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Francis Marion – the “Swamp Fox”

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There are few personalities of the American Revolution that have endured in story quite like that of Francis Marion – the swamps of South Carolina are what lead to his nickname the Swamp Fox and many places in South Carolina bear his name even today. A recent news article reminded me yet again of this figure. An interpreter of Francis Marion was to speak at a North Carolina Museum.

In any case… I’ve profiled him once before, but this is decidedly more in depth…

Francis Marion
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

February 26, 1732 – February 27, 1795

Nickname “The Swamp Fox”

Francis Marion (February 26, 1732 – February 27, 1795) is considered one of the fathers of modern guerrilla warfare, and is credited in the lineage of the United States Army Rangers.

Family and early life

Marion’s family was of Huguenot ancestry. His parents were Gabriel Marion and Esther Cordes Marion, both first-generation Carolinians. His grandparents were Benjamin and Judith Baluet Marion, and Anthony and Esther Baluet Cordes. Gabriel and Esther had six children: Esther, Isaac, Gabriel, Benjamin, Job, and Francis. Francis was the last born and was a puny child. Peter Horry, who served under Marion in the American Revolution, joked, “I have it from good authority, that this great soldier, at his birth, was not larger than a New England lobster, and might easily enough have been put into a quart pot.”

The family settled at Winyah, near Georgetown, South Carolina. Marion was born in midwinter, 1732, at Goatfield Plantation in St. James Parish, Berkeley County, South Carolina. When he was five or six, his family moved to a plantation in St. George, a parish on Winyah Bay. Apparently, they wanted to be near the English school in Georgetown. In 1759, he moved to Pond Bluff plantation near Eutaw Springs, in St. John’s Parish, Berkeley County, South Carolina. Francis Marion was fluent in both French and English.

When Francis was 15, he decided to become a sailor. His imagination had been stirred by the ships in the Georgetown port. When he asked his parents’ permission, they willingly agreed. They hoped a voyage to the Caribbean would strengthen his frail physique. He signed on as the sixth crewman of a schooner heading for the West Indies. As they were returning, a whale rammed the schooner and caused a plank to come loose. The captain and crew escaped in a boat, but the schooner sank so quickly that they were unable to take any food or water. After six days under the tropical sun, two crewmen died of thirst and exposure. The following day, they reached shore.

Despite his sea ordeal, Francis came back in better health. Peter Horry wrote, “His constitution seemed renewed, his frame commenced a second and rapid growth, while his cheeks, quitting their pale, suet-colored cast, assumed a bright and healthy olive.” However, Francis was done with sailing after that one disastrous voyage.

Marion began his military career shortly before his 25th birthday. On January 1, 1757, Francis and his brother Gabriel were recruited by Captain John Postell for the French and Indian War to drive the Cherokee away from the border. In 1761, Marion served as a lieutenant under Captain William Moultrie in a campaign against the Cherokee. Peter Horry quoted a letter in which Marion spoke of this British-led campaign with sorrow:

“The next morning we proceeded by order of Colonel James Grant, to burn down the Indians’ cabins. Some of our men seemed to enjoy this cruel work, laughing very heartily at the curling flames, as they mounted loud crackling over the tops of the huts. But to me it appeared a shocking sight. Poor creatures! thought I, we surely need not grudge you such miserable habitations. But, when we came, according to orders, to cut down the fields of corn, I could scarcely refrain from tears. For who could see the stalks that stood so stately with broad green leaves and gaily tasseled shocks, filled with sweet milky fluid and flour, the staff of life; who, I say, without grief, could see these sacred plants sinking under our swords with all their precious load, to wither and rot untasted in their mourning fields.”

Service during the Revolution

In 1775, he was a member of the South Carolina Provincial Congress, and on June 21, 1775 was commissioned captain in the 2nd South Carolina Regiment under William Moultrie, with whom he served in June 1776 in the defense of Fort Sullivan and Fort Moultrie, in Charleston harbor.

In September 1776, the Continental Congress commissioned Marion as a lieutenant-colonel. In the autumn of 1779, he took part in the siege of Savannah, and early in 1780, under Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, was engaged in drilling militia.

Marion escaped capture when Charleston fell on May 12, 1780, because he had broken an ankle in an accident and had left the city to recuperate.

After the loss in Charleston, the defeats of Gen. Isaac Huger at Moncks Corner and Lt. Col. Abraham Buford at the Waxhaw massacre (near the North Carolina border, in what is now Lancaster County), Marion organized a small troop, which at first consisted of between 20 and 70 men—the only force then opposing the British Army in the state. At this point, he was still nearly crippled from the slowly-healing ankle.

He joined General Horatio Gates just before the Battle of Camden, but Gates had no confidence in him and sent him (mostly to get rid of him) to take command of the Williamsburg Militia in the Pee Dee area and asked him to undertake scouting missions and impede the expected flight of the British after the battle. Marion thus missed the battle, but was able to intercept and recapture 150 Maryland prisoners, plus about twenty of their British guards, who had been en route from the battle to Charleston. The freed prisoners, thinking the war already lost, refused to join Marion and deserted.

