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Who was the Swamp Fox?

Swamp Fox Lore

­By November 1780, Francis Marion was a wanted man. He and his militia won a string of small skirmishes in the South Carolina low country, thanks to their surprise raids. Stationed around Snow Island, deep in the swamplands, the terrain insulated the men from British aggression. As the story goes, when British Lieut. Col. Banastre Tarleton attempted to root out Marion and his militia from the low country, he got more than he bargained for. Follow a 26-mile (42-kilometer) chase through the swamp, Tarleton gave up in defeat. Baffled by the wily U.S. officer, Tarleton referred to Marion's nimble flight through the precarious terrain as that of a swamp fox [source: Crawford]. The following month, Marion received a promotion to brigadier general.

Under the leadership of Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion, the ragtag brigade comprised mostly farmers who made a significant impact on the war. Losing crucial ground in the South further forced the British to relinquish their control over the colonies. Contemporary biographies of Marion, cobbled from scant written records and oral reports, painted him as a hero cut from star-spangled cloth. Mason Locke Weems, who penned Marion's first biography in 1852, described the Swamp Fox as "lovely in mercy" [source: Weems]. Eight years later, biographer William Gilmore Simms conceded that Marion's adoration sprang from word-of-mouth testaments of his character rather than discernable fact. Yet, no other Revolutionary War figure has had more places named in honor of him aside from George Washington [source: Simms].

Centuries later, in 2000, Mel Gibson played a Marion-like character named Benjamin Martin in the movie "The Patriot." Like the real Marion, Gibson's character was a plantation owner from South Carolina who used backwoods guerilla techniques to oust the British from the colony. But the Hollywood version sanitized certain aspects of the Swamp Fox's life deemed reproachable by today's standards. As a plantation owner in South Carolina, Marion owned an estimated 200 slaves [source: Montes]. One of his slaves, Oscar, reportedly traveled with Marion throughout the Revolutionary War. The most famous painting of the Swamp Fox by artist John Blake White even depicts Oscar cooking sweet potatoes as Marion chats with a British military officer. In 2006, President George W. Bush formally recognized Oscar's service in the Revolutionary War.

Because of his slave ownership and campaigns against Cherokee tribes, Francis Marion's record isn't spotless from today's perspective. Yet, his contribution to the Revolutionary War effort can't be ignored. Without the Swamp Fox and his crafty brigade, the British plot to win the war by capturing the South might have succeeded.

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