Who was the Swamp Fox?


Revolutionary War Image Gallery Francis Marion meeting with a British soldier during the Revolutionary War. See more Revolutionary War pictures.

In 177­8, British forces fighting in the Revolutionary War feared that control of the 13 colonies was slipping from their grip. The Continental Army had won a decisive victory at the Battle of Saratoga near Albany, New York, and the fledgling government had signed a peace treaty with the French. Suddenly, the Continental Army had a new ally, and the British military decided it was time for a change in strategy.

The "shot heard round the world" that started the Revolutionary War rang out in Concord, Mass., in April 1775. Two months later, the Second Continental Congress voted to form a national military, and in July, George Washington became the commander of the Continental Army. Many such famous events surrounding that war, including the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Boston Tea Party, occurred in New England. Yet, after 1777, the British set their sights south for the new initiative.

Rather than tackling the Continental Army as a whole, the British planned to energize loyalists to the crown who could undermine the revolutionary forces. After concluding that the highest concentration of loyalists lived in the South, the British army captured Savannah, Ga., in late 1778, followed by Charleston, S.C., in 1780 [source: Library of Congress]. Those losses stalled the Continental Army's progress briefly, but the resulting counterattacks would serve as the first nails in the British military's coffin.

When the state-controlled South Carolina militia began to mobilize against British forces prior to the capture of Charleston, some of the fighters had already whetted their swords during the Seven Years' War (also known as the French and Indian War). That war pitted the French and British forces against each other in a duel over North American ownership. In South Carolina, colonists fought and killed Cherokee Indians who had initially united with the British.

One such colonist was a young farmer named Francis Marion, who joined the South Carolina militia to fight at the age of 25 [source: Crawford]. Like George Washington, the military experience Marion gained in the Seven Years' War would pave the way for his battlefield leadership during the Revolutionary War. In fact, Marion's earliest biographer referred to him as the "Washington of the South" [source: Weems].

From Farmer to Militia Captain: Francis Marion

Francis Marion's guerrilla tactics and knowledge of South Carolina swamp country helped him beat the British.
Francis Marion's guerrilla tactics and knowledge of South Carolina swamp country helped him beat the British.

South Carolina is divided into three major regions: up country, midlands and low country. The low country runs along the coastline and gives way to vast swamps along the Pee Dee River in the northeastern pocket of the state. As an adult, Marion purchased a plantation in the low country, and his intimate knowledge of the region's cypress-lined waterways and marshy paths would eventually lead him to victory over the British forces in the Revolutionary War.

Francis Marion was born on a South Carolina plantation into a family of French Huguenots. He joined a ship crew at around 15 years old and sailed to the West Indies, but the ill-fated journey ended in shipwreck. That catastrophe sent Marion back to his childhood home, where he took up farming. After becoming a landowner and participating in the Seven Years' War, Marion's neighbors elected him to the South Carolina Provincial Congress, which then appointed him to a captain post in the state militia [source: Crawford].

Marion didn't emerge as an exceptional military leader until the capture of Charleston in 1780. Prior to the British invasion, Marion left town to recover from a broken ankle. According to legend, he jumped out of a two-story window during a raucous dinner party he wished to flee from [source: Crawford]. By escaping possible imprisonment by the British, Marion was free to lead a militia unit against the advancing enemy in the swampy low country of South Carolina.

Marion's brigade possessed two distinct advantages over the British soldiers. First, the men could easily navigate the dense terrain. Second, their combat style was completely foreign to the opposition. When fighting against the Cherokee Indians during the Seven Years' War, Marion observed the tribal warriors' unique style of warfare. Rather than open-air conflict, the Cherokee hid in the foliage, allowing them to launch sneak attacks.

In only a few months after the Charleston overthrow, Marion and his militia brigade applied that guerilla hit-and-run combat method to catch the British off guard. In August 1780, Marion's men attacked a British troop and freed 150 American prisoners they were transporting [source: Swager]. A month later, the militia ambushed a band of British loyalists in Blue Savannah, S.C. Military exploits like these, set against the swampy backdrop of the South Carolina lowlands, would soon earn Marion his nom de guerre.

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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Sources

 

  • Crawford, Amy. "The Swamp Fox." Smithsonian Magazine. July 1, 2007. (Feb. 10, 2009)http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/biography/fox.html
  • Gordon, John W. "South Carolina and the American Revolution." University of South Carolina Press. 2003. (Feb. 10, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=UYqYDMxOcc4C
  • Holleman, Joey. "Archeologists track elusive Swamp Fox." Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. April 13, 2007.
  • Montes, Sue Anne Pressley. "Post-Revolutionary Recognition." The Washington Post. Dec. 16, 2006. (Feb. 10, 2009)http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/15/AR2006121502097.html
  • "Revolutionary War: Southern Phase, 1778 - 1781." Library of Congress. (Feb. 10, 2009)http://memory.loc.gov/learn/features/timeline/amrev/south/south.html
  • Simms, William Gilmore and Busick, Sean. "The Life of Francis Marion." The History Press. 2007. (Feb. 10, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=5yaGVb6d3HUC
  • Watts, Steven. "The Magic Kingdom." University of Missouri Press. 2001. (Feb. 10, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=NgARIndAbjAC
  • Weems, Mason Locke. "The Life of General Francis Marion." 1852. (Feb. 10, 2009)http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext97/wfmar10.txt