From Farmer to Militia Captain: Francis Marion
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.