THE SWAMP FOX RIDES AGAIN
At our December meeting John Oller treated us to a fine talk about his new book, The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution. He noted the many myths attached to one of history’s great guerilla leaders. To give two examples: Marion dining on sweet potatoes with a British officer, who allegedly returned to his headquarters and resigned, saying the British had no chance against men who subsisted on nothing but sweet potatoes and water; or the dreaded British cavalry commander, Banastre Tarleton, giving Marion the nickname of Swamp Fox whereas it was actually posterity who so honored the elusive partisan.
Marion is one of the few major Revolutionary leaders for whom there is no known contemporary image. He was not the “large, well built, handsome man” portrayed in Bill O’Reilly’s “Legends and Lies” television series, which, Oller dryly noted, has lots of “legends and lies” in its depiction of the Swamp Fox. Marion was five foot two, 110 pounds, dark-visaged, knock-kneed from birth, hook-nosed and narrow-faced. Oller aptly described him as physically like a “racing jockey of today.” Only his flashing black eyes indicated that here was a man to be reckoned with.
Marion was a seasoned soldier by the time major fighting moved South with the British invasion of South Carolina in 1780. He had distinguished himself against the Cherokee during the French and Indian War and in 1776 at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island, where South Carolinians defeated a strong British reconnaissance force. But when he appeared in General Horatio Gates’s Continental camp in 1780, age 48, with a motley-looking group of about twenty riders, some white, some black, a few Catawba Indians, the “wretchedness of their attire,” wrote one of Gates’s officers, presented an appearance “so burlesque” that the officers had to restrain the soldiers from laughing at them. Oller points out that Gates got rid of Marion by sending him downstate for scouting and boat burning, thus the Swamp Fox was spared possible death or capture when Gates led his army to a calamity at the Battle of Camden.
Over the next two years Marion fought some two dozen engagements and lost only one, which took place late in the war and was of no consequence in the outcome of the southern campaign, which ended with the British evacuating the South. Oller contrasted Marion with the character of Benjamin Martin, played by Mel Gibson in the movie The Patriot, and in part based loosely on Marion. Unlike Martin, he had not married, was neither a “pacifist, nor reluctant revolutionary,” and to our knowledge never engaged in either close combat or hand to hand combat, as displayed ridiculously by Gibson in the movie. This was not from lack of courage, for he was always close to the fighting, always in command and control, a conspicuous target on horseback. Mr. Oller also refuted the idea promoted by popular books and movies and TV that Marion was almost always outnumbered with a power-point table giving the numbers involved on both sides in seven of Marion’s most important engagements.
Individual engagements were discussed, such as Blue Savannah, Black Mingo, Tearcoat Swamp, to name a few. One of Marion’s most dramatic actions was the Bridges Campaign, actually a running fight between Marion’s Brigade and a British force under a Lieutenant Colonel with the marvelous name of John Watson Tadwell Watson. Watson began it by chasing Marion, who turned the tables and chased Watson all the way to Georgetown on the coast. Oller describes the action at Lower Bridge as a “turkey shoot” by McCottry’s riflemen. Colonel Watson is reputed to have said, “I have never seen such shooting in my life,” which may be part of the Marion myth but nevertheless accurately describes what happened as the British attempted to ford the Black River.
Marion’s cooperation with Major General Nathanael Greene and his Continental Army, especially in combined operations with a Legion commanded by Greene’s subordinate, Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, was critical to Greene’s southern campaign.
Francis Marion was a key figure among partisan leaders and their followers in saving the Revolution in the South, and perhaps the war itself, by fighting the British and their Tory allies to a stalemate, thus setting the stage for the appearance of the brilliant Greene, who would lead his regulars and the Carolina partisans to final victory.
BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS
Andrea Meyer was initially suspicious of Cynthia Kierner’s Martha Jefferson Randolph: Daughter of Monticello: Her Life and Times (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012). Would it just “trash her husband or her father?” And how could she be a daughter of Monticello when her formative years were not spent there? Reading the book, however, quickly changed Andrea’s mind: “Cynthia Kierner has written one of the best history books about women that I’ve read in a long time.” She cites the author’s thorough research, the writing gifts of a novelist, and the intellectual capacity to offer “the sort of deep insights on women’s lives usually reserved for” those master historians Linda Kerber and Mary Beth Norton.
