MARION, FRANCIS. (1732–1795). Southern partisan leader who came to be known as the "Swamp Fox." South Carolina. The grandson of Huguenots who came to South Carolina in 1690, Marion has been described as being "not larger than a New England lobster, and might easily enough have been put into a quart pot" (Bass, pp. 6, 11). He was a frail child with badly formed knees and ankles. When he was about six years old his family moved from St. John's Parish (in modern Berkeley County, astride the Cooper River) to the vicinity of Georgetown. He was reared under modest circumstances and received a country school education. After surviving a shipwreck at the age of sixteen, he settled down to the life of a farmer on the family property.
In 1761 he was a lieutenant in the militia company of Captain William Moultrie that took part in the Cherokee Expedition led by Colonel James Grant. In his first experience under fire, Marion was selected to lead an attack to clear an Indian force from a critical defile, and despite sustaining twenty-one casualties in his party of thirty men, he accomplished the mission. His performance having been witnessed by important South Carolina men, he rose to a position of respect in his community. In 1773 he was able to buy Pond Bluff plantation on the Santee River, four miles below Eutaw Springs. In 1775 he was a delegate to the South Carolina Provincial Congress, and on 17 June was named a captain in Moultrie's Second South Carolina Regiment. He took part in the bloodless operations that drove the royal governor from South Carolina, and on 10 February 1776 he was at Charleston, ready to take part in the fortification of the harbor. On 22 February he was promoted to the rank of major (although some scholars date his promotion to 14 November 1775).
In the defense of Charleston, 28 June 1776, Major Marion commanded the heavy guns on the left side of Fort Sullivan (later Fort Moultrie), and tradition has it that he fired the last shot of the engagement. On 23 November (again, there is some disagreement of the date) he became a lieutenant colonel, and on 23 September 1778 he took command of the regiment. Owing to a new congressional policy of keeping regimental commanders in the grade of lieutenant colonel, (to simplify the matter of prisoner exchange, which was done on a grade-for-grade basis), his title was lieutenant colonel, commandant of the Second South Carolina Regiment. Military operations in the Southern theater had been limited up until this time, and monotony increased the problems of commanders. Marion, however, established high standards of discipline. At Savannah, on 9 October 1779, he led his regiment in a gallant but unsuccessful assault.
When General Benjamin Lincoln returned to Charleston, Marion commanded the three regiments left at Sheldon, South Carolina. On 19 March 1780 he resumed command of his own regiment at Charleston. When the city was surrendered on 12 May, he is said to have had a lucky break that saved him from capture. Soon after his arrival in the city, the austere little Huguenot attended a dinner party given by Moultrie's adjutant general, Captain Alexander McQueen. According to historian Benson J. Lossing, "the host, determined that all of his guests should drink his wine freely, locked the door to prevent their departure. Marion would not submit to this act of "social tyranny," and leaped from a second story window to the ground. His ankle was broken, and before communication toward the Santee was closed he was carried to his residence, in St. John's parish, on a litter." (p. 769)
With all organized resistance in the South soon destroyed, Marion and a few followers joined General Johann De Kalb at Coxe's Mill on Deep River in North Carolina. He was sent to Cole's Bridge, but rejoined the American force about 3 August as it moved into South Carolina under General Horatio Gates. He was received unenthusiastically by the regulars in that force. When the Williamsburg district militia petitioned Gates for a Continental officer, Gates chose Marion, who left the Continentals around 14-15 August. Thus Marion avoided being involved in disaster at Camden. After the action at Great Savannah on 20 August, in which he rescued 147 Continentals that had been captured at Camden, Marion then led his 52 men in an audacious ambush that scattered 250 militia under Major Ganey near Blue Savannah on 4 September. Marion then retreated into North Carolina and camped at White Marsh, but returned to South Carolina, routed the Tory outpost of Colonel Ball at Black Mingo Creek on 29 September, and broke up a Tory uprising at Tearcoat Swamp on 26 October 1780.
