You won’t find much information about Francis Marion in American history textbooks today. Marion did not serve in the Continental Congress or the Constitutional Convention, and he never held a position in the federal government. Yet, without him, the American War for Independence may have taken a decidedly different direction. Washington rightfully received generous accolades after the war as the great hero of the Revolution, and Franklin was the diplomatic mastermind who secured needed French assistance, but Marion, the able and determined hero of the “swamps” who fought a rear-guard guerilla war to save his state from British occupation, has disappeared from our historical consciousness. His reputation has been revived in recent years, due in part to Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, which had a Marion-like hero, but he still presents problems for the politically correct interpretation of the Founding generation and has generally not received the attention he deserves.
Marion was born in 1732 at St. John’s Parish, Berkeley County, South Carolina in the American colonies, to Gabriel and Esther Marion. The Marion family arrived in South Carolina in 1690 as part of a wave of French Huguenots seeking refuge in North America. Marion was a puny and sickly child, the “size of a lobster” at birth as one contemporary joked. He spent his youth at his father’s plantation on the Santee Canal, and with the exception of one tragic foray into a life at sea, he remained there until his father died in 1758. Marion moved to Pond Bluff shortly thereafter and established himself as a prosperous and well respected planter.
Like many in the Founding generation, Marion received his first taste of combat on the frontier in bloody and brutal engagements against American Indian tribes. When tensions rose between the Cherokee and white settlements from Pennsylvania to Georgia in 1759, several state militias were called out to quell the distress. South Carolina mustered a considerable force, and Marion volunteered for service. The war spirit died down for a time, but after several Cherokee chiefs were butchered at a remote South Carolina outpost in 1761, the Cherokee nation called for war. Marion again answered the call of his state and this time saw action as a lieutenant in the militia. He led his men in a desperate attack on a fortified Cherokee position and took part in the subsequent burning of Cherokee towns and crops. He lamented his role in this destruction and said he could “scarcely refrain from tears” when ordered to burn fields of mature corn. The only ones who suffered were the “little Indian children” who would know that the “white people, the Christians” made them starve. He returned to his plantation and led a quiet and uneventful life until duty called in 1775. His community elected him to serve in the South Carolina Provincial Congress, and Marion sat through the debates over the call for independence. After the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Congress reassembled and decided on a course of action. Marion did not participate in the debates, but he voted for war and readily accepted the will of his state in the crisis.
Even before the Congress adjourned, Marion was actively recruiting men for the cause of independence. He was elected a captain in the Second Regiment of the South Carolina militia and quickly found his quota of fifty volunteers, many of whom were Scots-Irish Protestants. Marion participated in the capture of Fort Johnson and then distinguished himself during the battle of Sullivan’s Island on 28 June 1776. The British navy began a bombardment of the little American fort—Fort Sullivan, later called Fort Moultrie—in Charleston Harbor in the morning, and after an eleven-hour battle, two fifty-gun men-of-war were destroyed while the fort, made from soft palmetto logs, escaped substantial damage. Marion reportedly ordered the last shot of the engagement, a blast that killed two British officers and three seamen. In total, two hundred British sailors were killed or wounded while the South Carolina militia suffered only thirty-eight casualties. This victory kept the British out of the South for three years. For his service and leadership, Marion was rewarded with a promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel and was given command of Fort Sullivan, a prestigious honor, because the fort was the presumed focal point of any future British attack.
When the British returned to the South in 1778, however, they first attacked Savannah, Georgia. American forces attempted to retake the city in 1779. Marion moved south with the South Carolina militia but was exasperated by the French contingent who arrived first and imprudently allowed the British to fortify their positions. He reportedly flew into a fit of rage after learning of the French incompetence. “My God! Who ever heard of anything like this before? First, allow an enemy to entrench, and then fight him? See the destruction brought upon the British at Bunker’s Hill—yet, our troops there were only militia; raw, half-armed clodhoppers, and not a mortar, or carronade, not even a swivel—only their ducking- guns! What, then, are we to expect from regulars, completely armed, with a choice train of artillery, and covered by a breastwork?” Marion participated in the frontal assault on the British position at Savannah. His Second Regiment suffered heavy casualties, and in little time the British reduced the combined Franco-American forces by 1,100 men. Marion escaped, but some of the best men in his regiment did not.
The British lost few men and held the city. The American forces retreated, and Marion was given the task of drilling and organizing the South Carolina militia. Everyone presumed the British would next attempt to take Charleston, and in 1780 Marion marched into the city with his men to prepare for its defense. Fate intervened. Marion was invited to a dinner party with friends, and when the host locked them in until all the wine was finished, the temperate and sober Marion decided to leave by jumping from a second-story window. The fall broke his ankle, and Marion was forced to retire to his home in St. John’s Parish.
This proved to be a stroke of luck for the American cause. Due to the incompetence of Benjamin Lincoln, the Northern general sent to defend the city, the entire American army was captured at Charleston in the ensuing assault, but Marion, home healing, escaped and ultimately became the most conspicuous officer in the Southern theater fighting for American independence.
