The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution by John Oller
Book Reviewed by Marion D. Aldridge
In my high school graduating class (North Augusta High School—in South Carolina, across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia) of 222 teenagers, there were at least three male Marions, maybe more, and at least one female Marian. You don’t get those percentages in Minnesota or New Mexico.
Because of South Carolina’s most prominent Revolutionary War hero, Francis Marion, “Marion” became a popular regional name for all children, especially boys.
My parents considered putting Francis Marion on my birth certificate, but to honor an uncle on each side of the family, I became Marion Douglas Aldridge.
My ears always perk up when I encounter the name of Francis Marion. During my Junior High years, Walt Disney produced eight episodes of The Swamp Fox, starring Leslie Nielsen. I watched them all. I read Francis Marion biographies. Later, in 2000, when Mel Gibson portrayed the Marion-based character in The Patriot, the elusive hero was nicknamed “the Ghost.”
One of the traditional difficulties of getting to know Marion better is the mythology that surrounds his life. The first biographies were pure hero-worship, as much fiction as truth.
So, when a new, better biography of Francis Marion was published in 2016, I bought and read it immediately. John Oller delivers the goods. Well-researched, footnoted thoroughly, yet very readable, Oller has given us a book we’ve needed and wanted for several decades.
South Carolina has been so enamored with the Civil War, we’ve pretty much ignored the Revolutionary War which happened, to a great extent, within South Carolina. Why haven’t our state and national park systems done a better job of paying attention to the sites of Francis Marion’s skirmishes? Why aren’t the students of West Point sent to South Carolina to study the military tactics of the Swamp Fox? Why hasn’t South Carolina’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism created billboards at every I-95 exit pointing to the small but significant locations of these South Carolina battle grounds that were vital to our nation’s independence? I would love to go to Snow’s Island, Marion’s Headquarters/Retreat, but I’ve never figured out a way to get there.
Readers with a knowledge of South Carolina geography will have an easier time with some of the obscure battle sites than those with no previous knowledge of South Carolina’s rivers, marshes, and towns. That many of the important locations are now under massive lakes doesn’t help. The volume contains a map of “The Principal Theater of the Campaigns of Francis Marion” which demonstrates the scope and shows the exact localities of Francis’s military activity. I suspect the fact that Marion didn’t venture into neighboring states has muted his national reputation somewhat. But the subtitle of the volume is true: “How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution.” I’d always heard, and Oller verifies, “More places have been named for Marion than any other Revolutionary War figure, excepting Washington. According to a current memorial project in the nation’s capital, Marion has lent his name to twenty-nine cities and towns and seventeen counties across America, not to mention a four-year university, a national forest, and a small part on Capitol Hill that cries out for a monument in his honor.”
You don’t have to be named Marion for this biography to be significant. Oller provides a grand overview of the history of South Carolina during the Revolutionary War years. An example that caught me by surprise was how fluid was the movement between the American Patriots and the British Loyalists: “Several Tories captured by Marion at Black Mingo took an oath of allegiance and joined his brigade.” Wow!
Unfortunately, I was taught very little American history in high school or college, a deficiency I regret.
The Swamp Fox, by John Oller, is helping me catch up.