The Swamp Fox of the American Revolution

            Many of the men and women who participated in the American Revolution have become veritable saints in the annals of American History, their stories passed down as fairy tales throughout the ages.  Although less known today than figures such as George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, Frances Marion, also known as the Swamp Fox, is undoubtedly one of these figures.  That the myth of the Swamp Fox has been passed down for so many hundreds of years is clearly a testament to his important contributions during the Revolutionary War.  A clearer understanding of Marion as a human being and not as a myth will certainly prove how essential Marion’s roll was in winning the war in the south.   By gaining a clear picture of Marion’s life story, one can see how his humane treatment of Tories and British, his talents in leading unconventional troops, and his clever understanding of tactics, were instrumental in allowing the south to successfully break away from their “Mother Country”.

It has been hard to separate the man from the myth when reconstructing the real story of what happened during the revolution those hundreds of years ago.  The first biography that was ever written about Marion was written by the same man who started the cherry tree myth about George Washington, and was certainly outright false in some places.  Modern depictions have been rather bipolar in their treatment of his life story. The 1960s Disney Afternoon show paints an idyllic picture of a scrappy band of merry men riding, Robin Hood style, through the south.  The 2000 movie, The Patriot, depicts a deeply troubled man trying to live down the unspeakable horrors he perpetuated during the French and Indian war.  Both of these depictions of Marion and his outlook on life are exaggerated portraits of who he really was.  A staunch patriot who asked to go to war, Marion bore hard times with an immense optimism that served his followers well.

Frances Marion was born in 1732, at Winyah, South Carolina.  He was the youngest of six children, five boys and a girl.  Although Marion’s parents had lived in the colonies for their entire lives, Marion’s grandparents on both sides originally emigrated from France.  We know that Marion felt deeply patriotic to the American colonies, but his family’s origin arguably made him not as tied to remaining a British citizen as some colonists.  Marion received a general primary education at the English school in Charleston, but nothing higher.  He could certainly read and write, but compare Marion’s writings to men such as Jefferson, Dickinson, and Paine, and you can clearly see the deficiencies in his schooling. Marion’s writing is very abrupt, and never contains anything that isn’t strictly necessary to convey information.  He is also extremely light with the punctuation.  When compared to Paine’s compelling narrative in Common Sense, or the rally to arms of the Declaration of Independence, Marion’s writing seems brusque and matter of fact.

Once he had completed school, Marion felt that he would like to become a sailor.  Unfortunately, his first trip as a deckhand ended in tragedy when a whale attacked the ship, ripping a plank from the bottom of the vessel and sinking it.  Of the six man crew, only four survived the five days before they were rescued, and only because they were able to eat a dog that swam to their lifeboat after the main ship sank.  Marion never went to sea again, but contented himself by becoming a very successful farmer.

Marion lived with his mother, renting farmland in the area until her death in 1758, when he moved to St. Johns, South Carolina, and bought Pond Bluff Plantation.  As many of our forefathers did, Marion owned slaves that ran his plantation.  He continued to be a successful farmer until the French and Indian War broke out.  The Cherokee Indians in the area were particularly violent, burning farmland and crops and kidnapping women and children from colonial families.  Frances Marion and his brother Job felt compelled to protect their land, and both signed up for military service under General William Moultrie. Marion especially distinguished himself when he led a troop of thirty men to take the entrance to a fort that was held by the Cherokees.  Twenty one of the men were cut down, but Marion was able to rally his force together enough to take the entrance and allow the rest of the colonial army to sweep through, winning the battle.  When the Cherokee war ended, Marion and his brother both returned to their sedate life of farming.

Marion was very well respected in his community, as evidenced by his election to the South Carolina Congress in 1776 as the delegate from St Johns. Later that year when military leaders were being elected by the South Carolina Congress, Marion was asked to serve again as a Colonel in the new South Carolina army, under William Moultrie as he had been during the Cherokee war. Marion and his troop of men were involved in several small skirmishes in the area.  Soon afterward, word of the Declaration of Independence came to South Carolina and Marion was offered a commission in the Continental army by General Washington, again as a Colonel under William Moultrie, who was under General Gates, which he gladly accepted.

