He was the original tactician, the man known for his skills in stealth and what we now call guerilla warfare. He was relentless, and his style of fighting was, at the time, seen by the British as “cowardly” and “unsportsmanlike” because, after all, what’s a good war without tea, crumpets, and organized firing lines? He was rather unnecessarily over-dramatized in 2000’s The Patriot starring Mel Gibson, prior to the greater drama of the actor’s later years. He was the father of the Army Rangers. The Swamp Fox. This week we take a moment to show some respect for the underhanded awesomeness of none other than Francis Marion.
Although the exact date of Francis Marion’s birth isn’t known, historians agree he was most likely born in 1732. He was born to Gabriel and Esther Marion on their plantation in Berkeley County, South Carolina, and not only was he their youngest son, he was their smallest. Francis was born small with malformed legs and may well have been a premature birth. He wasn’t just small, he was tiny; an attendant at his birth apparently noted the infant Francis would easily fit into a water pitcher. Unfortunately not much is known of his early years beyond the location of his childhood. When he was six the family moved from their Berkeley County plantation to another in St. George, a move said to have taken place so the Marion children could receive an education in Georgetown. Young Francis wasn’t one to waste time and got started as soon as possible in his adventures by joining a schooner’s crew heading for the Caribbean. He was only fifteen at the time, but that didn’t stop him – and yet he also didn’t end up making it to his final destination.
According to historical accounts from the ship’s log and crew a whale smashed the heck out of the ship, but Francis Marion wasn’t deterred. He and other survivors were stuck floating around the vast sea in the era’s version of lifeboats for over a week before finally reaching shore. It would be nice if more detailed accounts of the events existed, but since they don’t we can only assume how it went down: gigantic Moby-Dick-inspiring whale breaches immediately beneath Marion’s schooner, obliterating it into teensy, tiny splinters. 15-year-old Francis Marion single-handedly lashes a rudderless lifeboat together from the wreckage, saves the crew, and paddles home using nothing but his bare hands and the North Star for guidance. All right, so this may not be precisely what took place, but it could have happened something like that. Either way he made it back to terra firma and, rather than hopping on another floating death trap, he decided to take over the daily management of his family’s plantation.
Right about now is when many writers begin a lengthy diatribe regarding the altogether wrongness of owning slaves, and how because Francis Marion had slaves on his family’s plantation he was a terrible person. Rather than beating a decaying horse let’s simply say we all know the history of slavery and plantations, and we can agree on right and wrong. However, there is a distinct lack of supportable evidence of Francis Marion personally participating in horrific evils against the slaves he oversaw. There is more than one article out there portraying Marion in some spectacularly dark ways, but there’s no proof to back it up. So, yes, his family owned slaves, as did almost every family of the era, and eventually Abraham Lincoln would come along and that’s all she wrote. Literally, because I’m “she” this time.
Next, Marion wrote the first chapter of a military career that would burn on not only through the centuries but up to and including this very moment in time. Because, you see, at the age of 25, Francis Marion joined the South Carolina militia.
Marion’s first foray into fighting took place during the horrors of the French and Indian War. On January 1, 1757, he was recruited along with his brother Job to fight in the war. Marion became a lieutenant under Captain William Moultrie and the brothers set about rushing headlong into a kind of infantry fight few can imagine today. What went on during the French and Indian War included a vast number of horrific atrocities – from both sides – but for Francis Marion it also served a purpose. Marion wasn’t just any militiaman or lieutenant or desperate fighter, after all, he lacked the brawn of so many soldiers and instead was forced to rely on his brains. Perhaps the lifelong need to rely on his wits over his muscles is why it was he who noticed the tactics employed by the Indians, he who couldn’t help but admire the way the Indians melted into the landscape, appeared out of nowhere for an ambush, and used everything they had available to them in the sneakiest, most underhanded way possible. He not only respected it, he learned from it, and he became a stellar tactician. This is Francis-Freaking-Marion we’re talking about. The Swamp Fox.
There was a brief interlude of, say, fifteen years or so where Marion wasn’t fighting for everything this nation was built upon and was, instead, a farmer. After forcing back the Cherokee in 1761 he began working to purchase his own plantation, and in 1773 he did just that with the purchase of Pond Bluff. His time as a gentleman farmer wasn’t to last long, though; in 1775 Francis Marion was elected to the first South Carolina Provincial Congress, and we all know what came next. The American Revolution.
Marion wasn’t one to rest on his laurels by any means so after the Colonies made it clear to the British where they could stick their taxes and religious stranglehold, among other things, he wanted to do his part in the fight. He did so by becoming Captain of the 2nd South Carolina Militia Regiment. There were three regiments, all of which were commanded by none other than the aforementioned Captain William Moultrie.
