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Francis Marion

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Francis Marion

1732-1795

Also known as: Swamp Fox

Born: WINTER, 1732 in South Carolina, United States, Berkeley County

Died: February 27, 1795

Occupation: General

Source Database: DISCovering U.S. History

Table of Contents

Biographical Essay | Further Readings | Source Citation

Hero of the southern campaign in the American Revolution, who was known for his mastery of the small-unit tactics necessary for effective guerrilla warfare.

BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY

Francis Marion was born in the winter of 1732 (his exact birth date is unknown) at Goatfield Plantation in St. John's Parish, Berkeley County, South Carolina. His parents, Gabriel and Esther Marion, were of French Huguenot descent. The Huguenots were French Protestants who had suffered persecution for their beliefs during the reign of Louis XIV. Following the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which forbade the practice of Protestantism, 50,000 Huguenots left France. Marion's grandparents were among them. Along with 70 or 80 other Huguenot families, they farmed the banks of the Santee River near Charleston, South Carolina, where the land proved ideal for growing rice and indigo, a highly treasured blue dye which brought a good price in Europe. The cultivation of both crops spanned an entire year, so the planters were never idle, and they were rewarded with a comfortable lifestyle.

Because the land had been largely untouched before the Huguenots began farming it, much effort was expended preparing the land for raising crops, leaving little time for the acquiring of formal educations. Although the Huguenots were firm believers in cultural pursuits, Marion received only a rudimentary education, as his correspondence attests.

When Marion was five or six years old, his family moved to another plantation, Winyah Bay in Prince George Parish, near a port called Georgetown. Despite Marion's small, rather puny, stature and ill health, his young life was a continuous cycle of work. But as he farmed the land, his dreams took him to sea, and, at the age of 15, he received the consent of his parents to sign on with a schooner bound for the West Indies.

But nearly as soon as Marion's dreams of sailing became reality, the reality became a nightmare. On the voyage home, a whale rammed the schooner, ripping the seams and sending water into the hold. Before the schooner went down, the captain, along with his crew of six (young Marion among them) and a small dog, boarded a dinghy. The crew floated on the open sea without food or water, not knowing how far they might be from land. Succumbing to hunger and thirst on the fifth day, they killed the dog for nourishment. Two of the crewmen died on the sixth day. On the seventh, the remaining crew reached land.

Ironically, Marion returned to the family farm healthier and in better spirits than when he had left. Wrote Peter Horry, who would later serve under Marion: "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."

Apparently, this voyage ended his obsession with the sea, for he farmed his family's plantation for the next ten years. Gradually, his brothers and sisters married and moved away. Around 1750, his father died, leaving Marion to manage the plantation and care for his mother.

Though thethe began in 1754, it did not touch the daily lives of South Carolinians until the war's final years. At this time, Cherokees began threatening settlers along the South Carolina border, influencing Governor William Henry Lyttelton to enlarge his military forces. Marion and his brother Gabriel were among the Huguenot recruits. When an expedition led by Colonel Archibald Montgomerie was ambushed by Cherokees near the town of Echoe, Montgomerie's troops suffered heavy losses. The defeat alarmed the South Carolinians, who appealed to Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commander in chief of the British forces in America. Lord Amherst ordered Lieutenant Colonel James Grant and 1,200 regulars to prepare themselves for a war against the Cherokees. By January 1761, Grant had arrived in Charleston and was assembling men for battle. Marion was given the rank of first lieutenant in Captain William Moultrie's company of infantry.

In June, Grant led his expedition on the same route Montgomerie had taken. Sensing another ambush at a pass near the site of Montgomerie's battle, Grant dispatched Marion with 30 men to flush out the Cherokees. Using trees for cover, Marion's detachment cautiously advanced within range of the Cherokees, whereupon the Indians sounded their war cry and fired. By the time the pass was secured, only nine of Marion's men were left. Grant's column proceeded through the pass and engaged the Cherokees for several hours, until the Indians fled. Marion's capture of the pass allowed Grant to create a path of destruction in the Cherokee lands, burning 15 Indian towns and destroying their corn crops. Finally, Chief Attakullakulla, known by some as "Little Carpenter," surrendered.

Marion's courageous efforts in the Cherokee War did not go unnoticed. When he returned to his old lifestyle by leasing farm lands along the west bank of the Santee River, he was accorded great respect and became a successful planter. Although he spent considerable time hunting and fishing, he was well acquainted with details of the surrounding lands. He also had an active social life and regularly visited his brothers and neighboring Huguenot families. During this prosperous time, he attained a sizable degree of wealth. In 1773, he purchased a plantation, which he named "Pond Bluff," situated four miles south of Eutaw Springs along the banks of the Santee.