Marion quickly asserted himself as a strong and loyal leader. For example, as the British army largely concentrated their efforts on the northern colonies, the South Carolinians were often left without much to do.  As a result, many of the officers fell to fighting amongst themselves, some refusing to report to others, and one man even resigning his commission as a result of hard feelings.  Marion was able to stay well out of the barrack politics and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel when he took over the command of the troops that the deserting officer had left behind.  Marion also trained the men under his command relentlessly. As Peter Horry later stated: “Indeed, I am not afraid to say that Marion was the ARCHITECT of the Second Regiment, and laid the foundation of that excellent discipline and confidence in themselves, which gained them such reputation whenever they were brought to face their enemies.” (Simms, 901)  Marion had the least problems of all the South Carolina officers with his men, and gained a lot of respect for his leadership abilities.

In 1779, Marion, along with the rest of the South Carolina contingent, flocked to Charleston.  The continental army had word that the British had changed their tactics and had ceased trying to cut off the northern section of the colonies from the southern section.  Cornwallis received orders to take Charlestown.  The Continental army immediately flocked to Charleston to try and make the town as ready for defense as possible.  Many of the officers were thrilled to be home again in Charleston, and a few weeks before the battle, one of Marion’s superior officers decided to have a raucous party. Marion attended, but when the commanding officer decided to lock the door and not let anyone out until they were thoroughly intoxicated, the teetotaler Marion decided to jump out of a second story window rather than upset his superior officer by refusing to get drunk.  Marion broke his ankle and, much against his wishes, was forced to evacuate the city with the other wounded before the battle started.

This ended up being a fortunate accident.  After a six week siege, Charleston fell to the British, and every superior officer who had stayed was now a prisoner of war.  Although his ankle had not yet healed, Marion rounded up as many men as he could gather and went to join what was left of the Continental Army.  A description of Marion’s men from this point in time was given by Colonel Otho Wiliams: “Their number did not exceed twenty 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.” (Bass, 40) 

Marion was hardly better off himself. As William Dobien James asserted, Marion’s knees and ankles were badly formed and he still limped considerably.  He wore a rather coarse crimson jacket, and the leather cap of the second regiment.  A silver crescent was inscribed on his hat, with the words “Liberty or Death” beneath.

Through a series of flukes, Marion escaped capture again and again as the British army eviscerated the South Carolinians.  By early 1780, Marion was the senior officer in all of South Carolina.

Although things looked bleak for their cause, and the British army considered South Carolina subdued enough to move into Georgia, Marion and his men were just getting started.  They laid in a strategy of British antagonism that would be debilitating enough that Cornwallis specifically order Banastre “Bloody Ban” Tarleton to find and capture Marion.  After months of trying desperately to get his hands on an ever slippery Marion, Tarleton wrote back to Cornwallis “as for this damned ‘Swamp Fox’, the devil himself could not catch him.” Thus Marion earned his nickname.  His men continued to fight the British forces, supplying their own ammunition, clothing, and supplies and hearing not a word from the main Continental Army.

In 1780, when the British eviscerated the rebel forces in South Carolina, it looked very bleak for the rebel forces.  Marion went from being at the middle of the commanding totem pole, to being at the utmost top in a matter of about a month as his superior officers all became prisoners of war.  Still, Marion insisted that his men continue fighting, and it was this unrelenting pursuit of the British forces that allowed South Carolinian support for the rebels and their cause to hold on and survive through this difficult time when it looked as if the British would almost certainly win.  In addition to Marion’s continued perseverance through difficult times militarily, he also pushed through despite personal injury.  Marion’s fall from that second story window before the Siege of Charleston permanently injured his ankle to the point that he could not always dismount his horse without assistance.  He continued to limp throughout his lifetime.  Still, Marion returned to the war as soon after his injury as humanely possible, and continued to fight fiercely until the British surrendered in 1781.  This determined pursuit of the British helped the Continental army eventually oust them for good.  Without victories such as their triumph at Black Mingo and the victory at Tearcoat Swamp, and without the psychological damage Marion’s troops did to standing British armies who were just waiting for their own midnight attack, it is doubtful that public support for the rebel cause would have persisted.  It is Marion we have to thank for his refusal to quit, even when things looked as if they would never improve.

