Archive | February, 2022

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

8 Feb

Francis Marion, forever known in legend as the “Swamp Fox” for his uncanny ability to maneuver in the wilds of the South Carolina swamps during the Revolutionary War, is one of the most celebrated military figures from the war in the Southern backcountry. Despite several biographies, and no little hagiography, much about the man and the details of the battles in which he participated remain more obscure than one might assume given the fame of his name, however. In John Oller’s recent new study of Marion’s life, The Swamp Fox, we at last have the thorough and balanced analysis of the partisan hero we have long needed. I recently had an opportunity to listen to a recorded version of the book.

Oller, a New York City lawyer and journalist, is author of other several other acclaimed, books, including biographies of actress Jean Arthur and nineteenth century celebrity Kate Chase Sprague. Here he seeks to present an unbiased and definitive account of the life of one of the American Revolution’s most celebrated figures. After all that has been written about Marion, it might seem that little remains to be said. As Oller demonstrates in his narrative, though, the truth behind the legend is still elusive.

One of America’s original practitioners of what we today call guerilla warfare, Marion operated in the chaotic Southern backcountry, where as a patriot leader he skirmished with both regular British forces and loyalist militia in a disorienting series of small-scale fights raging across his South Carolina home in the last years of the war. Oller paints a detailed picture of Marion’s accomplishments and role in sustaining the patriot cause in the South in his book during some of the darkest days of the war in the Palmetto State. This ranges from the crushing British victory at Camden and the capture of Charleston in the early phases of the British Army’s “Southern Strategy” to the series of skirmishes later in which the numerically superior British forces led by Banastre Tarelton, among others, tried but failed to crush the resilient patriot militia.

Through it all a short, middle-aged, and until then undistinguished, former Continental Army officer led the local resistance to what appeared to be overwhelming British might. Marion operated out of multiple bases, always choosing to attack when the odds best favored him, and always keeping his army protected from an unequal open-field contest with the well-equipped and professionally-trained redcoats. Oller sheds light on Marion’s unconventional tactics and the diverse force he led, as well as the disadvantages he faced. Following the end of the Revolution and the winning of American independence, Oller follows Marion for the remaining dozen or so years of his life, in which he had careers as a farmer and politician and enjoyed his status as a hero to his state. The Swamp Fox is thorough, entertaining, and highly recommended for anyone who wants to know more about its legendary subject.


Review of The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad, by David Smithweck

1 Feb

The sinking of the USS Tecumseh just off of Fort Morgan as it steamed into Mobile Bay on the morning of August 5, 1864 remains one of the most dramatic and somber moments in all of American naval history. Crippled by a floating mine which blew a hole in its hull as it led the fleet into the bay, the boat sank beneath the choppy waters, its destruction causing a logjam among Admiral David Farragut’s fleet which threatened to bring a swift and ignominious end to months of carefully laid plans for closing one of the last blockade-running ports supplying the Confederacy. Of course Farragut, defiantly pressing on with orders to “damn the torpedoes” (or something similar) ran into the bay despite the disaster, ultimately winning the largest naval battle of the Civil War in the process. But the image of the forlorn Tecumseh, dipping bow-first into the depths as its still-turning propeller became briefly visible to awestruck Yankee sailors and Rebel artillerists, forever casts a pall on the memory of that critical Union victory. The boat lies where it sunk yet today, its location marked by a buoy just offshore of Mobile Point. It is a permanent reminder of sacrifice and loss in naval conflict, for within its wreckage lie entombed the remains of some 93 sailors who went down with the vessel.  

In The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay: The Sinking of a Civil War Ironclad, Mobile historian and author David Smithweck seeks to provide a comprehensive study of this ill-fated vessel. Including information on its construction, crew, service, and final moments, the book also includes much information on the attempts to raise the ship and the numerous dives on the wreck site which have never before been published. Smithweck is a veteran of numerous naval salvage and exploration efforts in the Mobile Bay area over the course of some fifty years of research into area history, and is author of several brief books on regional historical topics.   

Smithweck’s book can best be understood as a reference source on its subject. It is not a traditional narrative history, mixing as it does bits of traditional history with the reproduced text of numerous original documents ranging from the ship’s period of operations to the attempts to raise the vessel in the twentieth century so that it might be exhibited in a museum. It is worth noting that the subtitle of the book might as well have made reference to those salvage efforts and what we learned about the Tecumseh from them, for nearly half of the book is devoted to telling that story. This point understood, The USS Tecumseh in Mobile Bay is a book that anyone interested in Civil War naval history or the history of the Mobile Bay region will want to know about.