Although British parliamentary rulings aroused many of his countrymen, Marion appeared indifferent and uninvolved. Nevertheless, he was elected to South Carolina's first provincial congress by the people of St. John's parish. Apparently, other South Carolinians shared Marion's ambivalence, for, as the congress convened on January 11, 1775, instead of passing anti-British measures similar to those of other colonial legislatures, they ended the session by declaring their loyalty to the British Crown.

But six months later, the congress was again called to session in response to news of fighting between Massachusetts militia and British redcoats. They voted to assemble one regiment of cavalry and two of infantry, which would join the other militia to become a part of the regular army, or the "Continental Line." Marion was selected to be a second captain under his former commanding officer, William Moultrie.

Eager to fight the British, in a few weeks Marion assembled 60 volunteers, making his regiment the first rebel force to be organized in South Carolina. But with most of the fighting taking place in the northern states, military life could quickly grow dull. During the winter of 1775--76, his men busied themselves repairing the forts around Charleston, but Marion's magnetism was no match for this mundane labor, and many of his men returned to their homes. Finally, in June 1776, the reinforcement of the forts paid off. When British forces (spotted off the South Carolina coast) did attack, the soft palmetto logs of the newly constructed forts absorbed their fire, leaving the Americans well protected. The British, for their part, did not fare so well. Fire from Marion and his regiment sank two British frigates, and a third was burned by its crew after it ran aground. As the remaining ships began to withdraw in defeat, Marion requested permission from Moultrie to fire the final shot of battle. "Yes," replied Moultrie, "give them the parting kick." Marion aimed at the flagship, which his cannon sank triumphantly. The defeated British troops returned to New York to join northern forces. The British would not return to South Carolina for three years.

Marion Is Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel

In September 1776, the South Carolina regiments became part of the Continental Army, and Marion was promoted to lieutenant colonel. His reputation as an excellent soldier and a worthy leader became widespread. Although his men were partisan irregulars, he influenced them to develop some of the characteristics of more disciplined regulars, requiring them, among other things, to keep their hair short, as "long hair gathers much filth, and takes a great deal of time and trouble to comb and keep clean and in good order." His strict religious practices were also made clear. "All officers and men are desired to parade with their side-arms at the new barracks at nine o'clock in the morning, from which the regiment will be marched to church." His men admired his principles. Wrote Peter Horry: "Marion was the architect of the Second Regiment and laid the foundation of that excellent discipline and confidence in themselves, which gained them such reputation whenever they were brought to face their enemies."

As the British lost hope of gaining control of the northern colonies, Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in America, moved south. Taking Savannah, he then turned to Charleston. This time, with the British approaching from land rather than sea, Charleston had little protection. Benjamin Lincoln, commander of the armies in South Carolina, moved all his forces into the city to counter the attack and evacuated the governor, the council, and the sick. Having recently jumped from a second-story window and broken his ankle in an attempt to escape a party of drunken Whigs, Marion fell into the last category. When Charleston was easily captured, Marion was one of the few Continental leaders still free.

Five thousand men were lost in the greatest American defeat of the war, and South Carolina was left defenseless. Suddenly, the state's allegiance turned, with many pledging loyalty to the British Crown. Still, some pockets of resistance remained. North of Georgetown, in the Williamsburg district along the PeeDee River, Scotch-Irish farmers bitterly resented British authority; they organized their own militia and prepared for battle.

Other Americans responded to the Charleston defeat. Horatio Gates was appointed by Congress as the new commander of the South. He traveled south, gathering troops from Virginia and North Carolina. When Marion heard of the Williamsburg uprising, he asked Gates if he could command their militia. Receiving permission, Marion headed for Williamsburg where he was welcomed heartily. But Gates became impatient while Marion prepared his troops for battle; he confronted the British on August 16. The results were disastrous: his men deserted him, and Gates fled to Hillsboro, North Carolina. Thus, Marion and his men were the only patriot fighters left in South Carolina.

Shortly after Gates fled, Marion learned that a group of American prisoners were being led south toward Charleston. Employing the guerilla tactics for which he had gained fame, he ambushed the British and freed the prisoners. Although most of the captured soldiers refused to join forces with him, news of Marion's gutsy ambush spread through the northern press, and Marion acquired legendary status.

