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.
Further Reading on Francis Marion
The only reliable account of Marion is Robert Duncan Bass, Swamp Fox: The Life and Campaigns of General Francis Marion (1959).
Additional Biography Sources
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.