The Elusive Swamp Fox

“Our band is few, but true and tried , Our leader frank and bold; The British soldier trembles When Marion’s name is told.”

There is the poem, and there is the sentence or two in schoolbooks about the phantom general who sallied at night I’rom his secret lair in the swamps to attack the British loe. And there is the sobriquet, the Swamp Fox. And that’s about all anyone seems to remember about General Francis Marion—except, perhaps, that once he invited to dinner a British officer, in his camp under flag of truce, and served only fire-baked potatoes on a bark slab and a beverage of vinegar and water. “But, surely, general,” the officer asked, “this cannot be your usual fare.” “Indeed, sir, it is,” Marion replied, “and we are fortunate on this occasion, entertaining company, to have more than our usual allowance.” The visiting Briton is supposed to have been so impressed that he resigned his commission and returned to England, full of sympathy for the sell-sacrificing American patriots. That’s not exactly the way it happened, but no one has ever cared much about the details; that is the way it goes in the Marion legend, and it is the legend that Americans cherish.

That legend was the invention of a specialist in hero making, and the story of its origin and growth is as remarkable as the story of the man it celebrates. It begins with one of Marion’s devoted soldiers, Peter Horry, and it tells how he undertook, several years alter Marion’s death, to write a biography that would immortalize his old chief; how he discovered himself unequal to the task and gave it up; how, much later, his accidental partnership with the Reverend Mason Locke Weems resulted in the first life of General Marion, “a celebrated partisan officer in the Revolutionary War, against the British and Tories, in South Carolina and Georgia,” drawn, according to the title page, “from documents furnished by his Brother-in-arms, Brigadier General P. Horry,” and by Marion’s nephew; how that sensational little book, a captivating melange of “popular heroism, religion, and” morality,” compounded of fact and much fiction, firmly established Francis Marion in the American imagination as the Robin Hood of the Revolution; and how, after that, post offices and towns and counties as far away as the Pacific Coast were named for him.

That first “biography” appeared in 1809, and the century and a half that has passed since its publication has done little to change the legendary portrait: the Marion of Parson Weems remains the Marion of American history. Yet when you piece together the surviving letters, the orderly books, the official reports, when you read the maps and go to the ground he fought over, you come to reali/e that Marion’s daring forays and breathtaking adventures are not merely the romantic stufi of folk literature, but that they actually influenced the strategy of armies and made a definite and discernible contribution to the British defeat in the South.

From the outbreak of the Revolution until the spring of 1780, Marion put in five useful, though relatively inactive, years as an officer of the Second South Carolina Continental Regiment. Hut it was as a relentless guerrilla who never let up on the British after (hey overran his state that he earned his significance in history. He was not the only partisan those hard times discovered, but he stayed in the field longer than any of the others and best understood and carried out the mission of the partisan. And, although he won no tideturning battles, he had more than a little to do with what General Nathanael Greene, commanding the Southern Department, called “flushing the bird” that General Washington caught at Yorktown.

Marion was 48 at the time, “rather below the middle stature,” one of his men recalled, “lean and swarthy. His body was well set, but his knees and ankles were badly formed. … He had a countenance remarkably steady; his nose was aquiline, his chin projecting; his forehead was large and high, and his eyes black and piercing.” It was the kind of face some men considered “hard visaged.”

He was a man with the steady habits of a modest planter who had lived alone most of his life. He ate and drank abstemiously; his voice was light but low when he talked, and that was seldom because he was not a talkative man.

In the field he wore a close, round-bodied, crimson jacket and the blue breeches piped in white of his old Continental regiment. His black leather hat was the hard, visored helmet of the Second South Carolina, adorned with a plume and, in front, a silver crescent engraved, “Liberty or death.”