Who Was The Swamp Fox?

One of the least known heroes of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) was Francis Marion, alias known as the “Swamp Fox”. The Swamp Fox was an intriguing personality and was a tactical innovator in the Revolutionary War – successfully bringing the concept of guerilla warfare to bear on the British colonial power. So just who was this farmer patriot and contributing author of the South Carolina Constitution? What was so special about this man that would help change the tide of the war in the American colonial south after the British captured Charleston in May of 1780, and how did he get his nickname? The story is a fascinating one.

For historical context, it must be pointed out that South Carolina was one of the most war torn colonies of the entire war. According to the book, The Swamp Fox – How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution, more “battles, engagements, and skirmishes were fought in South Carolina during the Revolution than in any other colony. Conservative estimates place the number of combat actions in the state at more than two hundred, a third of all that took place in the entire war. No other colony had as many inches of its territory affected by battle; of the state’s forty-six present-day counties, forty-five ended up seeing Revolutionary War actions. Nearly 20 percent of all Americans who died in battle in the Revolution died in South Carolina in the last two years of the war.” Undoubtedly, South Carolina was an essential battleground for both the British and the Americans fighting for independence.

Francis Marion was born on his family’s Berkeley County, South Carolina plantation around 1732 and at the age of 15 became a sailor, eventually experiencing a harrowing shipwreck in the West Indies. He floated on a life raft for an entire week before being rescued. This was an event that made him rethink life on the sea and he returned to his family’s plantation. At the age of 25 he joined the militia and served in the French and Indian War as well as the Cherokee War where he carefully studied the tactics employed by the Cherokee who led many successful ambushes against the militia. These lessons would stay with him for life and he would employ them later against the British.

On April 19, 1775, British redcoats fired upon a group of patriot militia at Lexington Commons in Massachusetts, officially kicking off the Revolutionary War. Surprisingly, on April 21, 1775, just two days after Lexington and before news of that battle could have reached them, Charleston, South Carolina rebels raided armories and British powder magazines to seize all the guns and ammunition they could as conflict between the colonies and the British became more commonplace over the years. It was the first overt act of war in South Carolina. South Carolina’s provincial government, on news that the British were about to engage in a retaliatory strike, quickly voted to raise armies to support the revolution. Marion volunteered for service and was made a captain in the 2nd Regiment. On his first mission, Marion’s regiment successfully captured the British garrison of Fort Johnson at Charleston Harbor. He would secure victory after victory across South Carolina – in both offense and defensive operations –throughout the war but became most famous for his irregular and unconventional guerilla tactics throughout the swamps and backlands of South Carolina.

Despite the fact that Marion came from a slave owning family and owned slaves himself, his fighting force is believed to be the first fighting force to have non-whites join their ranks. Although for a good deal of time he was in charge of guarding Fort Sullivan, he eventually earned the nickname “Swamp Fox” in November of 1780. Marion became renowned for his raids against the British. He’d hide in South Carolina’s dense forests and swamps and from there lead hit and run attacks on British patrols or camps – even though his fighting force was often outnumbered. His militia became experts, thanks to the lessons Marion learned from Cherokee, at surprising enemy regiments who would never know where his militia was or where it might strike, often dividing British forces and weakening them before they could have a chance to reorganize. British supply lines were a frequent target of Marion’s assaults and ambushes which were an extremely disruptive force to British military and logistic operations.

In November of 1780 an escaped prisoner of war told British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton where he might find Marion, leading to a 7 hour and 26 mile chase of Marion’s militia which, as it had done some many times before, was able to disappear into the swamplands of South Carolina. Tarleton gave up the chase exclaiming, “As for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.” Thus the legendary nickname of “Swamp Fox” was born.

*Map courtesy of The Swamp Fox – How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution

According to Smithsonian Magazine, “Francis Marion never commanded a large army or led a major battle. Histories of the Revolutionary War tend to focus on George Washington and his straightforward campaigns in the North, rather than small skirmishes in the South. Nevertheless, the Swamp Fox is one of the war’s most enduring characters. . . . Though things looked bad for the Americans after Charleston fell, Marion’s cunning, resourcefulness and determination helped keep the cause of American independence alive in the South.”

The lessons of Swamp Fox’s successful campaign against a superior military force are time tested and clear. A determined yet smaller, less sophisticated and comparably ill equipped fighting force can secure victory over a more modern force by engaging in guerilla tactics that utilize well planned ambushes and raids – particularly if the smaller less sophisticated force is well acquainted with the terrain and landscape of the area it is fighting in. Endless harassing attacks that take out personnel and supplies can demoralize an enemy and get that enemy entangled in a perpetual and ineffective campaign to subdue an opponent that has seemingly limitless ability to strike, conduct endless surprise attacks and, after attacks and raids are conducted, an ability to disappear among forests, swamps, hills and the population at large, seemingly without a trace. The endless harassment of and denial of both security and territory to the British in South Carolina was a key factor in America winning the Revolutionary War. Fascinatingly, we’ve seen this style of warfare used to great effect everywhere throughout history from Ancient Egypt and Rome to Vietnam and modern day Afghanistan.

When the war came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Marion refused to support the punishment of those Americans who supported the British crown during the war. He understood the fear that led many to make this decision so he instead welcomed them as countrymen in the newly formed United States of America. He returned to a life of farming though had to rebuild his own property, as so many did, after having it damaged during the war. Marion served in the South Carolina State Senate for a time and finally married at the age of 56. He died on February 27, 1795 at his plantation, Pond Bluff.

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