You won’t find much info about Francis Marion in American history textbooks today. Marion did not serve in the Continental Congress or the Constitutional Convention, and he never held a position in the federal government. Yet, without him, the American War for Independence may have taken a very different direction. If it hadn’t been for Mel Gibson’s performance in The Patriot, Marion would have faded into obscurity in American history.
It was all the result of a broken foot. Francis Marion had been invited to toast the American Revolution in an upper Charleston room. As was the custom those dangerous days, the hosts locked the doors before toasting the Revolution. Francis – being a non-drinker – got bored, felt confined so jumped out the 2nd story window, breaking his ankle. He hobbled away to recuperate, so he wasn’t in the city when the British captured it, along with the entire American army at Charleston. Marion, home recuperating, escaped and ultimately became the most famous officer in the Southern theater fighting for American independence.
Francis Marion had made a name for himself during the French and Indian war, where he learned first hand how the American Indians used concealment and surprise as an important tactic in warfare. He capitalized on those lessons during the Revolution.
Though outmanned and outgunned, Marion had one crucial advantage over the British: a thorough knowledge of the vast swamplands where he set up his headquarters and from which he would burst forth to conduct lightning strikes against the British supply lines and then disappear again into the swamps.
Marion had been a frail, sickly child who wasn’t expected to live to adulthood. Frequently, he would disappear into the swamps for months at a time, reemerging stronger and healthier each time. Slowly he regained his health and a vast knowledge of the swamps.
On one such occasion, after learning the hated Tarleton and 1500 redcoats were after him, he responded, “Only 1500? There’s about 50 of us, so that’s what – 30 to 1 – sounds about right. Shouldn’t be too much trouble.”
So he let Tarleton and the British troops find them, always just staying out of range. Marion and his men taunted the British with quick sightings of themselves, then disappeared into the trees as soon as the British spotted them.
The Swamp Fox sent half his men to a previous spot where they had led redcoats through nine swamps and three rivers before their cannon carriages wore out and they had to desert the carriages. The rest of the men taunted the British, luring them into the swampland again towards the abandoned cannon carriages. At night the patriots would sneak up to the British camp and spook the men and horses with sounds of wailing panthers. Across the camp came an answering growl, then another from all around the camp. The British spent the night crouched, eyes wide with fear, peering into the darkness for the great black leopards that were not there.
The 500 horses, snorting and rearing in terror, finally broke free and stampeded through the camp, knocking tents down, plowing through baggage and supplies. Frightened British began firing into the blackness until the entire camp was in panic-stricken bedlam.
The Swamp Fox and his men continued to torment the British, wearing down Tarleton’s troops, luring them further into the swamps through the muck and swamp grass as the British caught fleeting glimpses of the patriots just ahead.
The next night, the weary and demoralized British set up camp on the only chunk of dry land they could find. As the sun set and the cooking pots simmered, a rifle bullet came singing into camp, punching a .53-calibre hole in one of the huge black cooking kettles hung by tripods. An instant later, the crack of another rifle echoed through camp – another hole. The British stood around with their weapons, not knowing which direction the shots were coming from. Within minutes, eight more rifle bullets blasted into camp, eight more cooking kettles spurted steaming broth. Furious, exhausted British soldiers caked in mud fired into the darkness, at an enemy they could not see.
At 2 in the morning, the “wolves” started howling, spooking what horses the British were able to round up from the night before.
After several days of this, the British –weary, hungry, dejected, humiliated, turned back in ignoble defeat. Tarleton sat in utter dejection and said to one of his colonels: “the devil himself couldn’t catch that old swamp fox.” And that is how he got his name.
Marion’s troops were the first fully integrated force to fight for the US. It consisted of whites – some from distinguished families – and free blacks and slaves.
For most of the war, the Swamp Fox and his men fought alone. Eventually Marion joined forces with Nathaniel Greene’s Southern Army. Together they wore down and helped surround the British forces under Gen. Cornwallis, bringing about his eventual surrender at Yorktown in 1783.
From Unlikely Heroes by Ron Carter, Smithsonian.com, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers