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.

JMB

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