Among those who learned of Marion's cunning was British Major General Charles Cornwallis, who sent a number of regulars after him. Marion and his men hid in the Great White Marsh just south of Wilmington, North Carolina, while the British burned the houses of Marion's men. Remarked Marion: "Tis a harsh medicine, but it is necessary." True to their commander's prophecy, the destruction hardened his men's resolve, and, as word of the burning spread, the British acquired new enemies.

Winter approached, and Marion learned that the British were scattered at various points throughout the district. He led his men from the Great White Marsh and traveled southward, riding 46 miles and across three rivers, until, finally, about midnight, they came upon a band of Tories camped along the Black Mingo Creek. Marion's men killed about a third of them. The remaining men fled the camp, leaving Marion with enough supplies and ammunition to see his regiment through the winter. Marion defeated another group of Tories before Cornwallis sent British Colonel Banastre Tarleton after him. Though Marion's regiment had grown to over 400 men, Tarleton's battalion far outnumbered them.

He Is Dubbed "Swamp Fox"

Tarleton pursued Marion relentlessly, but Marion was not to be done in. Leading his men through swamps and across several rivers, he finally reached the Williamsburg district, with which they were all familiar. They fled into a pathless quagmire, leaving Tarleton and his men weary and bewildered. Tarleton abandoned the chase: "Let us go back . . . ," he said, "as for this damned old fox, the devil himself could not catch him." Thus, the name "Swamp Fox" became Marion's permanent appellation.

Indeed, the swamps became Marion's refuge in the winter. He built himself a fortress among the depths in a place called Snow's Island.

Contrary to his ruthless cunning in battle, Marion was noted to be generous to his fellow men, which included his enemies. He forbade torture of the Tory prisoners and the burning of their property. The parole system was followed by both sides: prisoners were set free on the assumption that they would not fight again. If caught, they could be hanged. Marion was lenient, however, and did not punish the men who broke parole. In fact, he often persuaded his captors to fight with him rather than against him. As noted by General Nathanael Greene: "At the close of the war, we fought the enemy with British soldiers; and they fought us with those of America."

As 1780 drew to a close, General Greene was appointed to command the army in the South. He divided the army into two parts, sending General Dan Morgan south, while he remained in the East. Likewise, Cornwallis divided the British forces, sending Tarleton south after Morgan. Marion was promoted to brigadier general and given command of all the patriot soldiers east of the Santee River. Colonel Henry Lee ("Light-Horse Harry") and his company--a welcome blend of seasoned infantry and cavalry--joined Marion at Snow's Island.

The year 1781 would prove busy for Marion. In quick succession, he would ambush the British Lord Francis Rawdon and send him retreating to Georgetown, capture Fort Watson and Motte, drive the British from Georgetown, and join Green to fight a stalemate against Alexander Stuart at Eutaw Springs. By the year's end, only one garrison, Charleston, would still be in British hands.

The first target was Fort Watson, a British stronghold situated where the Congaree and Wateree joined to form the Santee River. Colonel Hezekiah Maham, one of Marion's officers, suggested that, not having artillery to reduce the fort, they build a tower which could be placed within range of the fort. Marion's men put the tower in place during the night. At dawn, they fired. The British fled quickly, effecting the first reclamation of a southern stronghold since Charleston had fallen.

Before Marion could join forces with Greene in his pursuit of Lord Rawdon, Rawdon attacked on Hobkirk's Hill. There was no clear victor in the battle, but--in keeping with his strategy of maintaining a viable fighting force above all else--Greene was the first to retreat.

Meanwhile, Marion captured Fort Motte, a beautiful plantation owned by Rebecca Motte, a patriot widow. The British had converted the house into a fort by building a wooden palisade in front of a deep ditch. With British reinforcements en route, Marion decided to torch the house, thereby destroying the fort. Known for his chivalry, he first asked permission of Mrs. Motte, who not only complied, but supplied the bows and arrows used to set the house afire. Shortly after the house caught, the British surrendered. The Americans immediately began to douse the fire, and the house was saved.

Lord Rawdon took sanctuary in the safety of Loyalist Charleston, while Marion established a new swamp camp on the lower Santee River and turned his attention to the British at Georgetown. He attacked the few soldiers guarding the garrison, whereupon the British fled to their ships without a fight. Lord Rawdon retreated to England in ill health and was replaced by a Scot named Alexander Stuart. Greene asked Marion to join forces with him, and they attacked Stuart's army at Eutaw Springs. Marion's men fought well in their first European-style battle. Both forces fought to utter exhaustion in the longest battle of the southern campaign, leaving each side depleted by about a quarter of their men. Colonel Stuart retreated to Charleston, never to fight against the patriots again.

