was very strict in his policy against retribution to include burning Loyalist homes and property. This was a stark contrast to other officers on both the American and British side. But, one is presented with a portrait of Marion as a moral leader. He had a strong moral compass that guided his command decisions.
Finally, even though Marion was a militia commander, he worked well with other Continental officers. He repeatedly made efforts to keep General Gates informed. When General Greene took command, Marion developed a strong working relationship with him. As a historical counterfactual, if Marion had acted like Sumter and spurned the authority of the Continentals then things might have been much more complicated in the south.
The book also covers the joint operations to include Marion’s working relationship with Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. For some reason, Oller continually tries to paint Lee in a negative light. However, Lee’s actions dispute the authors own claims that he was a headstrong and cocky young officer. By Oller’s own accounts, Lee and Marion had a fantastic and harmonious relationship, which led to multiple battlefield victories.
An Engaging Post-War Narrative
The book additionally explores Marion’s post-war life and his role in the early years of the United States. He was a member of the South Carolina General Assembly. In this capacity, he did not want to punish Loyalists as harshly as many other politicians. There is a lot of irony to this considering how much time Marion spent fighting Loyalists. However, this speaks to Marion’s strong moral sense in which he was readily willing to forgive past grievances and move forward as a united country.
Marion’s post-war political leanings were similar to other veterans of the American Revolution. He was a Federalist and a man who supported ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
Another interesting fact about the Swamp Fox is that he found love late in life. At the age of 54, he married his cousin, Mary Esther Videau. She was 49 at the time of their marriage.
Francis Marion remains one of the most fascinating historical figures from the Revolutionary War. His style of fighting and tactics continue to be studied in the U.S. military. Furthermore, his military leadership was exceptional and continues to be studied. Overall, Oller portrays Marion as a man with incredible self-discipline. He had a Washingtonian type of stoicism. In many ways, he is a comparable figure to George Washington. Both men should be emulated as men of high character and virtue.
Most American states have cities and towns named after Francis Marion. If you live in a town named “Marion”, it is more than likely that the name comes from the Swamp Fox. Oller has done a fantastic job portraying the life and legacy of Marion. He has dispelled many myths about the man. The facts are much greater than the myths. He is not nearly as eccentric as his nickname suggests. But that is precisely why Marion was so accomplished. He was a quiet, diligent professional. When his country needed him most, Marion fought bravely and remained undaunted by any setbacks. His example should continue to inspire Americans to this day.