Martha is made human with stress on the psychological impact of the loss of her siblings and the ill health of her sister and mother during pregnancy, and her childhood letters describing “every minute” of her daily schooling. Sensitive use is made of quotations from letters of the Jefferson and Randolph families to the point where “you are truly hearing her family speak”; yet Kierner also lets the reader know what is “left out of those letters.” Credit is given to Martha’s husband Thomas Randolph for managing the “chaotic business” affairs of his own family while also giving Jefferson the time to pursue his frenetic political life. Jefferson is treated with respect as well as sensitivity for his grief at his wife’s death. The author also acknowledges the role “played by the Hemings family without letting the story be about the Hemings family. What a welcome switch from the Jefferson bashing beloved of some writers.
Andrea considers this biography the “next generation of women’s history” and highly recommends it.
Swords in Their Hands: George Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy (Pisgah Publishing, 2013) by Dave Richards was Lynne Saginaw’s choice to review. It is the first full length treatment of a post-Yorktown incident. Neither the officers nor the rank and file had been paid in years due to the inability of an “impotent Congress (sound familiar?)” to levy taxes on the states. Plotters among the officer corps threatened either not to disband the army at the end of the war or, if the war did not end, march the army to a frontier haven and leave Congress undefended. Although Richards, a scholar of Russian and Slavic languages who was driven to “delve” into a story he didn’t know enough about, is “not the best writer,” at times “prolix and pedantic,” the story, Lynne writes, “propels itself.”
The author first explains the country’s dire financial situation, which persisted throughout the war, then moves on to the Newburgh plotters: Colonels Walter Stewart and John Brooks, and the author of the appeal to the officer corps, Major John Armstrong, as well as others. Behind them, in the shadows, lurked one of the most unpleasant Revolutionary characters, Major General Horatio Gates, whose chief motivation was probably jealousy of Washington.
Richards follows the plan as it moved to a showdown between the assembled officers and Washington on 15 March 1783. Washington voiced his opposition to Armstrong’s appeal, and then, according to the story passed down through generations, began reading a letter from a congressman, but haltingly, pulled from his pocket a pair of spectacles, and commented, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.” He soon left, whereupon the mightily affected officer corps rejected the plotters’ appeal.
The book is well sourced with many quotations and illustrations. Lynne considers it a “worthy addition to the library.”
MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
Last November Jack Buchanan gave the keynote address at a Symposium on the Southern Campaign sponsored by the Williamsburg-Yorktown Round Table and held at the new Museum of the American Revolution in Yorktown, Virginia. The title of his talk, “A Great and Good Man”: Nathanael Greene and the Road to Charleston,” covered the last half of the campaign through the British evacuation of Charleston on 14 December 1782.
The new museum merits a detour off the Interstates. It has a 22,000 square foot exhibition space, nearly 500 artifacts, dioramas, short films, and interactive exhibits. The 80,000 square foot building also includes an education center. Five major themes are explored: The British Empire and America; the Changing Relationship; Revolution; the New Nation; and the American people. Although parts opened in October 2016, the grand opening is scheduled for March 23-April 4, 2017. Historical societies, national and state historic parks, re-enacting groups, and governors will be invited to honor the original states during 13 consecutive days. New York State’s date is April 2nd. There are now being built outside the museum a new colonial farm and a military encampment area, the latter for re-enacting groups. They will be ready for the grand opening. And a peek at a road map will show other historic sites in the area: among them the National Park Service site at Yorktown where Cornwallis lost his army and with it America; Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, is only 32 miles away from Yorktown on the Colonial Parkway; and Colonial Williamsburg is a short distance north of Yorktown. A Round Tabler could easily spend a week in the area.
HUZZAH! GOOD NEWS FROM PRINCETON
Finally – the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton has seen the light and reached an agreement to sell to the Civil War Trust a 14.85 acre site that will increase the Princeton Battlefield State Park by 16%. The rub? The sale price is $4-million (with another $100,000 needed for restoration of the property). $1.5-million has been raised, but the balance of $2.6-million must be raised in the next six months.
TO DONATE GO TO: http://www.campaign1776.org
MORRISTOWN NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
Morristown was the nation’s first “national historical park.” This is fitting, for because of its strategic location the Morristown area served as the military capital throughout the Revolutionary War. In 1779-1780, at the Jockey Hollow encampment, over 10,000 Continentals endured the war’s most severe winter. The Park has announced a project to produce, fabricate, and install exhibits in its Washington Headquarters Museum. This will include completing the museum’s military gallery and mini-theater and creating The Discovery History Center. The latter will be an interactive exhibit aiming at putting visitors in George Washington’s shoes. The enabling legislation that created the Park named the Washington Association of New Jersey as advisor to the Park. Between 2005-2011 the Association raised $1.6-million to renew and enhance Washington’s Headquarters Museum galleries, and it has now donated $1.7-million for the new Discovery History Center.
