- 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
Lieutenant Colonel llanastre Tarleton was even more specific: “Mr. Marion, by his zeal and abilities, showed himself capable of the trust committed to his charge. He collected his adherents at the shortest notice, in the neighborhood of Dlack River, and, after making incursions into the friendly districts, or threatening the communications, to avoid pursuit, he disbanded his followers. The alarms occasioned by these insurrections frequently retarded supplies on their way to the army; and a late report of Marion’s strength delayed the junction of the recruits, who had arrived [in Charleston] from New York for the corps in the country.”
The one man Cornwallis thought capable of running down ami destroying the elusive Marion was Tarleton himself. In South Carolina, after his savage slaughter of Muford’s troops at the Waxhaws, Tarleton was known as “the Kutcher” and was without question the most bitterly hated of all the redcoats. In the British Army, where his loyalist legion was lamed for its energy, prowess, and daring, he had risen swiltly and at 26 was regarded as perhaps the most valuable leader of mounted troops. “I therefore sent Tarleton,” Cornwallis reported, “who pursued Marion for several days, obliged his corps to take to the swamps. …”
There was more to it than that. Marion led Tarleton a chase in that November of 1780. Tarleton was sixteen miles north of Nelson’s Kerry when he discovered that Marion was a lew miles south of him and struck out after him. About dark Marion cut through the Woodyard, a broad and tangled swamp, and camped for the night six miles beyond it. Tarleton dared not cross the Woodyard in the dark. As he was riding around it in the morning. Marion continued down Black River 35 miles “through woods and swamps and bogs, svhere there was no road.” Tarleton, after making his way “for seven hours through swamps and defiles,” hit 23 miles of fair road and then ran into Ux Swamp, where the chase went out of him.
Tradition has it that when Tarleton turned back (or was called off by a courier with orders to turn about and go after Sumter in the west) he gave Marion his sobriquet: “Come on, my boys, let’s go back. As for this damned old fox, the devil himself could not catch him.”
For all his pursuing, Tarleton merely gave exercise to Marion’s brigade; lor several more weeks the old fox was busily gnawing at British supply trains and posts and parties. Then, with his ammunition and supplies nearly exhausted, he took up an encampment in a romantic spot not far from the original ground of the Williamsburg men; it was called Snow’s Island and was a large, high, river swamp plateau at the joining of Lynche’s Creek with the Great Pee Dee. Here, deep in a forest of cypress, laurel, and pine, protected by the watercourses and tangles of canebrake and vines, he made a supply depot and rest camp that served him, off and on, for the rest of the war. From the island he threw into the lower country patrols whidi soon had Cornwallis complaining that they “keep the whole country in continual alarm, and render the assistance of regular troops everywhere necessary.”
Through the rest of the winter of 1780 and into the spring of 1781, Marion played his partisan role while great events wrought great changes in the condition of the American cause in the South. In December General Nathanael Greene arrived at Charlotte to succeed Gates in command of the Continental Army of the Southern Department. By mid-April, 1781, in perhaps the most brilliant campaign of the war, he had maneuvered a greatly weakened and confused Cornwallis into Virginia and returned to South Carolina to battle for repossession of the state.
As Greene advanced toward Canidcn, Marion, joined by the splendid legion of young Light Horse Harry Lee, moved against the inner chain of British posts on the Santee and Congaree. Fort Watson, their first objective, was a tremendous, stockaded work crowning an ancient Indian mound that rose almost forty feet above the surrounding plain, north of Nelson’s Ferry on the Santee. When Marion and Lee tailed after a week to starve out the garrison by siege, they managed to effect a surrender by firing down on the fort from a log tower, devised by a country major of Marion’s brigade who probably had never heard of the warring Romans.
By May 6 when they reached Fort Motte on the Congaree, Marion and Lee had a light fieldpiece, begged from Greene’s army, but it did them no good. Fort Motte consisted of a strong stockade with outer trenches and an abatis built about a handsome brick mansion on a commanding piece of ground. They spent six days digging parallels and trenches and mounting their gun, but the fieldpiece failed to make a tient in the heavy timbers of the stockade or the walls of the house. Again the attackers resorted to primitive methods. Getting up close under cover of the siege lines, a man of Marion’s brigade Hung ignited pitch balls on the roof, set it afire, and smoked the enemy out. That night Mrs. Rebecca Motte, who had taken residence in her overseer’s cottage when the British confiscated her house, entertained both the victors and the vanquished at what Colonel Lee called “a sumptous dinner.”