However, with his militiamen, Marion showed himself to be a singularly able leader of irregulars. Unlike the Continental troops, Marion’s Men, as they were known, served without pay, supplied their own horses, arms, and often their food. All of Marion’s supplies that were not obtained locally were captured from the British or Loyalist (“Tory”) forces.

Marion rarely committed his men to frontal warfare, but repeatedly surprised larger bodies of Loyalists or British regulars with quick surprise attacks and equally quick withdrawal from the field. After the surrender of Charleston, the British garrisoned South Carolina with help from local Tories, except for Williamsburg (the present Pee Dee), which they were never able to hold. The British made one attempt to garrison Williamsburg at Willtown, but were driven out by Marion at the Mingo Creek.

The British especially hated Marion and made repeated efforts to neutralize his force, but Marion’s intelligence gathering was excellent and that of the British was poor, due to the overwhelming Patriot loyalty of the populace in the Williamsburg area.

Col. Banastre Tarleton, sent to capture Marion, despaired of finding the “old swamp fox”, who eluded him by travelling along swamp paths. Tarleton and Marion were sharply contrasted in the popular mind. Tarleton was hated because he burned and destroyed homes and supplies, whereas Marion’s Men, when they requisitioned supplies (or destroyed them to keep them out of British hands) gave the owners receipts for them. After the war, most of the receipts were redeemed by the new state government.
General Marion Inviting a British Officer to Share His Meal by John Blake White; his slave Oscar Marion kneels at the left of the group.
General Marion Inviting a British Officer to Share His Meal by John Blake White; his slave Oscar Marion kneels at the left of the group.

Once Marion had shown his ability at guerrilla warfare, making himself a serious nuisance to the British, Governor John Rutledge (in exile in North Carolina) commissioned him a brigadier-general of state troops.

When Gen. Nathanael Greene took command in the south, Marion and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee were ordered in January 1781 to attack Georgetown but were unsuccessful. In April, however, they took Fort Watson and in May, Fort Motte, and succeeded in breaking communications between the British posts in the Carolinas. On August 31, Marion rescued a small American force trapped by Major C. Fraser with 500 British. For this, he received the thanks of the Continental Congress. Marion commanded the right wing under General Greene at the Battle of Eutaw Springs.

In 1782, during his absence as State Senator at Jacksonborough, his brigade grew disheartened and there was reportedly a conspiracy to turn him over to the British. But in June of that year, he put down a Loyalist uprising on the banks of the Pee Dee River. In August, he left his brigade and returned to his plantation.

After the war, Marion married his cousin, Mary Esther Videau. His nephew Theodore had hinted to his uncle that it was time to get married. His relatives and friends informed him that Mary always listened with glowing cheeks and sparkling eyes when anyone began reciting the exploits of the Swamp Fox. Marion was in love earlier with Mary Esther Simons but she refused his proposal and married Jack Holmes.

Marion served several terms in the South Carolina State Senate, and in 1784, in recognition of his services, was made commander of Fort Johnson, practically a courtesy title with a salary of $500 per annum. He was originally supposed to receive 500 English pounds a year, but economy-frightened politicians reduced his payment to 500 Continental dollars. He died on his estate in 1795, at the age of 63.

Plantation owner

Like most Southern plantation owners, Francis Marion was a slave owner with an estimated 200 slaves, many of whom took the last name “Marion.” Of them, the slave Oscar Marion was renowned for his service as a soldier in the war, and apparently was especially close to his master.[citation needed]

Modern opinions about Marion’s character

Francis Marion was one of the influences for the main character in the movie The Patriot. In the film, the fictional character Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) describes violence he committed in the French and Indian war.

Around the time of The Patriot’s release, comments in the British press challenged the American notion of Francis Marion as a hero. In the Evening Standard, British author Neil Norman called Francis Marion

a thoroughly unpleasant dude who was, basically, a terrorist.

British historian Christopher Hibbert described Marion as

… very active in the persecution of the Cherokee Indians and not at all the sort of chap who should be celebrated as a hero. The truth is that people like Marion committed atrocities as bad, if not worse, than those perpetrated by the British.

Hibbert also stated that Francis Marion had

a reputation as a racist who hunted Indians for sport and regularly raped his female slaves.

However, in his book “Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes” written before “The Patriot” was released, Hibbert has no criticism of Marion.

British historian Hugh Bicheno has compared General Marion with British officers Tarleton and Major James Wemyss and referring to the British officers as well as Marion said: “…they all tortured prisoners, hanged fence-sitters, abused parole and flags of truce, and shot their own men when they failed to live up to the harsh standards they set.”