CROSSING OF THE DAN
In February 1781 one of the most dramatic episodes of the Revolution occurred when Nathanael Greene’s army crossed the Dan River to safety in Virginia after a harrowing pursuit by Lord Cornwallis’s army known today as the Race to the Dan. The site of the crossing is South Boston, VA, and on February 9-10 and 17-18 the 236th Anniversary Commemoration will take place there at the Prizery, an old tobacco warehouse that the Halifax County Historical Society has converted into a fascinating museum. South Boston is located 106 miles southwest of Richmond at the juncture of U.S. 360 and 58. Go on the web to Crossing of the Dan 2017 Commemoration – Prizery for further information.
THE MAKING OF A REBEL?
A December 2016 book, The Burning of His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee, by Stephen Park, describes an event that occurred on 9 June 1772 seven miles south of Providence, RI. The previous February HMS Gaspee’s tough skipper, Lieutenant William Dudington, seized on a charge of smuggling (probably true) a coastal trading sloop Fortune, owned by the Greene family. To add insult to injury, Fortune’s skipper, Rufus Greene, a cousin of Nathanael Greene, was roughed up, knocked down, and threatened with a sword. When HMS Gaspee ran aground the following June, a mob including respectable merchants rowed out to the vessel at night, boarded it, shot Dudington in the arm and groin, and burned Gaspee. Prior to this affair, surviving records show no interest by Nathanael Greene in the momentous political and constitutional issues that were building to a boiling point. This is not to say that the seizure of his family’s sloop was his only or chief motivation to join the rebellion, but the first documentation of his thinking came after the affair, when in January 1773 he wrote to a friend of his fear that the “Privileges and Liberties of the People will be trampled to Death by the Prerogatives of the Crown.” It was Greene, of course, who would go on to wage in the South the most brilliant campaign of the war and after many extreme vicissitudes liberate the Carolinas and Georgia.
LAFAYETTE AND THE ANTISLAVERY MOVEMENT
Our own Polly Guerin reminds us in her blog that Lafayette, in addition to his important services in the Revolutionary War as a soldier and passionate supporter of American liberty, also throughout his life advocated the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. The British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson described him as a “true friend of the cause.“ All this can be seen in a new exhibition, “The Marquis de Lafayette, A True Friend of the Cause: Lafayette and the Antislavery Movement,” on view through February 4th at the Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street. Polly’s blog is – pollytalkfromnewyork.blogspot.com.
GEORGE III WILL ALSO RIDE AGAIN
Declaration of Independence read to them, 40 American soldiers and sailors went to Bowling Green, lashed ropes around the equestrian statue of George III, and tore it from its pedestal. From the pieces of lead scattered on the ground, 42,088 musket balls were made. The New York postmaster Ebenezer Hazard wrote to Major General Horatio Gates, saying : “His statue here has been pulled down to make musket ball of, so that his troops will probably have melted Majesty fired at them.” The statue is now being replicated at Studio EIS on the Brooklyn waterfront, with one important difference. It will be eight foot tall atop an eight-foot pedestal, but standing alongside the king will be the figure of a sailor apparently ready to throw a rope to his comrades below. The statue will become the centerpiece of a historical tableau at another Museum of the American Revolution, scheduled to open in Philadelphia in April. The full story can be found in The New York Times, October 22, 2016, p. A16.
A YOUNG ROUND TABLE
A new Round Table was organized in September 2016 and held its first event in November: the American Revolution Round Table of the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys, headquartered in the Fort Plain Museum, Fort Plain, NY. The Museum holds an annual conference in June. This year’s conference is scheduled for June 8-11 and will feature 10 speakers and 2 bus tours. The village of Fort Plain is located in the beautiful and historic Mohawk Valley about halfway between Albany and Utica, just off the New York State Thruway. Those who would like to get the Round Table’s e-mail program notices should write to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (518) 774-5669.
THE SPEAKER FOR FEBRUARY
Our speaker will be Dr. Bruce M. Venter, historian and CEO of America’s History, LLC, Tours and Conferences, who will speak on his new book, The Battle of Hubbardton: The Rear Guard Action that Saved America, a little known but crucial engagement that took place during the Saratoga campaign.
A DIGITAL MESSAGE FROM OUR CHAIRMAN
We hope you will e-mail your reservation for our meeting on February 7th, to our Secretary Treasurer at email@example.com. We will meet at our usual home away from home, The Coffee House Club at 20 W. 44th St., 6th floor, at 6:00 p.m. If you are bringing a guest(s), give their names to Jon in the same or another e-mail. You can also tell him about special dietary needs. If you want to pay in advance, send your check to Jon at 57 West 70th St., Apt. 3A, NYC 10023. You can also telephone Jon at (212) 874-5121. We look forward to seeing you!
Your most obdt svt,
David W. Jacobs