“Come on Boys! Let us go back … as for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.
British Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s comments after pursuing Francis Marion helplessly in South Carolina’s swamps during the American Revolution.
Francis Marion, best known as the “Swamp Fox” was an early example of an American guerrilla fighter. He was known for his Revolutionary War record, fighting the British in the Carolinas where he was hated and respected by his adversaries as a smart and cunning unconventional warfare specialist.
While he definitely needs to be remembered as a true hero in the war for American independence, the legend of Marion was begun by a book written by M. L. “Parson” Weems, titled “The Life of General Francis Marion.” Here he took some liberties with the truth and painted a legend much like he did with George Washington in 1800 with his biography of America’s first president and the cherry tree story.
More of the legend was perpetuated by a painting done in 1820 by the artist John Blake White, a supremely decked out British officer, enters Marion’s swamp camp to propose a prisoner exchange. Surrounded by his rough-hewn Carolina country boys who eye the Brit with a mixture of hate and suspicion, Marion invites the British officer to join his ragtag group of men for a dinner of roasted sweet potatoes. The British officer, so taken in by the dashing and elan of these American guerrillas, promptly joins the American Revolution…great stuff. The painting hangs in the US Capitol. Did it happen? Doubtful.
Of course, for many Americans who weren’t aware of Marion, their visions of him were no doubt even more embellished after Mel Gibson’s film “The Patriot” turned Marion into an action hero. Gibson’s Benjamin Martin was very loosely based on Marion’s exploits and turned him into a cross between a ninja and Rambo. While entertaining to be sure, it was far from the truth. And Marion’s story doesn’t need to be embellished, he was a true American hero of the Revolution and his exploits speak for themselves.
While most think of Marion as a dashing, barrel-chested freedom fighter, he was not the picture of what would be remotely considered a “Rambo-type.” He was slight and walked with a limp. He was considered eccentric and didn’t get along well with other officers, perhaps due to his lack of education. And while physically brave, his tactics were always careful and prudent and he was far from the bold tactician that many picture of him.
Of course, there is a movement here in the country to erase our history and everyone in it by putting ridiculous 21st century standards on those of our brethren who lived by a different set of standards two hundred and fifty years ago. Marion was a slave owner and fought a notoriously brutal campaign against the Cherokee Indians that by today’s standards are sure to bring howls of derision from those history deniers. These same “useful fools” will probably move to strike Marion from the college that bears his name. He was neither a noble saint nor was he an ogre. But his world and everyone in it was vastly different than it is today. And he needs to be remembered for the soldier that he was. His record in the American Revolution as one of America’s first unconventional warfare experts was shaped by his fighting the Cherokee and adopting their tactics that he would use against the British later.
Early Life: Marion was born in 1732 on his family’s plantation in Berkeley County, South Carolina. The youngest of his family’s sons, not much was known of his early life but the thought of plantation life seemed at first to be lost on him and he grew restless. So much so that at the age of 15 he signed on with the crew of a merchant vessel bound for the West Indies. During this trip, his ship sunk, legend has it, after being struck by a whale. He and the crew escaped into a lifeboat and would spend a week adrift before coming ashore.
That would cure his restlessness for awhile. Marion returned to his family’s plantation after that and would remain there until the outbreak of the French and Indian War.
During the war, he and his brother signed on his 25th birthday to join the South Carolina militia fighting for the British. As a Lieutenant, he served under Captain William Moultrie where they drove the Cherokees from their lands using brutal scorched earth tactics.
But his service against the Indians in the southern theater of the French and Indian War taught the young officer many lessons he would later carry with him when fighting the British years later. The Cherokee would use the landscape to their advantage, blending into their surroundings using the natural cover and concealment of the forests and then melting into said forests after initiating very effective ambushes and raids. For a brief period after the war, he returned to his farming roots, and purchased a plantation of his own, at Pond Bluff on the Santee River.
The American Revolution: As he grew more successful, Marion became increasingly involved in the American cause despite South Carolina being vastly Tory or loyalist to Britain. In 1775, Marion was elected to the first South Carolina Provincial Congress, which sought the right to self-determination.
The Provincial Congress sought to raise three regiments of militia after the news of what transpired in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord. Marion was given a commission as a Captain in the second, once again serving under William Moultrie.
He helped build Fort Sullivan in Charleston and served with bravery and distinction during the battle there in 1776. Much of the next three years, he stayed mainly in the fort and tried to keep discipline in his soldiers who were often drunk and disorderly.
He took part in the failed siege of Savannah in 1779 after the British had taken the city.