Late in 1780, the tide of war turned sharply for Marion.  General Washington realized just how ineffective Gates had been as commander over the southern forces, and appointed General Nathaniel Greene instead.  Greene was an extremely able commander, and gave Marion the first support he had seen in months. Greene realized just how effective Marion had been in South Carolina, and sent much praise, writing “To fight the enemy bravely with the prospect of victory, is nothing; but to fight with intrepidity under the constant impression of defeat, and inspire irregular troops to do it, is a talent peculiar to yourself.” (Simms, 3092) Green also sent supplies and more men, and promoted Marion to the rank of Brigadier General. With this additional support, Marion was in a position to do more than just harass the British army.  Attacking a British garrisoned fort at Black Mingo, Marion and his men took the fort in only fifteen minutes, although admittedly with much bloodshed.  A few days afterward Marion staged a midnight attack against a full British regiment at Tearcoat Swamp, easily winning a decisive victory as the men were caught completely unawares.  With Greene winning decisive battles in the northern part of the south, and Marion winning them in the middle, the two were finally able to consolidate their forces and drive the British out of South Carolina for good.  In 1781, the Governor of South Carolina considered the British so little of a threat that they called the Continental Congress back to order and reinstituted a non-military government.  This was before the war had officially ended, and Marion was in a difficult position as he tried to serve in the legislature as well as serving as a Brigadier General.  Somehow, he managed it, although he spent less time than he would like with his troops.  As a letter to his second in command Peter Horry exhibits, “I fear your patience must be something longer tried with the militia, as I cannot be spared without stopping the whole proceedings of the House.  We have but 13 Senators, which is the least number than can do business… As soon as they can spare me, I will return.”  (Bass, 227)

When official word of Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown reached South Carolina, Marion again returned to his plantation.  Unfortunately, it was completely ruined without a stick of furniture or a piece of silverware left inside, and needing extensive repairs.  With his entire fortune gone, and everything he owned stolen, Marion had to start over almost completely.  He was fifty years old.  Marion was eventually able to build his fortune back up enough so that he could live a comfortable life, but was never able to achieve the prosperity of his younger years.  In 1786, five years after the close of the war, Marion married his childhood friend, also his first cousin, Mary Esther Videau.  The two of them lived a modest life on Marion’s plantation and never had any children, although they adopted a son of a relative.

After the war, Marion’s military career did not end.  He retained command of a brigade until 1794 when South Carolina reorganized their military and Marion decided to retire.  Marion also continued to serve in the state legislature for many years.  He died in 1795 at Pond Bluff in his sleep.  It is traditionally quoted that his last words were: “I can lay my hand on my heart and say that, since I came to man’s estate, I have never intentionally done wrong to any.” (Simms, 4371)  A large tombstone was erected in Marion’s memory, and the epitaph states:

“Sacred to the memory of Brigadier-General Francis Marion, who departed this life on the 29th of Feb., 1795, in the sixty-third year of his age, deeply regretted by all his fellow citizens. History will record his worth, and rising generations embalm his memory, as one of the most distinguished patriots and heroes of the American Revolution; which elevated his native country to honor and Independence, and secured to her the blessings of liberty and peace. This tribute of veneration and gratitude is erected in commemoration of the noble and disinterested virtues of the citizen, and the gallant exploits of the soldier, who lived without fear, and died without reproach.” (Simms, 2011-03-30).

A greater understanding of Marion’s life casts a spotlight on the reasons for his successful military career.  Without Marion’s staunch refusal to give up hope, his knack for managing people, and his thorough knowledge of military tactics, the south would have been lost to the Continentals both physically and psychologically when the British took Charleston in 1780.  We can see the importance of his role as he moved up the ranks from Colonel to Brigadier General in only two years’ time, as well as in the continuation of the Marion Mythos throughout the ages.

Marion and his entire brigade were particularly known for being humane during times of war.  Even during the French and Indian war, Marion hated the task of destroying the livelihood of others, even though he did if he was ordered.  A letter from Marion to his brother during the French and Indian war states,

“The next morning we proceeded, by order of Colonel Grant, to burn down the Indian cabins. Some of our men seemed to enjoy this cruel work, laughing very heartily at the curling flames as they mounted, loud-crackling, over the tops of the huts. But to me it appeared a shocking sight. “Poor creatures!” thought I, “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. For who could see the stalks that stood so stately, with broad green leaves and gaily-tasselled shocks, filled with sweet milky fluid, and flour, the staff of life—who, I say, without grief, could see these sacred plants sinking under our swords, with all their precious load, to wither and rot untasted, in their mourning fields!” (Simms, 664)

Marion refused to let his men burn houses, raze crops, or loot during the Revolutionary War, and if he caught men doing it anyway, they were immediately discharged from his service, as evidenced by an account of Peter Horry, who served with Marion.