After the British disaster at Kings Mountain (7 October), Marion's operations were of such concern to General Charles Cornwallis that he gave General Benastre Tarleton permission to take most of his legion off in an attempt to eliminate this guerrilla menace. While Tarleton was gone, General Thomas Sumter's operations at Fishdam Ford (9 November) were so successful that Cornwallis sent an urgent order for Tarleton's return to the vicinity of Winnsboro. "Come, my boys! Let us go back, and we will find the Gamecock [as Sumter was known]," Tarleton is reported to have said after trailing Marion for seven hours through 26 miles of swamp. "But as for this damned old fox, the devil himself could not catch him!" (Rankin, p. 113) Unsuccessful in an attack on Georgetown on 15 November, Marion skirmished with a British column at Halfway Swamp on 12-13 December 1780, and then established a camp on Snow's Island. This "island" was a low ridge, five miles long and two miles wide, that was protected by the Peedee River on the east, Lynches River on the north, and Clark's Creek on the south and west. It is traditionally believed to have been the Swamp Fox's favorite base. Here he now organized "Marion's Brigade."
Nathanael Greene's southern campaigns were now under way, but after teaming up briefly with Lee's Legion for the raid against Georgetown on 24 January 1781, Marion was left to his own devices for another three months. In February 1781, Thomas Sumter started an expedition into Marion's district, and called on the Swamp Fox to join him. The two partisan leaders did not succeed in uniting, and as Sumter withdrew the British undertook a serious campaign to wipe out Marion's guerrillas.
Lieutenant Colonel John W. T. Watson was detached with a force of Tories "for the purpose of dispersing the plunderers that infested the eastern frontier." Since Watson was lieutenant colonel of the Third Foot Guards, some writers have assumed that he led this crack regiment, but Watson himself states that Rawdon (Sir Francis Rawdon-Hastings, a British commander) gave him a detachment of the Sixty-fourth Foot Brigade in addition to the Tories of Major John Harrison's Regiment. Marion checked Watson at Wiboo Swamp and blocked his drive toward Kingstree at Lower Bridge. Marion caught Watson as he crossed the Sampit River on the way to the British base at Georgetown. In the confrontation, Watson's horse and about twenty of his men were killed. "I have never seen such shooting before in my life," said Watson, but he complained that Marion "would not fight like a gentleman or a Christian." This battle successfully drove the British out of Marion's district.
While Marion was scoring this remarkable success, however, the enemy achieved one that was equally brilliant: Colonel Welbore Doyle found and destroyed Marion's base at Snow's Island. Hugh Horry led the pursuit of Doyle's New York Volunteers, and Marion followed with the rest of his command. After Horry had shot down nine and captured sixteen, and after two casualties were inflicted on the enemy rear guard at Witherspoon's Ferry, Colonel Doyle destroyed his own baggage to speed his rush to Camden. It was not Marion's pursuit that prompted this sudden speed, but a message from Rawdon that Greene's army was again approaching Camden. Marion made contact with Henry Lee's Legion at Black River on 14 April, but only eighty partisans now remained with him. The rest had gone home. Nevertheless, Marion and Lee operated together during April and May 1781 to capture Fort Watson and Fort Motte, two critical outposts that protected British supply lines between Charleston and Camden.
Marion occupied Georgetown on 28 May, and then moved farther south to support the attacks on Augusta and Ninety Six. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart cleverly eluded Marion's attempt to block his move from Charleston to reinforce Rawdon at Orangeburg.
While Greene's main body was recuperating in the Santee Hills, Marion came under the orders of Sumter and took part in an unfortunate action at Quinby Bridge, 17 July. Marion had such sufficient doubts regarding Sumter's leadership that he had avoided service under "the Gamecock." These doubts were realized in this poorly managed and costly skirmish. Marion then raced off to win a skirmish at Parker's Ferry. The date of this skirmish is in question, and many sources give 13 August as the date. However, a letter from Marion to Nathanael Greene gives the date as 30 August. After the skirmish, Marion rejoined Greene to command the militia forces of North and South Carolina, including his own brigade, at Eutaw Springs on 8 September. It was due largely to Marion's personal influence on the field that Greene could tell Congress, "the militia gained much honor by their firmness," and could write Steuben, "such conduct would have graced the veterans of the Great King of Prussia."