In a commentary published in the National Review, conservative talk radio host Michael Graham rejected criticisms like Hibbert’s as an attempt to rewrite history:

Was Francis Marion a slave owner? Was he a determined and dangerous warrior? Did he commit acts in an 18th-century war that we would consider atrocious in the current world of peace and political correctness? As another great American film hero might say: “You damn right.”
That’s what made him a hero, 200 years ago and today. Francis Marion survived two wars, two centuries of scrutiny, and he’ll survive two and a half hours of screen time by Mel Gibson, too.

Michael Graham also refers to what he describes as “the unchallenged work of South Carolina’s premier historian Dr. Walter Edgar, who pointed out in his 1998 ‘South Carolina: A History’ that Marion’s partisans were “a ragged band of both black and white volunteers.”

The modern British view may seem at odds with contemporary accounts of Marion such as that given by British Loyalist and Magistrate Levi Smith who met Marion when Marion prevented Smith’s hanging after the fall of Fort Motte on 11 May 1781 following a 4-day siege:

“I had nearly taken farewell of this world, when I perceived General Marion on horseback with his sword drawn. He asked in a passion ‘…who ordered them to hang any person.’ They replied, ‘Colonel Lee’. ‘I will let you know, damn you, that I command here and not Colonel Lee. Do you know if you hang this man Lord Rawdon will hang a good man in his place…’”

British claims of Indian atrocities on the part of Marion can be understood from a letter by Marion himself which was written during the French and Indian War while he was acting under the orders of a British Officer:

“The next morning we proceeded, by order of Colonel Grant, to burn down the Indian cabins. Some of our men seemed to enjoy this cruel work, laughing very heartily at the curling flames as they mounted, loud-crackling, over the tops of the huts. But to me it appeared a shocking sight. ‘Poor creatures!’ thought I, ‘we surely need not grudge you such miserable habitations.’

Amy Crawford, in “Smithsonian Magazine,” wrote that modern historians such as William Gilmore Simms and Hugh Rankin have written accurate biographies of Marion, including Simms’ “The Life of Francis Marion.” [9] The introduction to the 2007 edition of Simms’ book (originally published in 1844) was written by Sean Busick, a professor of American history at Athens State University in Alabama, who says that based on the facts, “Marion deserves to be remembered as one of the heroes of the War for Independence.”

“Francis Marion was a man of his times: he owned slaves, and he fought in a brutal campaign against the Cherokee Indians…Marion’s experience in the French and Indian War prepared him for more admirable service.”


The Francis Marion National Forest near Charleston, South Carolina is named after Marion, as is the historic Francis Marion Hotel in downtown Charleston. Numerous other locations across the country are named after Marion. The city of Marion, Iowa is named after Francis, and the city holds an annual Swamp Fox Festival and parade every summer. Marion County, South Carolina, and its county seat, the City of Marion, are named for General Marion. The City of Marion features a statue of General Marion in its town square, has a museum that includes many artifacts related to Francis Marion, and the Marion High School mascot is the Swamp Fox. Francis Marion University is located nearby in Florence County, South Carolina. In Washington, DC, Marion Park is one the four “major” or large parks in the Capitol Hill Parks constellation. The park is bounded by 4th & 6th Streets and at the intersection of E Street and South Carolina Avenue in southeast Washington, DC. The town of Marion, IN as well as Marion, MA, formerly Sippican, are also named after Francis Marion. Marion County, Indiana which the city of Indianapolis is a part of, is also named for the general. The town of Marion, Alabama is named after Francis Marion, as are Marion County, Arkansas; Marion County, Ohio; Marion, Illinois; Marion County, Florida; Marion, Virginia; and Marion County, Illinois. The Junior Military College Marion Military Institute located in Marion, Alabama has an organization called Swamp Fox which is attributed to Francis Marion. Marion County, Oregon is also named after Francis Marion and the marionberry is named after the county.

In 2006 the U.S. House of Representatives approved a monument to Francis Marion, to be built in Washington, D.C. sometime in 2007–08. The bill, however, died in the U.S. Senate and was reintroduced in January, 2007. The Brigadier General Francis Marion Memorial Act of 2007 passed the US House of Representatives in March 2007, and the U.S. Senate in April 2008. The bill was packaged into a consolidated public lands bill (S. 2739) and passed both houses.

President George W. Bush signed the bill into law on May 8, 2008 as Public Law #110-229.

Marion’s grave stone reads:
Sacred to the Memory

Who departed his life, on the 27th of February, 1795,
Deeply regretted by all his fellow citizens 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
Secured to her the blessings of LIBERTY AND PEACE
This tribute of veneration and gratitude is erected in commemoration of
the noble and disinterested virtues of the CITIZEN;
and the gallant exploits of the SOLDIER;
Who lived without fear, and died without reproach

He is buried at Belle Isle Plantation Cemetery, Berkeley County, South Carolina.

Source: Wikipedia

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