“At the hospitable table of Mrs. Motte, it was whispered in Marion’s ears, that Col. Lee’s men were even then engaged in hanging certain of the Tory prisoners. Marion instantly hurried from the table, seized his sword, and running with all haste, reached the place of execution in time to rescue one poor wretch from the gallows. Two were already beyond rescue or recovery. With drawn sword and a degree of indignation in his countenance that spoke more than words, Marion threatened to kill the first man that made any further attempt in such diabolical proceedings.” (Simms, 3031)

In contrast, when the British Military swept through the south in 1780, crushing everything in their path, many South Carolinians suffered extremely poor treatment at their hands.  General Cornwallis, for example, advocated a policy of no forgiveness to anyone fighting for the rebel cause, giving orders that anyone taking part in rebel activities be “Punished with the greatest rigor” (Simms 1621) and that deserters could have their property destroyed.  Deserters who joined the rebels could be hanged on sight. 

The British were also allowed to loot, burn, raze and terrorize to their hearts content.  There are even reports that the British stole slaves from wealthy plantation owners and re-sold them at a huge profit to themselves, sometimes shipping them to the West Indies for the best price.  When faced with choosing sides between the reasonable Marion and the unforgiving British, even the most staunchly on the fence individuals began to support the cause of the Rebels, and Marion’s brigade swelled in numbers despite Cornwallis’ above edict.  Because of Marion’s moral outlook and sense of right, and also his acknowledgement that British supporters were also former friends and neighbors, Marion helped create a positive climate for the freedom the Continentals were trying to achieve.

Marion had a highly developed sense of right and wrong in all instances, and he understood the men who served under him well.  Eating only what his men ate, drinking only water, and even sharing in the miserableness of his troop’s equipment, Marion never set himself as above the men over whom he served.  He was a short man, with a pronounced, sarcastic sense of humor and a perpetually optimistic outlook which made him well liked wherever he went.  Combine these qualities with his understanding that idle brigades quickly succumb to drama and political intrigue, and you end up with the perfect commander of irregular troops.  When there were no British in the area to fight, Marion had the men under his command continually training for when the British would arrive.  Even after the situation looked bleak for the Continentals in South Carolina, Marion had his men attacking British brigades at midnight, disrupting enemy supply chains, setting traps for troops on the move, obtaining intelligence to help the Continental Army in the north, and continually moving their military camp from one site to another.  Marion’s men were never idle, and so escaped much of the drama that plagued the South Carolinian army in the early days of the war, and kept their spirits up during the latter part of the war.  Although Marion continually had problems in making his troops behave as professional soldiers, he was able to achieve much with so green a force.  The loyalties of many of his men lay, not with the newly forming United States, but with their farms and plantations in South Carolina.  Marion found early on that if he tried to go too far afield of his homeland, many of his men would simply desert and go back home.  On the flip side, Marion also found that if he brought his men too near their homes they would desert as well, spending a few precious days with their families at home before returning to service again.  Still, Marion was able to harness his men into brilliant victories, such as the battle of Black Mingo where Marion’s force took a fully occupied and garrisoned British fort in only fifteen minutes.  This is a true testament to Marion’s leadership abilities.

In addition to leadership, Marion also possessed a great mind for military tactics.  In fact, the Continental Army never lost a battle that was commanded by Marion.  Some of Marion’s favorite practices were hit and run attacks at midnight on British encampments.  In one instance, the attack was such a surprise that they killed a number of British officers who still had cards in their hands from the game that had been taking place when the men struck.  Marion’s men would invade the camp, fight for about an hour, and then retreat from the camp before the British could regroup and fight back.  These attacks were so successful that Marion hardly ever lost men, while wiping out a large faction of the British army.  Another favorite tactic of Marion’s was to divide his men into two groups.  The first group would hide in the forest, while the second group attacked.  As the first group started to lose, Marion would call a retreat, and his men would run through the waiting ambush.  Of course the British would follow afterwards, and then be cut down by the second force.  This tactic worked well for Marion several times against the supposedly superior British forces.  Due to the irregularities of his troops, Marion was often forced to think creatively when dealing with the well trained British forces, but as they never lost a battle, it is evident how successful these new ideas were.

Although not as well known today as he was in the past, Marion’s legend lives on today, and for very good reason.  Through understanding his life, we can clearly see how instrumental Marion’s humane treatment of others, his talents in leading unconventional troops of men, his understanding of military tactics, and his refusal to back down contributed substantially to the colonists winning the Revolutionary War.  Without Marion’s skill and knowledge, who knows what the outcome of the war would have been in the south.  It probably would not have been so favorable.

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