- - Wednesday, November 2, 2016


By John Oller

Da Capo Press, $27, 400 pages

In recent decades, special forces have emerged as the “go-to” troops of the American military, with units drawn from each service branch. From training and fighting alongside guerrilla bands worldwide to killing Osama bin Laden, the “snake eaters” have achieved a reputation as innovative and deadly fighters.

A guiding precept of special forces is to avoid army-to-army battle; their mission is to harass the fringes of larger forces, using ambushes as a force-multiplier, and to provide intelligence to the troops that they support.

The master of such fighting during the American Revolution was Francis Marion, and the irony is that he likely would not pass a modern recruitment physical. Some soldiers in the ranks of the American Continental army snickered when Marion and 20 or so followers came to a camp in North Carolina in 1780 to join the fight against the British.

A South Carolinian, Marion was “a diminutive, forty-eight-year-old man who, at around five-foot-two and 110 pounds, possessed the physique of a thirteen-year-old boy. His knock knees, deformed since birth, nearly touched one another .” Yet his “flashing black eyes and steely demeanor” suggested a man ready for a fight.

By this time, superior British forces had flushed George Washington’s army out of the Northeast states and moved south into the Carolinas and Georgia, hoping that victories there would finish off the insurgent Americans.

The mission of Marion and his rag-tag militia band — Scotch-Irish farmers, for the most part — was to raise havoc in the British rear, keeping the superior force of Gen. Charles Cornwallis off-balance. Only then would Continental troops under Gen. Nathanael Greene stand an even chance. (Of French Huguenot descent, Marion avoided being drawn into the bloody ethnic feuds of his neighbors.)

Greene’s immediate request was for intelligence on British operations. As he wrote Marion, “Spies are the eyes of any army, and without them a general is always groping in the dark and can neither secure himself nor annoy his enemy.”

Greene was specific about what he wanted: “The spy should be taught to be particular in his enquiries and to get the names of the corps, strength and commanding officer’s name, place from when they came and where they are going . The utmost secrecy will be necessary in this business.”

Ironically, Greene privately derided Marion’s militia, likening it to the “garnish of a table” whose little “partisan strokes” merely kept the conflict alive, while victory must come from larger forces. He wanted a contest for “states,” not “scattered outposts.” But in due course, the bravery and fighting tenacity of Marion’s men convinced Greene of their value.

Statistics bear out the savagery of fighting in South Carolina. As Mr. Oller notes, “Of the thousand patriots killed in action in the Revolution in 1780, 66 percent died in South Carolina . 90 percent of the two thousand patriots wounded in action in 1780 fell in that state.”

Meanwhile, a shadow war terrorized much of the state, which was heavily infested with Crown supporters — many of them plantation owners who profited from cotton sales to England. Uncountable houses were burned, and human casualties were heavy. To his credit, Marion forbade his men from such acts of terror.

His forte proved to be attacks on British encampments, and he relied upon guile and nerve to bypass defenses in his attacks. But there was the occasional head-on battle. A prime example was the ambush of a British column on a bridge near Charleston. Buckshot blasts from Marion’s men slashed through the column, killing 25 British soldiers and wounding 80 to 100 more (at a loss to Marion of one killed and three wounded).

In victory, Marion was generous. Tories who swore allegiance to the new nation received full pardons and were allowed to keep their property. Any plunder they had stolen was returned.

Ironically, commanders would not permit Marion’s militia to join in a victory parade through Charleston when the British capitulated, fearing violence from the remaining loyalists. Marion turned aside the slight by remarking he had “never had smallpox and was afraid of catching it in Charleston.”

Despite the name bestowed by an admirer (and still used by South Carolinians) the “Swamp Fox” had the acumen not to live in a swamp — breeding grounds for insects and disease. His favorite encampment was on high and dry land.

Mr. Oller’s deeply researched book is rich with details on how intelligence contributed to America’s independence, and describes techniques used by American special forces today. A splendid military read.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 19 non-fiction books.

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