Francis Marion (1732-1795): American Revolutionary nicknamed, The Swamp Fox.
The American Revolution spawned some of history’s greatest leaders, and statesmen such as Washington, Franklin, Benjamin and Jefferson, Thomas. However, these names should not cast so long a shadow as to erase the accomplishments of many lesser-known revolutionary figures. Francis Marion is one such figure.
Born in Berkeley County, SC on February 26, 1732, grandson of a French Huguenot, Francis Marion suffered from malformed legs. Despite his disability, he remained a restless child and led a very physically active life. At the young age of 15, Marion took to sea and sailed to the West Indies. He, along with seven of his crewmates, were shipwrecked; they only encountered land after spending a week adrift in a lifeboat. Upon his return, he worked at his family’s plantation until shortly before his 25th birthday. On January 1, 1757, Marion was recruited by Captain John Postell to fight the Cherokee in the French and Indian War. In 1761, Marion was promoted to lieutenant under Captain William Moultrie. Through scorched-earth tactics, Marion’s command successfully vanquished the Cherokee. Aside from the valuable military experience gained from these early campaigns, Marion also closely observed and learned from the guerilla tactics Native Americans employed, which he used later when fighting the British.
After the war’s end, Francis Marion resumed his farming lifestyle. In 1773, he purchased Pond Bluff Plantation. Two years later, in 1775, he was elected to the South Carolina Provincial Congress. Following the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Provincial Congress raised three regiments. Commissioned as a captain in the 2nd South Carolina Regiment, Marion once again served under the leadership of William Moultrie. Marion was first tasked with the defense of Charleston’s artillery caches and subsequently charged with the construction of Fort Moultrie. In June of 1776, Marion partook in the defense of the fort against the British admiral Sir Peter Parker. Despite displays of gallantry during the battle, Marion remained stationed at Fort Moultrie for the following three years. In 1799, Marion’s unit was called to action in the Siege of Savannah, which ended in victory for the British. In 1780, Marion’s role in the war changed drastically. A short while before Charleston, SC fell to the British on May 12, 1780, Francis Marion had been invited to a dinner party in the city. As was customary during the time, the host locked the doors to the house while toasting to the success of the revolution. Feeling confined and not a big drinker himself, Marion attempted to leave the scene by jumping out of a second-story window. Marion broke his ankle as a result and left the city to recover in the countryside and, consequently, avoided being captured. Following the fall of Charleston and several minor American losses throughout the state, Marion took it upon himself to raise his own militia.
Calling themselves Marion’s Men, Marion’s militia, unlike the Continental Army, and in addition to serving without pay, also furnished their own horses, weapons, equipment, and rations. Averaging approximately fifty strong, Marion’s Men made quite a name for themselves. Successfully thwarting British operations throughout South Carolina, Marion owed his triumph to emulating the fighting style of the Cherokee he had fought against during the French and Indian War. Additionally, Marion’s excellent intelligence network allowed him to track and monitor key enemy movements and positions. Often confronted to much larger forces, Marion used guerrilla tactics to surprise and outmaneuver the opposing British. Many times, the militia would ambush and defeat larger enemy force and quickly fade away into the wood and swamp lands before the British could inflict damaging casualties. Through Marion’s efforts, the British were never able to fully garrison the town of Williamsburg. However, it was not until November of 1780 that Francis Marion was famously dubbed “The Swamp Fox.” British Colonel Banastre Tarlton was tasked with ending Marion’s presence in the area. After pursuing Marion’s Men for over seven hours through twenty-six miles of heavy swamp land, Tarlton finally admitted that he was bested and said the well-known quote, “as for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.” As a result, South Carolina’s governor-in-exile, John Rutledge, commissioned Francis Marion as a brigadier general in the state militia.
In January of 1781, Marion and Lt. Col. Henry Lee were tasked with taking Georgetown. Although unsuccessful, they did manage to capture Fort Watson in April and Fort Motte the following month. On August 31, 1781, Marion rescued a small patriot detachment under heavy assault from a significantly larger British force, an action for which he received a commendation from the Continental Congress. In one of the final major military commands of his career, Marion commanded the right wing of Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Greene’s forces during the Battle of Eutaw Springs. Although both sides claimed victory at Eutaw Springs, the British failed to achieve their goal of halting all patriot operations in the Carolinas. In the battle’s aftermath, the British abandoned their aspirations of completely subjugating the Carolinas and remained confined to Savannah, Wilmington, and Charleston. In January of 1782, Marion left his position to join the state General Assembly which was convening in Jacksonborough. In June of the same year, Marion returned to his brigade and successfully ended a Loyalist insurgency along the Pee Dee river. In August of 1782, Marion retired from his wartime command and returned to his plantation. In addition to leading a peacetime militia contingent, Marion served in the South Carolina State Senate until 1790. After the war, he was noted for his leniency towards loyalists and opposition to drastic punitive measures directed at them. In 1784, he was made commander of Fort Johnson, which was located on James Island, South Carolina. At the age of 54, he married Mary Esther Videau, his 49-year-old cousin. In 1790, he played an instrumental role in the writing of the South Carolina State Constitution. After a steady decline in health, he passed away at the age of 63 at his plantation of Pond Bluff on February 27, 1795.
Although Francis Marion does not share the same renown as figures such as George Washington and Franklin, Benjamin he is still a hero of the American Revolution in his own right. If not for his cunning guerilla tactics and expert woodsmanship, The Carolinas might have suffered a longer British occupation. Marion’s legend has only grown in the modern age as movies such as The Patriot and media romanticize his tale. Masters of guerilla tactics, Francis Marion and his men are often considered the first United States special force elite unit . Not America’s greatest hero, Francis Marion nevertheless has earned a place among the nation’s champions.
Rebecca Dunahoe, Francis Marion: The Swamp Fox of Snow's Island, 2017.
William Gilmore Simms, The Life of Francis Marion: The True Story of South Carolina's Swamp Fox, (first edition 1844)- 2007.