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In South Carolina during the Revolutionary War, a humble plantation owner and courageous patriot named Francis Marion became the father of guerrilla warfare.
“His name,” wrote biographer William Gilmore Simms in 1848, “was the great rallying cry of the yeoman in battle, the word that promised hope, that cheered the desponding patriot.”
Although his name was legendary, his physical image is lost to history; no portrait was made of “The Swamp Fox” Francis Marion during his lifetime, but many through the centuries have attempted to provide a picture of the man and his character: short and slight but extremely lithe and sinewy, with a gravity of manner relieved by flashes of keen humor. His dark eyes and commanding dignity—courteous, kind, and humane—formed the perfect ideal of a true gentleman. And while the real Francis Marion was a far cry from young Leslie Neilson’s blonde good looks in Disney’s 1959 movie and television series The Swamp Fox, and an even further stretch from Mel Gibson’s brawny, sanguine portrayal in The Patriot, the truth behind the legend is undisputed.
When Francis Marion was born in February 1732, it was doubtful he would survive—no one could have imagined that he would become one of the most memorable figures of the Revolutionary War. The last of Gabriel and Esther Cordes Marion’s six children, he was apparently born premature. “I have it on good authority,” said Marion’s friend and biographer General Peter Horry, “that this great soldier at his birth was not larger than a New England lobster, and might easily have been put in a quart pot.” But from this inauspicious beginning emerged a true patriot and hero. In the words of 19th-century historian Edward McCrady, he was the “great master of stratagem, the wily fox of the swamps who was never caught, never to be followed.”
In many ways, Marion was typical of his time and place. Both the Marion and Cordes families were of French Huguenot stock, his grandparents having arrived in South Carolina in about 1690. With axe and hoe, they had carved out plantations on the Cooper and Santee rivers, and Marion’s future seemed certain to be that of a planter. Yet during his early years, the family spent time at Georgetown, where the sailing vessels calling on the bustling port caught the young boy’s eye. Small for his age and still fragile in health, he was nonetheless determined and, in his mid-teens, he went to sea on a schooner bound for the Bahamas. At some point during the voyage the vessel sunk, which one account attributed to the ship being rammed by a whale. Marion and five other seamen were left adrift in a dinghy for days. Before they were rescued, two of the crewmen died of thirst and exposure, and the rest survived on the flesh of the ship’s dog.
Although a traumatic experience, Marion returned to South Carolina in better health. Wrote Horry, “His constitution seemed renewed, his frame commenced a second and rapid growth, while his cheeks, quitting their pale, suet-colored cast, assumed a bright and healthy olive.” He worked on his family’s plantation until his father’s death in 1760, then moved to his older brother Gabriel’s Belle Isle Plantation on the Santee River. After Gabriel’s death in 1767, Marion managed the plantation for his nephew, Gabriel III.
That Marion did not marry during this time is unusual. It may have been because he lacked a plantation of his own. It wasn’t until 1773 that he purchased Pond Bluff Plantation near Eutaw Springs, overlooking the swamps of the Santee River and not far from Snow Island, which would serve as Marion’s hideout in the Revolutionary War years. At Pond Bluff he grew indigo, and he would call the plantation home for the rest of his life.
The Cherokee War
In 1757, in the midst of the French and Indian War, Marion joined the militia but didn’t see action until 1761, when hostilities with South Carolina’s Cherokee tribes flared. As a lieutenant, Marion fought under his friend Captain William Moultrie in a campaign led by Colonel James Grant of Scotland, who commanded 2,600 British and American troops.
Popular portrayals of Marion showcase his extraordinary fighting capabilities, particularly when using a tomahawk. While Marion was certainly involved in the Cherokee conflict, he abhorred some of the actions he observed. In a letter quoted by Horry, a compassionate Marion reacted to the aftermath of a battle: “The next morning we proceeded by order of Colonel James Grant to burn down the Indians’ cabins. Some of our men seemed to enjoy this cruel work, laughing very heartily at the curling flames. But to me it appeared a shocking sight. Poor creatures, we surely need not grudge you such miserable habitations. But, when we came, according to orders, to cut down the fields of corn, I could scarcely refrain from tears.” It was a sense of compassion Marion would carry with him all his life. Throughout the Revolutionary War, his habit was to lead his men into position in the field, then stand aside and observe the action from his horse. Apparently, the great warrior detested the shedding of blood.
