In early 1781, Revolutionary War militia leader Francis Marion and his men were camping on Snow's Island, South Carolina, when a British officer arrived to discuss a prisoner exchange. As one militiaman recalled years later, a breakfast of sweet potatoes was roasting in the fire, and after the negotiations Marion, known as the "Swamp Fox," invited the British soldier to share breakfast. According to a legend that grew out of the much-repeated anecdote, the British officer was so inspired by the Americans' resourcefulness and dedication to the cause—despite their lack of adequate provisions, supplies or proper uniforms—that he promptly switched sides and supported American independence. Around 1820, John Blake White depicted the scene in an oil painting that now hangs in the United States Capitol. In his version, the primly attired Redcoat seems uncomfortable with Marion's ragtag band, who glare at him suspiciously from the shadows of a South Carolina swamp.
The 2000 movie The Patriot exaggerated the Swamp Fox legend for a whole new generation. Although Francis Marion led surprise attacks against the British, and was known for his cunning and resourcefulness, Mel Gibson played The Patriot's Marion-inspired protagonist as an action hero. "One of the silliest things the movie did," says Sean Busick, a professor of American history at Athens State University in Alabama, "was to make Marion into an 18th century Rambo."
Many of the legends that surround the life and exploits of Brigadier General Francis Marion were introduced by M. L. "Parson" Weems, coauthor of the first Marion biography, The Life of General Francis Marion. "I have endeavored to throw some ideas and facts about Genl. Marion into the garb and dress of a military romance," Weems wrote in 1807 to Peter Horry, the South Carolina officer on whose memoir the book was based. Weems had also authored an extremely popular biography of George Washington in 1800, and it was he who invented the apocryphal cherry tree story. Marion's life received similar embellishment.
Fortunately, the real Francis Marion has not been entirely obscured by his legend—historians including William Gilmore Simms and Hugh Rankin have written accurate biographies. Based on the facts alone, "Marion deserves to be remembered as one of the heroes of the War for Independence," says Busick, who has written the introduction to a new edition of Simms' The Life of Francis Marion, out in June 2007.
Marion was born at his family's plantation in Berkeley County, South Carolina, probably in 1732. The family's youngest son, Francis was a small boy with malformed legs, but he was restless, and at about 15 years old he joined the crew of a ship and sailed to the West Indies. During Marion's first voyage, the ship sank, supposedly after a whale rammed it. The seven-man crew escaped in a lifeboat and spent a week at sea before they drifted ashore. After the shipwreck, Marion decided to stick to land, managing his family's plantation until he joined the South Carolina militia at 25 to fight in the French and Indian War.
Most heroes of the Revolution were not the saints that biographers like Parson Weems would have them be, and Francis Marion was a man of his times: he owned slaves, and he fought in a brutal campaign against the Cherokee Indians. While not noble by today's standards, Marion's experience in the French and Indian War prepared him for more admirable service. The Cherokee used the landscape to their advantage, Marion found; they concealed themselves in the Carolina backwoods and mounted devastating ambushes. Two decades later, Marion would apply these tactics against the British.
In 1761, after his militia had defeated the area Cherokees, Marion returned to farming. He was successful enough to purchase his own plantation, Pond Bluff, in 1773. In 1775, Marion was elected to the first South Carolina Provincial Congress, an organization in support of colonial self-determination. After the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the Provincial Congress voted to raise three regiments, commissioning Marion a captain in the second. His first assignments involved guarding artillery and building Fort Sullivan, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. When he saw combat during the Battle of Fort Sullivan in June 1776, Marion acted valiantly. But for much of the next three years, he remained at the fort, occupying the time by trying to discipline his troops, whom he found to be a disorderly, drunken bunch insistent on showing up to roll call barefoot. In 1779, they joined the Siege of Savannah, which the Americans lost.
Marion's role in the war changed course after an odd accident in March of 1780. Attending a dinner party at the Charleston home of a fellow officer, Marion found that the host, in accordance with 18th-century custom, had locked all the doors while he toasted the American cause. The toasts went on and on, and Marion, who was not a drinking man, felt trapped. He escaped by jumping out a second story window, but broke his ankle in the fall. Marion left town to recuperate in the country, with the fortunate result that he was not captured when the British took Charleston that May.
With the American army in retreat, things looked bad in South Carolina. Marion took command of a militia and had his first military success that August, when he led 50 men in a raid against the British. Hiding in dense foliage, the unit attacked an enemy encampment from behind and rescued 150 American prisoners. Though often outnumbered, Marion's militia would continue to use guerilla tactics to surprise enemy regiments, with great success. Because the British never knew where Marion was or where he might strike, they had to divide their forces, weakening them. By needling the enemy and inspiring patriotism among the locals, Busick says, Marion "helped make South Carolina an inhospitable place for the British. Marion and his followers played the role of David to the British Goliath."
In November of 1780, Marion earned the nickname he's remembered by today. British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, informed of Marion's whereabouts by an escaped prisoner, chased the American militia for seven hours, covering some 26 miles. Marion escaped into a swamp, and Tarleton gave up, cursing, "As for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him." The story got around, and soon the locals—who loathed the British occupation—were cheering the Swamp Fox.
Biographer Hugh Rankin described the life of Francis Marion as "something like a sandwich—a highly spiced center between two slabs of rather dry bread." After the war, Marion returned to the quiet, dry-bread life of a gentleman farmer. At 54, he finally married a 49-year old cousin, Mary Esther Videau. He commanded a peacetime militia brigade and served in the South Carolina Assembly, where he opposed punishing Americans who had remained loyal to the British during the war. Championing amnesty for the Loyalists was "among the most admirable things he ever did," says Busick. In 1790, Marion helped write the South Carolina state constitution, and then retired from public life. After a long decline in health, Francis Marion died at his plantation, Pond Bluff, on February 27, 1795.
Francis Marion never commanded a large army or led a major battle. Histories of the Revolutionary War tend to focus on George Washington and his straightforward campaigns in the North, rather than small skirmishes in the South. Nevertheless, the Swamp Fox is one of the war's most enduring characters. "His reputation is certainly well deserved," says Busick. Though things looked bad for the Americans after Charleston fell, Marion's cunning, resourcefulness and determination helped keep the cause of American independence alive in the South.
In December 2006, two centuries after his death, Marion made news again when President George W. Bush signed a proclamation honoring the man described in most biographies as the "faithful servant, Oscar," Marion's personal slave. Bush expressed the thanks of a "grateful nation" for Oscar Marion's "service&hellipin the Armed Forces of the United States." Identified by genealogist Tina Jones, his distant relative, Oscar is the African-American cooking sweet potatoes in John Blake White's painting at the Capitol. Oscar likely "helped with the cooking and mending clothes, but he would also have fought alongside Marion," says Busick. "We have no way of knowing if Oscar had any say in whether or not he went on campaign with Marion, though I think it is safe to assume that had he wanted to run away to the British he could have easily done so." Historians know very little about Oscar, but the few details of his story add new interest to the Swamp Fox legend.
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