Francis Marion (1732-1795) was one of the most successful partisan military leaders of the American Revolutionary War. He led bands of guerrillas in several victories against British and Britain-allied Colonists, from whom he received the name “Swamp Fox” for his craftiness in eluding pursuit in the Carolina swamps. As with many Revolution-era figures, his legacy is complicated by racism and the brutality of his tactics, but his military contributions to the founding of America remain vital.
Francis Marion was born in Berkeley County, South Carolina. 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. By modern standards, the campaign against the Cherokee was especially brutal, and Marion has been implicated by historians in multiple atrocities. He also became familiar with the tactics of guerrilla warfare: employing small forces in hit and run attacks, 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. He 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 few 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 of the same year. 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 General Horatio Gates at the battle of Camden. This ended organized resistance by the Americans in South Carolina.
Marion took to the swamps and to guerrilla warfare. With small, mobile forces of 20 to 70 men, he embarked upon harassing operations, hitting British supply lines and cutting communications between their posts. During this time he was notorious for destroying property and lynching both British sympathizers and enslaved African Americans who might be otherwise be forced to work for the enemy. Keeping his movements concealed, he roamed the area between Charleston and Camden and along the Santee and Peedee rivers.
Marion was responsible for a number of military successes during this period. In August 1780, he rescued 150 American prisoners being transported by the British. In September of the same year, he scattered a force of British-allied Americans. In December, he destroyed a column of British replacements.
The British Army committed significant resources to finding Marion and his men, but every effort failed. In the fall of 1780, Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, a decorated British cavalry commander, pursued Marion relentlessly but could not catch him. After a seven-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, Francis 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. When not in session, he returned to his brigade, leading it in several engagements. At the end of the war, he married his wealthy first cousin, Mary Videau. He bought slaves, his own having defected to the British during the war, and settled on a plantation he called Pond Bluff, in modern Orangeburg County, South Carolina. He died there on February 26, 1795.
Francis Marion was a complex figure with substantial influence on the early history of America. Many fine books and articles have been written about his life.
- 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.
Updates by Matt Salter