A Band of Partisans
With the onset of the Revolutionary War, Marion was again serving under Moultrie as a captain of the Second South Carolina Regiment on Sullivan’s Island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. He was in the thick of the action during the Battle of Fort Sullivan on June 28, 1776, where, from their unfinished stronghold, the small band of determined patriots successfully routed the far superior invading British forces under Admiral Sir Peter Parker carrying Lord Cornwallis’ army.
The next years saw little action on the coast and Marion, now promoted to lieutenant colonel with command of the Second South Carolina Regiment, worked on strengthening Charleston’s defenses. In late 1779, he participated in the ill-fated siege of Savannah and the failed attempt to wrest the city from British control. The poorly planned event was a disaster that Marion blamed on the slow response of the commanders in charge, specifically General Benjamin Lincoln and Admiral Valerie d’Estaing. Horry wrote that he had never seen Marion so angry. “Great God!” Marion exclaimed. “Who ever heard of anything like this before? First allow your enemy to intrench? And then fight him?”
After a period in the Beaufort and Pocotaligo area, by March 1780 Marion was back in Charleston. During this time, one of the most colorful and enduring events of the Swamp Fox’s life apparently occurred. Alexander McQueen, Marion’s adjutant, held a social gathering at his home at the corner of Tradd and Orange streets. Libations were flowing freely, and in the manner of the day McQueen had locked the first floor doors and windows to keep his guests happily “imprisoned” until the wine was gone.
Marion drank only sparingly and decided to leave. But with the doors and windows locked, he opted to jump out of a second story window. When he landed, he broke his ankle, an accident that turned out to be a stroke of luck. Marion was on the mend at Pond Bluff when Charleston fell to the British in May 1780. Had he been in the city, he would have been taken along with Moultrie and other fellow officers, most of whom spent the next two years imprisoned in St. Augustine. Thus, in June 1780, Marion became almost the sole patriot fighting the British on Carolina soil until the arrival of Continental troops from the North.
The Call to Arms
It was at this point that Marion began forming his ragtag assemblage—between 20 and 70 depending on how many were available for action—far from regimental perfection. They had no uniforms and carried the muskets or rifles they brought from their farms. Yet they were ideally suited for the hit-and-run tactics the Swamp Fox employed. They were local people who knew the swamps and forests intimately and had the woodland skills to survive in the wild and on their own.
When General Horatio Gates arrived in Camden to oversee the Continental forces in the South preparing for action against Cornwallis, Marion and his men offered their services. They were all but laughed out of camp. “Colonel Marion, a gentleman of South Carolina,” wrote Gate’s adjutant, Colonel Otho Williams, “had been with the army a few days, attended by a very few followers, distinguished by small leather caps, and the wretchedness of their attire…. Their number did not exceed 20 men and boys, some white, some black, and all mounted, but most of them miserably equipped; their appearance was in fact so burlesque that it was with much difficulty the diversion of the regular soldiery was restrained by the officers.”
A career soldier, Gates was infuriated by the state of Marion’s men and ordered them back into the interior, ostensibly to watch enemy movements and provide intelligence. Gates’s “good riddance” would turn out to be one of the more providential orders ever given, as on August 16 he suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Camden. His army retreated into North Carolina, and he would later face a court of inquiry about his conduct at the battle.
With Gates’ departure, now the only resistance against the British in South Carolina was the Swamp Fox and his men. Marion learned from a deserter that a contingency of British soldiers was holding 150 prisoners near Nelson’s Ferry on the Santee River. In a surprise night raid, his men attacked, capturing the British escort and releasing all the prisoners, many of whom joined his band.
