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The Elusive Swamp Fox
Around Francis Marion there has sprung up an overgrowth of legend as tangled as the swamps he fought in. Here is an authoritative account of his role in the Revolution
April 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 3
Whether he fotight his brigade mounted or afoot—he usually rode to the enemy and then fought as infantry—he was always in the front of the attacks that made his name a terror in the Hritish and Tory camp. Mut he was not given to ferocious gesture. In fact, they say he drew his sword, a light dress weapon, so seldom that it rusted in its scabbard. It was not for personal conspicuonsness in battle that his men remembered him, but for a quiet fearlessness, for sagacity and perseverance, and for never foolishly risking himself or the brigade. They rode with confidence behind a man who never hesitated in the face of impossible odds to fight and run to live and fight another day. And he endeared himself to them when he slept with them on the ground, ate their fare, and endured fatigue and danger with the hardiesf of them. They told, for example, that one night while he slept by the Rre his helmet was scorched and his blanket half burned before he awoke. He smothered the flames, refused a blanket from any of them, and in the charred remains of his own slept out the night. For months afterward, he weathered the nights uncomplainingly under his tattered blanket and rode through sun and shower with the shriveled helmet perched jauntily on his head.
Marion’s men actually had no official status. They were purely volunteers. When they came into the field, their state was overrun by the British and their rebel government had evaporated. Of their own will they took up arms to fight the invader, and it was impossible to preserve any more discipline and regularity among them than their patriotism and the dangers of the moment imposed on them. Fighting without pay, clothing, or provisions furnished by a government, compelled to care for their families as well as to provide for their own wants, they were likely to go home at planting or harvest time, or whenever family needs became acute, or simply when the going got too dreary. Therefore, brigade strength fluctuated from as few as twenty or thirty men to as many as several hundred, and Marion had to plan his operations accordingly. He seldom coidd count on more than 150 to 200 men, and at least once he became so disgusted with their casual coming and going that he considered giving up his command and going to Philadelphia to seek a Continental Army appointment.
It was the constant charge by Marion’s enemies that it was not patriotism but the appeal of pfunder that held his men together. But the fact is Marion never allowed them to act as freebooters. The record of his orders and punishments is there in his orderly books. He made himself very clear: “Any soldier of any denomination who is found taking any article from any plantation either from white or black will be deemed a marauder & plunderer & shall suffer immediate death.”
Despite their irregularities and occasional lapses, when Marion came to disband his men in December, 1782, he could say with complete sincerity, “The general returns his warmest thanks to the officers and men who with unwavered patience and fortitude have undergone the greatest fatigues and hardships and with a spirit and bravery which must ever reflect the highest honor on them. No citizens in the world have ever done more than they have.” It was true of them. And it was true of him.
Marion was born in the country he defended to a second-generation French Huguenot family on the Cooper River in South Carolina. As a boy he lived in the vicinity of Georgetown, where he hunted and fished the salt marshes and inland swamps and semitropical woods. When he was 23 and his father, an unsuccessful planter, died, he and his mother and a brother settled for a time in upper St. John’s, Berkeley. The tradition is that he served in a mounted troop on a bootless expedition to the Cherokee country in the first flare-up of the French ami Indian War on the Carolina frontier. Two years later, as a light infantry lieutenant in Grant’s 1761 campaign against the Cherokee, he won the praise of his commanding officer as an “active, brave, and hardy soldier; and an excellent partisan officer.”
Shortly before the Revolution he acquired a place of his own on the Santce River and was just getting his bachelor house in order when war came. He was elected a captain of the Second South Carolina Regiment, steadily rose in Continental rank, served in the defense of Fort Sullivan in 1776 and the assault on Savannah in 1779, and for a time was in field command of the southern army when it wintered near the Georgia border. Through peaceful garrison times and stormy, he shared every fortune of his regiment except its last: when General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered his entire army, including the Second South Carolina, to Sir Henry Clinton at Charleston on May 12, 1780, Marion was not among the nearly 5,500 men who capitulated. For the last several weeks before the fall of the city he had been convalescing at home from an ankle injury.
With Lincoln’s surrender, the worst disaster the Americans had suffered in all the war, the American cause both north and south seemed all but lost. In the North, Washington’s worn-out army lay deteriorating in New Jersey. The French, upon whom he had relied for reinforcements, were bottled up by a British fleet at Newport. And an enfeebled Congress and an apathetic people were allowing their rebellion to expire from sheer exhaustion. In the South Georgia had al ready been occupied by the British since the winter of iyyg, and within three weeks after Lincoln’s surrender South Carolina appeared to be totally subjugated. Without firing a shot, British garrisons occupied a chain of posts commanding the interior from Augusta on the Savannah River and Ninety-Six on the Carolina frontier, northward to Rocky Mount, Hanging Rock, and Camden, and eastward to Chcraw and Georgetown on the coast.