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February 11, 2009

Swamp Fox

The Life and Campaigns of General Francis Marion
Robert D. Bass – ISBN – 9780878440511

Marion was of French Huguenot lineage; a diminutive, wiry, diligent, courageous and brilliant commander in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War . . . much esteemed, then as now, and iconized in his home state. Like, but preceding the Gray Ghost (John Mosby) in the Civil War, Marion earned the sobriquet Swamp Fox because he would emerge from an impenetrable swamp, attack the British and disappear without a trace. He was, at once, everywhere and nowhere. With his minions he exploited the most minor of advantages, often turning encounters into major victories. Prominent Royal commanders from the vicious Ban Tarleton to General Cornwallis respected and feared him. Like George Washington his resume was further enhanced in the retelling by Parson Weems. The movie The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, was (very, very) loosely patterned on the life of this gallant figure.

Despite his wily aggressiveness he would never fight when the risk of defeat was obvious. He protected his men. They loved him, fought and died for him. He was free of rage and ambition, confident but never foolish, and rarely made unpredictable or erroneous judgments and never exhibited malice toward his enemies. Whilst the Royals, especially Tarlton—often cruel reckless--ritually burned homes and crops of the patriots (and Tories as well!), rendering women and children homeless and without sustenance, Marion never reciprocated in kind. He never attacked the Tory loyalists in that way, and forbid his troops to do so . . . indeed would punish them severely if they did so. Further, he forbid his troops to be cruel even in his absence. Because he was kindly to his adversaries he recruited many of them to the patriot side of the conflict.

He was hunted as prey, but never caught. Cornwallis once sent the arrogant Tarlton out to capture and kill Marion, but he failed. After days of search he turned to other more ready captures with some lame excuse. On other occasions Marion’s “simple countrymen in blue jeans, armed with squirrel rifles, fowling pieces and homemade swords [threw back] the finest regiments in the British Army.” The man was a tactical wizard who could motivate simple country folk to fight like demons to secure their freedom. One British commander bitterly stammered that Marion and his men “will not sleep and fight like gentlemen, . . . but like savages are eternally firing and whooping around us by night, and by day waylaying and popping at us from behind every tree!”

On his weary return from the war he found his plantation in ruins, ravaged by friend and foe alike. The British had used it as an object of plunder and the Americans as a source of supply. They had pilfered his goods, burned his home, barns and contents, driven off his cattle, confiscated his horses and kidnapped his slaves. Yet with his customary grace, faith, and daring which had served him so well in war, he resumed his life with neither hesitation nor remorse. Unpaid for his services in the militia, and never reimbursed for his losses, he borrowed to replace what he could, fed and clothed his remaining slaves, restored his home, and became in peace what he had been in war . . . a respected gentleman.

While he had been the scourge of Tory loyalists, no one more readily forgave their loyalty to their king. After the war, and at personal risk, he defended them in public, and sponsored legislation to provide them justice and equity. When chastised by peers his rejoinder was: “God has given us the victory; let us show our gratitude to heaven, which we shall not do by cruelty to man.”

Eventually, by act of the legislature, he was rewarded for his “eminent and conspicuous services to his country.” A few years later, in his mid 50’s, he finally married; less than a decade later he passed into history as a legend.

The book is an informative read, but spotty. The narrative, while sometimes well constructed, is elsewhere dull as dirt. Many noted quotes seem manufactured—reading like historic fiction rather than the history it is supposed to be, though they do humanize the account. There are an additional several major faults.

The first is his mention of countless names in his attempt to include all surnames possible, thus to sell more books to people looking for heroic relatives. A back cover reviewer observed that “almost all South Carolinians can read about an ancestor or two.” I found it a terrible interference with the fluidity of the story. Only when one decides “to hell with what private so-and-so is supposed to have said or done,” and passes over distracting names, does the flow improve.

The second is that Marion’s men, the Tory militias, the British and Continental Armies raced all over the Carolinas, and the author includes every creek, river, lake, marsh and swamp; every hillock, mountain, copse, and forest; every path, trail and road; every plantation, village and town—by name!—and does so without providing a single map. Not one. Another back cover reviewer lauds Bass for “locating” Marion at least every three days throughout all the years of conflict. The tale suffers greatly because he did.

With those caveats I recommend the book . . . but plan to check out a few others. Marion is a fascinating and heroic Revolutionary character. I found myself wanting to learn more about him.

Posted by respeto at February 11, 2009 1:00 PM