Guerilla Tactics in an Ugly War
The Revolutionary War in South Carolina was more a series of small skirmishes than large-scale battles. It was also violent and bloody. The British began using strong-arm tactics, marauding and burning farms and plantations and employing unusually cruel and brutal methods. But the British decision to bully the Upcountry farmers of North and South Carolina would come back to haunt them: many were first- and second-generation Carolinians who had been given free passage and land by the English government and were therefore loyal to the Crown.
Not so after the British raided their homes. After a series of losses to Marion’s thrust-and-parry tactics, Cornwallis ordered Major James Wemyss to burn the homes in the Pee Dee River Basin and capture Marion. Wemyss cut a swathe of destruction 15 miles wide and 70 miles long from Kingstree to Cheraw. But Marion remained free, and with his successes his numbers grew. Lord Cornwallis paid Marion a backhanded compliment when he wrote that because of him, “there was scarce an inhabitant between the Santee and the Peedee that was not in arms against us.”
Marion harassed the British at every opportunity, defeating them at Blue Savannah on September 4, 1780, and again at Black Mingo Creek on September 29. On October 26, in Tearcoat Swamp near Kingstree, he once again surprised the British, capturing their food, baggage, ammunition, 80 new muskets, and horses with saddles. This time, Cornwallis reacted by sending in Lieutenant Colonel Banestre Tarleton.
Tarleton’s mounted dragoons had served in campaigns throughout the war, from Trenton to the capture of Philadelphia. His cruelties were already legendary, and in South Carolina they reached epic proportions at the Battle of Waxhaw Creek near Lancaster in May 1780. Tarleton’s cavalry overran American forces, and even after flags had been raised in surrender, Tarleton’s men continued to hack down the Americans with their sabers, earning him the moniker “Bloody” Tarleton.
Throughout South Carolina, Tarleton continued to alienate the civilian population with acts of cruelty, fostering anguished rage. More farmers took up arms against the British, while others reacted with renewed determination. As historian William Dobein James wrote, “It roused the spirit of the lion.”
The Wily Fox
Soon it became a game of fox-and-hare between Tarleton and Marion. At times, Tarleton had Marion on the run, and nearly succeeded in catching him in Georgetown in November 1780. But he failed to do so, and the chase ended when Cornwallis’ army retreated into Virginia and were ultimately defeated at Yorktown. “As for this damned fox,” said a frustrated Tarleton, “the devil himself could not catch him!”
Such were Marion’s accomplishments that General Nathanael Greene, who commanded the Continental Army in the South, wrote a glowing letter of praise to Marion in April 1781. “When I consider how much you have done and suffered, and under what disadvantages you have maintained your ground,” wrote Greene, “I am at a loss at which to admire most, your courage and fortitude, or your address and management…. Surrounded on every side with a superior force, hunted from every quarter with veteran troops, you have found means to keep alive the expiring hopes of an oppressed militia when all succor seemed to be cut off.”
In November 1782, with peace negotiations under way, it was Marion, now a brigadier general, who put a halt to the killing. Having been given orders by General Greene to go after a group of British foragers at Hobcaw Point, Marion refused, stating that enough blood had been shed in the cause of freedom and that he would not spill another drop of it. Following the British evacuation of Charleston on December 14, 1782, there was a grand victory parade but, incredibly, Marion’s militia was not permitted to be involved—the civil authority excluded them as “dangerous spectators.” Marion instead met with his men at their camp and wished them a last and fond farewell.
After the war, Marion began rebuilding Pond Bluff, in shambles thanks to British attacks and plundering. Rather incredibly, in 1786, at the age of 54, he married his first cousin and neighbor, Mary Ester Videau.
Marion served as a delegate to South Carolina’s Constitutional Convention before withdrawing from political life, yet retained command of his brigade, attending musters and advising officers until 1794, when his health began to fail. He died on February 27, 1795, at the age of 63, and was buried in the family graveyard at Belle Isle Plantation.