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
But to the enemy’s surprise and consternation, the paralysis that at first seized the South Carolinians was short-lived. Lord Charles Cornwallis, left by Clinton in command at Charleston when the commander in chief returned to New York, had hardly reported “everything wearing the face of tranquility and submission” when patriot guerrillas, seeming to spring from nowhere, began a fierce, harassing warfare against the conqueror, intercepting his supply trains, severing his communications, smashing British and Tory detached units.
The partisans took some encouragement from reports that a small, new Coinineiual army hatl arrived in North Carolina; around this nucleus the militia of Virginia and the Carolinas might build a force strong enough to stop the northward advance of the redcoats. In late July, when his ankle would carry him, Marion rode northward to join it with a little troop of neighbors and former army comrades who felt the British had violated the paroles they had given. According to a Continental officer, they were “distinguished by small black leather caps and the wretchedness of their attire; their number did not exceed twenty men and boys, some white, some black, and all mounted, but most of them miserably equipped.” Nevertheless, General Horatio Gates, commanding the army, recognixed the value of Marion’s familiarity with the country and ordered Marion and “the Volunteers Horse of So Carolina” to “march with and attend” him as he advanced toward the enemy’s key post at Camden.
While on the march, the Marion story has it, Gates received a request from Major John James for an officer to take command of a brigade he had raised among the Scotch-Irish of Williamsburg Township on the Black River. Gates promptly assigned Marion to the command with orders to use the brigade to seize the Santee River crossings behind Camden and cut off British communication with that post and its avenue of retreat to Charleston.
Marion took command of fames’s brigade on Lynche’s Creek about the tenth of August, 1780, and his partisan career began. After two lightning attacks on strong Tory encampments in the neighborhood, he divided his seventy men and sent a party under his old friend, Major Peter Horry, east of Lenud’s Kerry on the Santee to destroy all boats and cover the crossings, while he marched westward for Murray’s Ferry. After coming down on a British guard there in the night of the twenty-third, scattering the redcoats and burning the ferry boats, he turned upriver toward Nelson’s Ferry, 2$ miles away.
Near dusk he picked up a British deserter who told him that Gates’s army, upon reaching Camden. had been routed by the British on the sixteenth with in credible losses. From the deserter he also learned that a British escort with 150 Continental prisoners from Camden planned to rest that night at a house north of Nelson’s Ferry. Without sharing with his men the depressing news of Gates’s defeat, for fear they would desert him, he pushed his march all night and descended on the escort at dawn, !'rapping many of the redcoats in the house, he killed two, wounded five, took twenty prisoners, and released the captured Continentals. But Marion’s men heard from the prisoners that Gates had been defeated, and half of them slipped away within an hour. Marion, discovering that a heavy British patrol was in Iiix rear, scut his prisoners toward North Carolina and retreated eastward toward the Pee Dee to make a junction with Major Horry’s detachment.
Marion had no idea where the remnant of Gates’s army was, or when or if it would ever be in “condition to act again.” Colonel Thomas Sumter, who had bedeviled the enemy in the west, had been cut to pieces two days after the Camden debacle. Marion’s little brigade was the only rebel force left intact in the state. With most of his men gone home, he now was forced, alter a couple of brushes with enemy columns, to withdraw into North Carolina.
But within two weeks, he had heard from Gates at Hillsboro: North Carolina was aroused, the army was putting itself back together; in South Carolina Whig militia was assembling. Unfortunately, the Tories were gathering, too, and Gates would be pleased, he wrote, if Marion would advance to the Little Pee Dee River and disperse them. At the same time Marion heard from South Carolina that north of Georgetown the enemy had laid waste a path seventy miles long and fifteen wide as a punishment to the inhabitants who had “joined Marion and Horry in their late incursion”; the men who had left him at Nelson’s Kerry were spoiling for revenge and ready to come out again. So on a Sunday evening, the twenty-fourth of September, with only thirty or forty men, Marion marched back into the heart of the enemy’s northeasternmost defenses in South Carolina around Kingston.