Elected to the state senate, Marion was at Jacksonboro for the General Assembly, beginning on 8 January 1782, but his brigade was given the mission of protecting the area. On 10 January he wrote Colonel Peter Horry and asked him to assume command, but on 24 February Marion had to take leave from his urgent political duties and rush back to take over. There was jealousy between Horry and Colonel Hezekiah Maham, who commanded the brigade's dragoons, prompting these officers to find one pretext after another to turn their responsibilities over to subordinates. At this critical moment, Colonel Benjamin Thompson led a 700-man expedition from Charleston, crossed the Cooper River on 23 February, and scattered Marion's divided forces. He rallied the remnants and directed a counterattack, but poor execution on the part of some of his untrained horsemen led to another reverse near Wambaw Bridge, about forty miles northeast of Charleston. Marion withdrew to his old camp at Cantey's Plantation (near Murray's Ferry), much demoralized by this sorry performance. The next summer found Marion again assigned the mission of patrolling east of the Cooper River. At Fair Lawn, on 29 August 1782, he ambushed a force of 200 dragoons under Major Thomas Fraser, who had been sent from Charleston to surprise him. Captain Gavin Witherspoon's reconnaissance party led the enemy into a trap that cost Fraser twenty men. The British captured an ammunition wagon, however, and Marion was forced to retreat for lack of powder. He had fought his last action.
When the war ended, Marion was appointed commandant of Fort Johnson, a sinecure that brought £500 a year and compensated him somewhat for having lost virtually all his personal property during the Revolution. He was re-elected to the state senate in 1782 and 1784, and sat in the state's constitutional convention in 1790. Also in 1790 Marion left his post at Fort Johnson, and in 1791 he was elected to fill an unexpired term in the state senate. Meanwhile, in 1786, he married Mary Esther Videau, a wealthy spinster cousin about his own age. He died on 27 February 1795 at the age of about 63.
The "Marion Legend" has long obscured the history of his life, and the principal villain is Parson Weems, who also invented much of the "Washington Legend." Weems rewrote a manuscript on Marion's life that Peter Horry had drafted, taking some liberties with the details. After reading the Weems's book, Horry wrote him in despair: "Most certainly 'tis not my history, but your romance." William James, who joined Marion at the age of 15, wrote a simple biographical sketch of his idol, and William Gilmore Simms fashioned this into another fantasy. Historian Robert D. Bass gives this summary of the "Swamp Fox":
He was neither a Robin Hood nor a Chevalier Bayard. He was a moody, introverted, semiliterate genius who rose from private to Brigadier General through an intuitive grasp of strategy and tactics, personal bravery, devotion to duty, and worship of liberty…. By nature Marion was gentle, kind, and humane. Yet his orders, orderly books, battle reports, and personal letters reveal another side of his character. He shot pickets, retaliated from ambush, failed to honor flags of truce, and knowingly violated international law. He could forgive the Tories, and yet he could court-martial his closest friend. (p. 4)
Unlike Thomas Sumter, Marion could subordinate himself to higher military authority and fit his partisan operations into the over-all strategy of of leaders like Nathanael Greene. While most famous as a guerrilla, he had the military standards of a regular soldier.
Clinton Papers. "Letter of John Watson Tadwell" (vol. 232, p. 21). Ann Arbor, Mich.: William L. Clements Library.
Conrad, Dennis M., Roger N. Parks, and Martha J. King. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene. Volume IX (11 July-2 December 1781). Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Lee, Henry. Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States. New York: University Publishing Company, 1869.
Lossing, Benson J. The Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution. 2 vols. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1851.
Rankin, Hugh F. Francis Marion: The Swamp Fox. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1973.
revised by Steven D. Smith
Francis Marion (1732-1795), one of the great partisan leaders of the American Revolutionary War, was known as the "Swamp Fox" because of his craftiness in eluding pursuers in the Carolina swamps and his brilliant guerrilla operations.
Francis Marion was born in Berkeley County, S.C. He had little education and remained semiliterate to the end of his life. As a boy of 15, he went to sea for a year. After that, he turned to farming on the family land. In 1761 he took part in the war against the Cherokee Indians as a lieutenant of militia. He made something of a reputation by leading a successful attack against a strong Indian position. More importantly, he became familiar with the very special tactics of guerrilla warfare—using small forces, hitting and running, dispersing troops in one place and reforming them in another, and employing the element of surprise. When the campaign ended, he returned to farming, at first on leased land and then, in 1773, on a plantation of his own, Pond Bluff, near Eutaw Springs, S.C. Two years later he was elected to the provincial legislature and also accepted appointment as a captain in the second of two infantry regiments South Carolina raised at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.