Marion’s fate and history changed from an odd accident in 1780. The Smithsonian wrote of this:
Attending a dinner party at the Charleston home of a fellow officer, Marion found that the host, in accordance with 18th-century custom, had locked all the doors while he toasted the American cause. The toasts went on and on, and Marion, who was not a drinking man, felt trapped. He escaped by jumping out a second story window but broke his ankle in the fall. Marion left town to recuperate in the country, with the fortunate result that he was not captured when the British took Charleston that May.
Later after the fall of Charleston, he served under General Horatio Gates during the disaster at Camden. Gates, who distrusted Marion, had sent him to reconnoiter the British positions. Therefore, he missed that battle too which was a decisive British victory. Here is where the legend of Francis Marion was born.
Marion gathered only about 70 survivors, a rag-tag group that he took to the swamps and set out to harass the British using the tactics of the Cherokee, the unconventional, guerrilla style of fighting that he would harass the enemy with for the next two and a half years.
In August of 1780, he and 50 men raided a British encampment from the rear, surprising the vastly numerically superior enemy and in the process, freeing 150 American prisoners. Marion’s men, unlike the regular army, served without pay, provided their own horses, arms and equipment and frequently their own food. They were completely self-sufficient.
Using the hit and run tactics of the Indians, Marion’s men didn’t fight like a typical army of the time, online and in formation. They used cover and concealment, behind rocks and trees, and stone walls as they were a constant thorn in the British side. Despite being vastly outnumbered, they were a true force multiplier, tying down vast numbers of British troops who were helpless to stop his men.
The British were incensed and put a large priority to stopping Marion and his men. “Our Army will be destroyed by these driblets,” one British officer was quoted as saying. Marion’s men were seemingly everywhere and nowhere, once they’d hit a target, the mounted troops would melt into the swamps and leave the enemy being increasingly frustrated.
Marion received his nickname, courtesy of Lt Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who learned of Marion’s location from a prisoner, chased the guerrillas for seven hours, thru 26 miles of swamps before finally giving up and returning to his base. “As for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.”
The legend was born, and for American patriots in the South Carolina countryside, he became an immediate hero and more and more men flocked to his command and his support from the countryside grew as well.
As Marion’s men and operations grew, the British lines of communication and supply were increasingly affected, nevertheless, he never commanded a large army in combat during this time and many historians gave him his proper due. But he and other Colonial militia who used hit and run tactics in both North and South Carolina so frustrated Lord Cornwallis, that he made the rash decision to move his army north to Virginia where they eventually suffered defeat against Washington at Yorktown in 1781.
Cornwallis was well aware that the issues caused by such a small force under Marion caused his army. He wrote, “Colonel Marion had so wrought the minds of the people, partly by the terror of his threats and cruelty of his punishments, and partly by the promise of plunder, that there was scarcely an inhabitant between the Santee and the Pee Dee that was not in arms against us”.
Marion for his part loved tweaking the British and the Tories who supported them. As his legend grew, the Tory militia, once a very powerful force, refused to engage his troops. Marion wrote, “the Torreys are so affrighted with my little Excursions that many is moving off to Georgia with their Effects; other are rund (sic) into Swamps.”
He was eventually a victim of his own success. The Continental Army moved back into the Carolinas and Marion found himself back in the “big Army” (many of our Special Operations veterans can attest to this feeling). He hated the regimentation and the petty politics that infected the officer ranks (somethings never change).
In 1782, he was elected to the new State Assembly, and took up his seat, returning briefly to his troops to put down a Tory rebellion on the banks of the Pee Dee. But the war was soon over and Marion’s days as a guerilla fighter were over.
Retirement: Marion returned to his plantation to find it burned to the ground, as a reprisal by the British during the war. He set about rebuilding it and his personal life. A lifelong bachelor, he finally married at the age of 56 to Mary Esther Videau, a distant cousin.
He was elected to and served several terms in the State Assembly. The state recognized his service and awarded him the title of the Commander of Fort Johnson which carried a $500 dollar salary per annum.
He died in 1795 at the age of 63 and was buried at Belle Isle Plantation Cemetery in Berkeley County, South Carolina.
The small rag-tag army of guerrillas of Francis Marion became the epitome of “force multipliers” for the Continental Army. They tied down vast numbers of British troops far in excess of their own numbers and presented a force that frustrated their enemy increasingly over a two and half year period. They seemed to melt into the forests and swamps whenever they were threatened, only to strike again when the situation favored their side. Living off the land and self-sufficient, the raid and ambush were their specialties.
The “Little Colonel with the limp” had been a huge part of helping America gain her independence. And he was one of the first of America’s Special Operations warriors.