The Swamp Fox
While still suffering from his ankle injury, Marion organized a small group of men and moved north to meet with the Continental Army under the command of Horatio Gates. When he arrived, Gates could scarcely refrain from laughing at the disheveled band of South Carolinians. Marion hobbled on his broken ankle, and his men—both white and black— were poorly equipped and ragged. Gates ordered them to the interior of South Carolina. Officially, they were sent to scout enemy movements, but really Gates was just trying to get rid of Marion and his band. This decision proved to be vital to the American cause. Gates was routed at the Battle of Camden, leaving Marion’s men to be a major obstacle against British occupation of South Carolina. Marion’s base of operations, Williamsburg, South Carolina, had a strong patriot population, and he recruited troops there. His men served without pay, and provided their own supplies and horses. They were an efficient, hard-hitting, guerilla group that could evaporate into the swamps when threatened.
Before the Battle of Camden, Marion and other South Carolinians had encouraged a “Fabian strategy” in the South, a line of attack named after the Roman General Quintus Fabius Maximus who used a war of attrition to wear down superior Carthaginian forces under Hannibal in the Punic Wars. Now that the regular American Southern army was all but destroyed, Marion, along with Generals Thomas Sumter and Andrew Pickens, adopted this approach in an effort to erode British resolve and keep them from moving north.
He would attack when the numbers favored him, and when they didn’t he led the British into the swamps where he was uncatchable. He was called the “old fox” or the “swamp fox” by the British. Marion disrupted supply and communications, and acted as a nuisance to British commanders in the region. The British sent Colonel Banastre Tarleton after him in 1780, but without success. “Bloody Ban” had reportedly slaughtered Americans who had surrendered at the Battle of Waxhaws. He resorted to similar pitiless tactics in an attempt to capture Marion. Like General William Tecumseh Sherman in the War Between the States, “Bloody Ban” burned homes and other property, stole food and supplies, and left a swath of destruction in his path.
Of British officers Tarleton was possibly the most despised man by the patriots. Marion sometimes resorted to similar methods—he commandeered food and supplies; he never burned homes—but whereas Tarleton left only blood and tears behind, Marion and his men left receipts, most of which were honored by the South Carolina government after the war. Guerilla warfare took its toll on the British. Instead of methodically moving north and sacking North Carolina, they were bottled up in South Carolina chasing a “swamp fox” that often disappeared rather than fight.
Marion’s fame grew. South Carolina Governor John Rutledge, leading the state “from the saddle” in exile, heard of his exploits and commissioned him a brigadier-general. Marion was ordered to take Georgetown, South Carolina, in January 1781, but failed. In the same month, however, American forces in the region won a stunning victory over the British at the Battle of Cowpens.
Newly appointed commander Nathanael Greene recognized Marion’s success and adopted a Fabian strategy during 1781 to keep the British out of North Carolina. He summarized it this way, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” Marion’s motto would have been, “We fight only the battles we should win, and we win; if not, we disappear, and fight again.”
Marion was able to secure Fort Watson and Fort Motte, and he rescued a small American contingent in August 1781, a deed that resulted in an official letter of appreciation from the Continental Congress. He also stopped American General Charles Lee, the man who would have lost Fort Moultrie in 1776 if not for the genius of the South Carolinians, from slaughtering Loyalist captives at the conclusion of the battle of Fort Motte.
Marion despised cruelty in all its forms. British General Lord Charles Cornwallis determined that the American army in the South was being supplied through Virginia. In the spring of 1781, he left South Carolina for Virginia and, in the process, let Nathanael Greene slip back into the state. Marion helped Greene push the British back to the coast through a series of bloody engagements. He commanded the militia during the final battle in the Southern theater, the Battle of Eutaw Springs in September 1781, a battle immortalized in the South Carolina state song.
Marion had no more battles to fight. His heroic efforts had not only made him a household name in South Carolina, but might have provided the turning point of the war, tying up British troops that would otherwise have advanced North and possibly captured George Washington in a vise.
Marion retired to a plantation destroyed by war. The life-long bachelor, who one subordinate officer described as an “ugly, cross, knock kneed, hook-nosed son of a bitch,” took his cousin, Mary Esther Videau, as his wife in 1786. She was a wealthy widow, and Marion needed the money, if nothing else. He served in the South Carolina Senate in 1781, 1782, and 1784, and as the honorary commander of Fort Johnson from 1784 to 1790. He was elected as a delegate to the state constitutional convention in 1790 and served again in the state senate the following year.
Marion died at his home in St. John’s in 1795 at the age of 63. His tombstone read: “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 HONOUR AND INDEPENDENCE, AND Secured to her the blessings of LIBERTY AND PEACE. . . . ”
The politically incorrect soldier
Marion was a dedicated servant to South Carolina throughout his life. That is his allure. He never served in the Continental Army and considered South Carolina to be his native “country.” When duty called, he served with honor, and like Washington, the more famous “citizen-soldier,” returned to his plantation when the fighting was over. He owned slaves, but fought alongside blacks for much of the war. John Blake White, in an 1830s painting, portrayed Marion as a gentleman offering an “enemy” officer supper, a depiction that also included Marion’s body servant, Oscar, the man who fought side-by-side with him during the darkest days of the Revolution. Washington is often chastised for his refusal to allow black soldiers to fight in the Revolution—he later changed course—but they did fight in the Southern theater. Marion proved that.
Historians have also been critical of Marion for the role he played on the frontier, fighting Indians, in 1761. Wars against the Indian tribes were typically brutal, often inhumane affairs, with barbarism exhibited on both sides. Marion showed remorse for his deeds, even during the conflict, and never appeared to be an “Indian hater.” Marion is one of the true heroes of the Founding generation, a man who played no political role, but who personified the spirit and determination of South Carolina’s patriots.
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