In the first several years of the war, Marion saw service in and around Charleston, S.C. In September 1775 he led his company in capturing the forts in Charleston harbor from the British. In the summer of the next year he joined in repulsing the English attempt to retake Charleston. Meanwhile he had been promoted to major in February 1776 and to lieutenant colonel in November. He spent the next two years skirmishing in the Charleston area and drilling militia troops. In November 1778 he took command of the 2nd Regiment; in November 1779 he led the regiment in an unsuccessful attack on Savannah. The following year was a disastrous one for the colonial cause. In May 1780 British forces retook Charleston, and in August they shattered the American army under Gen. Horatio Gates at the battle of Camden. This ended organized resistance by the Americans in South Carolina.
Marion now took to the swamps and to guerrilla warfare. With a small mobile force of 20 to 70 men, he embarked upon harassing operations, hitting British supply lines and cutting communications between their posts. "Fertile of stratagems and expedients" and moving like a phantom, he roamed the area between Charleston and Camden and along the Santee and Peedee rivers. In August 1780 he rescued 150 American prisoners being transported by the British; in September he scattered a force of Tories; in December he shot up a column of British replacements. Every effort to capture him failed. In the fall of 1780 Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, one of England's ablest cavalrymen, pursued Marion relentlessly but could not catch him. After a 7-hour chase through 26 miles of swamp he said, "But as for this damn old fox, the devil himself could not catch him." Another pursuer, Lt. Col. John W. T. Watson, who searched for Marion in March 1781, explained his failure by concluding that Marion "would not fight like a gentleman or a Christian."
In December 1780 Marion, having been made a brigadier general of militia by the governor of South Carolina, began recruiting a brigade and establishing a base at Snow's Island at the confluence of the Peedee and Lynches rivers not far from the North Carolina border. From this place he operated in support of Gen. Nathanael Greene, who had come south to replace Gates in October and to restore American supremacy in the Carolinas. Marion took part in several operations in the summer of 1781 while continuing his guerrilla action. That September he reached the peak of his career at the battle of Eutaw Springs. In this fight, which ended with the British forces in retreat to North Carolina, Marion commanded the American right wing; this was the largest number of troops he ever commanded. His men, whom he had trained, fought superbly, and he led them with courage and coolness. To Congress, Greene reported, "the militia gained much honor by their firmness."
After Eutaw Springs, Marion went to the South Carolina Legislature as an elected representative in the session of 1781. He was reelected in 1782 and 1784. Between times, he returned to his brigade, leading it in several engagements. At the end of the war he married a wealthy cousin, Mary Videau, and settled down at Pond Bluff, where he died on Feb. 26, 1795.
The only reliable account of Marion is Robert Duncan Bass, Swamp Fox: The Life and Campaigns of General Francis Marion (1959).
The life of Gen. Francis Marion, a celebrated partisan officer in the Revolutionary War, against the British and Tories in South Carolina and Georgia, Charleston, S.C.: Tradd Street Press, 1976. □
Marion's perseverance, leadership, and cunning kept his force alive and earned him the sobriquet, the “Swamp Fox.” The partisans denied the British a secure base, terrorized the loyalists, decimated their militia, and forced British regulars to become constables instead of concentrating against Greene's army. During 1781, Marion's brigade fought twenty‐five engagements, captured Fort Watson, Fort Motte, and Georgetown, and led Greene's attack at Eutaw Springs. In the postwar period, Marion campaigned in the state assembly to restore former loyalists to society.
[See also Revolutionary War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]
Hugh F. Rankin , Francis Marion: The Swamp Fox, 1973.
Clyde R. Ferguson , Functions of the Partisan Militia in the South During the American Revolution: An Interpretation, in W. Robert Higgins, ed., The Revolutionary War in the South: Power, Conflict, and Leadership, 1979.
Louis D. F. Frasché