- Historic Sites
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
The marches and actions that ensued between Marion and the Mritish and Tories aie hard to follow, even on large-stale maps of the river-and-swamp country of South Carolina, and they are almost lost in the larger history of the campaigns in the South: but they were shrewdly planned, smoothly executed, and very damaging to the enemy. To them Marion brought not only the training of an officer of the regular service and the remembered’ experience of Indian-style lighting on the liontier, but also an intimate knowledge of the country. And it was the terrain that gave to the native fighter a distinct advantage. It was unbelievably flat, unbelievably wet, and unbelievably wild—this world of the low country. North and south some eighty miles from Charleston and west some fifty were its roughly figured boundaries, and down across it swept seven large rivers and many smaller ones which gave it its character. For miles bordering them were the deep, vast, and gloomy cypress swamps. And between the gieat swamps were the forbidding shrub bogs, spongy tangles of impenetrable smilax, holly, myrtle, and jessamine, and broad brakes of cane. No roads crossed the swamps and bogs, except the secret paths of the hunter; only a few highroads, following the ridges between the great rivers and passing through forests of moss-hung live oak, tied together the plantations and scattered towns. Maps were not of much use oil the main roads. But it was country that Marion knew and understood, so that for him its trails became avenues of swift surprise attack and sale retreat, its swamps and bogs his covert.
In this country during that fall of 1780, Marion’s men fought at Black Mingo, northwest of Georgetown. It was another night attack, but their horses’ hoofs clattering on a wooden bridge gave them away, so that they lost the element of surprise and learned ever after to lay down their blankets when crossing a bridge near the enemy. They raided Georgetown, but could not draw the garrison out of the town redoubt for a stand-up fight. Another night they pounced on Tory militia at Tarcote Swamp, near the forks of Black River.
It was of such incidents that Parson Weems made highly diverting tales. A friendly lad comes to (amp to tell that tomorrow night “there is to be a mighty gathering of the tories near his home, seventy miles away. “Having put our firearms in prime order for an attack, we mounted; and … dashed oil, just as the broad-faced moon arose; and by daybreak next morning, had gained a very convenient swamp, within ten miles of the grand tory rendezvous. To avoid giving alarm, we struck into the swamp, and there, man and horse, lay snug all day. … Soon as it was dark, we mounted, and took the track at a sweeping gallop, which, by early supper time, brought us in sight of their fires. …
“Observing that they had three large Ores, Marion divided our little party of sixty men into three com panies, each opposite to a fire, then bidding us to take aim. with his pistol he gave the signal for a general discharge. In a moment the woods were all in a blaze, as by a flash of lightning, accompanied by a tremendous clap of thunder. Down tumbled the dead; oil bolted the living; loud screamed the wounded: while far and wide, all over the woods, nothing was to be heard but the running of tories. …
“The consternation of the tories was so great that they never dreamt of carrying oft anything. Even their fiddles and fiddle bows, and playing cards, were all left strewed around their fires.
“One of the gamblers, (it is a serious truth ) though shot dead, still held the cards hard gripped in his hands. Led by curiosity to inspect this strange sight, a dead gambler , we found that the cards which he held were ace, deuce, and jack. Clubs were trumps. Holding high, low, jack, and the game, in his own hand, lie seemed to be in a lair way to do well; but Marion came down upon him witli a trump that spoiled his sport, and non-suited him forever.”
No wonder that the Parson captured the fancy of a young America!
They were small engagements, poorly chronicled, though poet-sung (“A moment in the British camp—a moment—and away, baek to the pathless forest, before the peep of day.”), but as the weeks passed into winter, Lord Cornwallis began to feel the cumulative effect of them. When Marion had retreated into North Carolina in September, Cornwallis had advanced toward Virginia as far north as Charlotte before his detached left wing had been destroyed by rebel frontiersmen at Kings Mountain and he had stumbled back sixty miles to Winnsboro to recover himsell. In tliat hamlet, northwest of Camden, he encamped lor three miserable, wet months, October to January; and his letters from there make it reasonably dear that, although much of his strength had been lost at Kings Mountain and he had to await reinforcements from New York, it was the work of the partisans, especially of Marion, that tied him to Winnsboro and prevented his moving northward again. To his superior he reported: “Had as the state of our affairs was on the northern frontier [around Ninety-Six, Rocky Mount, and Hanging Rock], the eastern part [on the vital Sautee River line] was much worse. … Colonel Marion had so wrought on the minds of the people, partly by the terror of his threats and cruelty of his punishments, and partly by the promise of plunder, that there was scarcely an inhabitant between the Sautée and Pee Dee that was not in arms against us. Some parties had even crossed the Sa n tee and carried terror to the gates of Charleston.”