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Francis Marion & the Revolutionary War: Facts & Biography

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Francis Marion was a militia leader in the American Revolution known as the 'Swamp Fox.' He employed guerrilla warfare and ambush tactics in the South Carolina backcountry.

Early Experiences

Francis Marion was a scrawny kid. No one could have imagined that when he grew up he would become an elite militia leader. Marion was born in 1732 on his family's estate in Berkeley County, South Carolina. He received only a rudimentary education. As a young lad he craved adventure, and at age fifteen he joined a crew bound for the West Indies. The ship sank, however, after reportedly being struck by a whale and he survived in a lifeboat for a week before washing ashore. That incident was enough to make him give up his dream of a life at sea and he returned home to farm.

Francis Marion
Caption of Francis Marion

Lessons from the French-Indian War

During the French-Indian War, Marion joined the South Carolina militia in 1756, and beginning in 1760 served under the command of William Moultrie. The Cherokees had previously been allies of the British, but switched to the French during the war. His militia waged a particularly brutal war against the Cherokees. Despite his opposition to them, Marion gleaned several lessons from his Cherokee counterparts. The Cherokees were skillful at using the surrounding terrain to conceal their movements. Also, rather than fighting out in the open, they struck in small groups in hit-and-run ambushes. Marion never forgot these lessons, and he used them with great skill during the American Revolution. In 1773, he bought in own plantation, Pond Bluff, on the Santee River. In 1775, he was elected to the South Carolina Provincial Congress where he advocated resistance against British rule.

The American Revolution

Marion is best known for his role in the American Revolution. He was appointed a captain in the 2nd South Carolina Regiment. He served with Moultrie again in the Battle of Fort Sullivan in June 1776 outside Charleston which successfully repulsed a British invasion. Marion was promoted, but stayed at the fort to maintain discipline. His men fought unsuccessfully under General Benjamin Lincoln in the Siege of Savannah in 1779. He soon made a name for himself, though, in a rather strange incident that actually kick-started his career.

L-R Francis Marion with Henry Light-Horse Lee at Fort Motte
Francis Marion Visits a Homestead

Leap From a Window

In a bizarre incident in March 1780, Marion's fortune suddenly changed. One night he attended a dinner party hosted by a fellow officer. The party went late, and during the toast, the doors were locked as was the custom in this era. Marion did not drink and wanted to leave, and so leaped out of a second story window, breaking his ankle. Marion left the city to rest up in the countryside, and when Charleston fell in May 1780, Marion was not among the more than 5,000 captured men.

The Swamp Fox is Born

This leap from a window ignited his career. Marion organized a militia and was assigned to work with General Horatio Gates. Fortune once again smiled on Marion. Gates had little confidence in Marion, and sent him off on another assignment. In August 1780, when Gates suffered a serious defeat at the Battle of Camden, Marion was not present. Marion then cut loose, and operated on his own. Employing lessons he had learned from the Cherokees, he engaged in guerilla warfare, concealed his men in the woods, used ambush tactics, and retreated to the swamps to regroup. He became such a thorn in the British side, that General Charles Cornwallis ordered the Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to capture Marion. Marion proved impossible to catch, and in November 1780 Tarleton exclaimed, 'As for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.' Word of this soon spread, and Marion was named the 'Swamp Fox' by his peers.

Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton from whom Francis Marion earned his nickname Swamp Fox
Banastre Tarleton

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