Except for Charleston, South Carolina now belonged to the Americans. After the French navy defeated the British fleet sent to evacuate Cornwallis at Yorktown, Cornwallis was forced to surrender to George Washington and the military phase of the Revolution was over.

Following the battle of Eutaw Springs, Marion sent his men to their homes and gratefully departed for his plantation. But the plantation was in ruins. With much work to do, Marion had little money or slaves to accomplish the task before him. Furthermore, he received no pay for his service during the war. Nevertheless, he somehow found the resources to restore his farm to a liveable state.

He Is Elected to State Senate

Shortly after returning home, Marion was elected to the state senate. As issues concerning the war's end arose, he found himself alone in his ideals. He wished for a peaceful ending to the war, for he knew how difficult it had been for his fellow men to choose between loyalty to the British Crown and support of a revolution. His adversaries, however, wanted to confiscate and sell Loyalists, lands and properties to raise funds which would pay the overdue salaries of the patriot soldiers. Marion's requests to forgive the Tories went unheeded, and Loyalist lands continued to be sold until the official end of the war.

Settling back into the life of a farmer, Marion determined that his bachelor lifestyle no longer became him. He courted his first cousin, Mary Esther Videau, whom he had known since childhood. She accepted his affections, and they were married on April 20, 1786. Marion was 54; Mary was 49. Wealth returned to Marion's life, for Mary was worth a sizable fortune.

Content with married life, Marion's only sadness was the lack of an heir. Though he later adopted a grand-nephew, Francis Marion Dwight, who dropped his last name with hopes of carrying on Marion's name, the grand-nephew had no sons.

Although Marion was repeatedly elected to the senate, he showed little interest in politics, focusing instead on military and local affairs with a strong desire to improve public education--which he considered the best defense against ambitious political demagogues.

In Marion's latter years, he became aware of a constant pain in his head, "by Great cold but No fevor." He grew continually weaker, until, finally, he was confined to the bed. He told his wife: "My dear, do not weep for me. I am not afraid to die, for thank God, I can lay my hand upon my heart and say since I came to man's estate, I have never intentionally done wrong to any man." He died peacefully at home on February 27, 1795. On his tombstone was an inscription pronouncing him a soldier "who lived without fear, and died without reproach."

Marion was a master of hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, secretive marches, and lightning raids. His wide-ranging activities forced the British to strengthen garrisons, provide convoy protection, and send periodic expeditions to attempt his capture. His speed of movement and knowledge of terrain doomed would-be captors to failure and justified his nickname. Above all, the "Swamp Fox" knew the basic tenet of guerrilla warfare was to disrupt or destroy his enemies--not to hold the landscape over which they fought. The American Revolution was won by commanders who realized they must keep their forces alive to fight the sustained fight, to lose battles and terrain but never their core forces. Washington and Nathanael Greene did this on a grander level. On a tactical level, none did it better than Francis Marion.

FURTHER READINGS

• Bass, Robert D. Swamp Fox: The Life and Campaigns of General Francis Marion. Henry Holt, 1959.

• James, William D. A Sketch of the Life of Brig. Gen. Francis Marion. Continental, 1948.

• Rankin, Hugh F. Francis Marion: The Swamp Fox. Crowell, 1973.

• Risjord, Norman K. "The Swamp Fox: Francis Marion," in Representative Americans. D.C. Heath, 1980.

• Simms, William Gilmore. "The Marion Family," in Southern and Western Monthly Magazine. Vol. 1 (1845): pp. 209--215.

• Alden, John Richard. The South in the Revolution, 1763--1789.

• Chidsey, Donald Barr. The War in the South. Crown, 1969.

• Davis, Burke. The Cowpens-Guilford Courthouse Campaign. Lippincott, 1962.

• Treacy, M.F. Prelude to Yorktown. University of North Carolina Press, 1963.

• Weigley, Russell F. The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780--1782. University of South Carolina Press, 1970.

Source Citation: "Francis Marion." DISCovering U.S. History. Gale Research, 1997. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group. http://galenet.galegroup.com.ezproxy.umuc.edu/servlet/HistRC/

Document Number: BT2104101329