In his new role as captain, Marion set out to fulfill his first task: building a fort. This wasn’t just any fort, this was what can only be described as a mind-blowingly cool fort you always dreamed of as a kid but almost certainly never had, using the resources available to them – think palmettos and sand – to build 16-foot thick walls. This fort was built at a monumentally important location overlooking Charleston, because protecting the harbor there was of the utmost importance, and everyone knew it. The British knew, too, so it was a bit of a race to get the fort built and bristling with weapons before the dirty redcoats arrived. The result was Fort Sullivan – now known as Fort Moultrie – and the fight to come would be a bloody one.
The Battle of Sullivan’s Island began on June 28, 1776. At the fort itself there were about 435 men, and the British had, on two 50-gun ships, 6 frigates, and 1 bomb vessel, somewhere around 2,200 soldiers. After the fighting in Boston the British took the approach of looking for what they considered a “friendlier” entre into the Colonies: the South. Apparently the redcoats believed an entry through the South would deliver them into the welcoming arms of Loyalists and they’d prance to victory arm-in-red-coated-arm, all before tea time. Alas, it was not to be.
Upon arrival, the Brits took one look at what they felt was a not-nearly-completed Fort Sullivan and decided they and their ships were more than capable of blowing it away (While you read this paragraph, it helps to play Dropkick Murphy’s “Shipping Up to Boston” for added atmosphere and drama). British Major General Henry Clinton felt his men could simply wade across Breach Inlet, assault Fort Sullivan, and be done. To be fair, the British did have the HMS Bristol, HMS Experiment (perhaps this name should have been a warning), six frigates, and the HMS Thunderer, which was a bomb vessel, to back them up against what must have looked like a joke: a bunch of palmetto logs and sand bags piled into a big boy’s clubhouse. Perhaps they failed to take note of the cannons and armed men, and perhaps they failed to notice the wild-eyed, teeth-bared madness of the Americans; whatever the reason, the British underestimated the Americans, and it wouldn’t be the first time.
Turns out Francis Marion knew exactly what he was doing when he built Fort Sullivan. When the British turned their own cannons against the fort the incoming cannonballs were literally absorbed by the soft palmetto logs. That’s right, they didn’t splinter, they simply folded the cannonballs into their cores with loving arms. In response the Americans returned fire – carefully. The men within Fort Sullivan were a bit short on gunpowder, making wanton, reckless shooting not only stupid as always but impossible. The deliberately aimed return fire took a toll, and, long story short, the Brits ended up turning tail and running. The Swamp Fox knew how to build forts; who knew? (He wasn’t known as the Swamp Fox yet, but it’s too cool a nickname to relegate only to the coming final paragraphs.)
After the victory of his fort withstanding a reasonably large attack from the British, Marion set his sights elsewhere. His next fight was an attempt to help besieged Savannah; sadly, it was a failed attempt. After the likely soul-crushing defeat at Savannah, Marion returned to Charleston and ended up being spared being taken prisoner as a result of his, shall we say, quirky, personality. One evening in 1780 Marion was at a dinner party, apparently a really bad one. Although multiple accounts exist the gist remains the same: Marion was not a drinker, nor was he a partier. He just wasn’t one to suffer boring socialites easily, when it came right down to it, and during the evening’s so-called events he found himself trapped on the second floor. If you’re thinking “trapped” as in four-alarm fire, no, this was more “trapped” as in bored-to-death-would-rather-fling-himself-from-a-building-than-stay, trapped. Francis Marion jumped from the second story to get away, and broke his ankle when he landed. Marion’s doctor ordered him to recuperate at his plantation, and as a result he was not present within the city when it fell to the British. But he wasn’t done with the Brits, not by any means. Now it was time for The Swamp Fox to come out and play, bum leg and all.
Marion watched as Americans suffered losses at Moncks Corner and Waxhaws, and he decided something had to be done – but not through the usual channels. No, it was time to kick some redcoat ass, Swamp Fox style. Marion recruited a unit, the official count of which varies rather widely between 20 and 70, and set about annoying the crap out of the British. Well, if sneaking up behind the enemy and slitting their throats can be called “annoying.” Marion met up with Major General Horatio Gates and his men and then set out with his unit to scout an area known as the Pee Dee. From here on out, there be dragons – or foxes, as it were.
Their first major victory was the successful scouting of and sneaking into of a British camp where 150 Americans were being held prisoner. Francis Marion and his men freed the prisoners, pissed off the redcoats, big time, and melted back into the night. This was to be the first of many victories; Marion and his men would become the all-time kings of the hit-and-run.
The British didn’t take too kindly to Marion’s tactics, feeling they were “un-sportsmanship-like” and “un-gentlemanly” because God forbid war be, well, war. Such was their outrage that the British Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis ordered his own Loyalist militias to devote themselves to the pursuit of Marion and his ever-elusive men. Cornwallis’ attempts were all for naught, though; Marion continued to operate stealthily, winning time and again, executing countless successful ops, and basically wreaking havoc among the Brits. Because this is America, and we don’t just fight back, we get down and dirty, doing whatever it takes to defend our nation.
Next week: Part two of Francis Marion’s story, which is probably the best part since it goes into greater detail regarding Marion’s tactics. You don’t want to miss it.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.
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