This week for American Heroes, we’re diving right into part two of The Swamp Fox Francis Marion’s story. The father of guerilla warfare and foundation for our Army Rangers was one serious badass, and if you doubt it for a moment, read on. (Miss part one? It’s right here.)
Marion and his men had nothing, no supplies, no ammo, nothing. They should have been woefully outmatched by the British, but they knew how to make do. Their appearances were undoubtedly bedraggled and filthy – all the better for blending into the trees and muck – and meals came only as they hunted small game or collected nuts and berries. There was no food supply. Weapons were homemade as well which resulted in a mish-mash of arms ranging from swords fashioned from saw blades and firearms crafted or kept in repair by any means necessary; ammunition wasn’t just scarce, it was nonexistent, so they melted down beer steins, silver, and the like from abandoned plantations and used the resultant molten mess to make musket balls. They may have appeared wildly unkempt and hugely disorganized, but looks can be deceiving. Marion’s Partisans, as they were sometimes referred, were hell-raisers of the best kind.
For two and a half years the men destroyed ship depots, torched communications buildings, ambushed enemy troops, and, of course, looted the enemy at will. Looting wasn’t just for the fun of watching the redcoats wet themselves when faced by a motley crew of ruthless militiamen, either, it was a matter of survival. A British regiment’s supply of food, not to mention clothing or weapons, went a long way for Marion’s men. Finally, the British had really had enough – they meant it this time! – and Cornwallis dispatched the meanest head case and greatest tracker he had, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, to go get Marion.
Tarleton had a reputation for laying waste to everything in his path, not to mention pretty much being a raging psychopath, but despite his probably unbalanced mental state he was good at his job. He quickly tracked down intel regarding Marion’s whereabouts and set about closing in on the group of men who had taken away the redcoats’ ability to enjoy their tea and crumpets without fear of death – or at least serious humiliation. In the chase to follow Tarleton tore after Marion for more than seven hours, covering over 26 miles, before he finally called it quits. The chase had taken place in the swamps, and Tarleton, crazy as he may have been, knew when he was whipped. The words he uttered upon giving up ended up becoming famous: “As for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.” The moniker stuck, and Marion became forever known as The Swamp Fox.
It was after Marion gained the name by which he is most well-known today that he was promoted to brigadier general. He and his men had undertaken an unknown number of missions, the bulk of which were resounding successes, and those successes absolutely played a key role in the British backing off. There were, of course, losses as well. One historically notable loss took place in January of 1781 after Marion’s promotion while he was working with the region’s new Continental commander, Major General Nathaniel Greene. Marion put together a makeshift brigade made up of various cavalry and infantry members with which to attack the British at Georgetown, SC, and ended up losing. It was one of his rare losses and probably served to piss him off more than anything else, because after Georgetown he and his regular unit of stealthy soldiers set about their usual sneaky, ungentlemanly tactics.
On April 15, 1781, Marion led the South Carolina militia alongside Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s Continental Army in the Siege of Fort Watson. Fort Watson was a heavily fortified British outpost near what is now known as Summerton, SC. It was an important part of the communication and supply chain that kept the British up and running between Charleston and areas farther inland; taking it out meant dealing one of the many crippling blows necessary to ultimately bring down the enemy. However, when the Americans first began to besiege the fort they found themselves almost entirely unable to make a dent in its fortifications due to a complete lack of heavy artillery. Sharpshooters couldn’t do any good from the ground and trees alone weren’t high enough, so what was an enterprising Swamp Fox to do? Well, as the saying goes, “if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain” or, in this case, “if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad may as well make his own darn mountain.” (For those who misunderstand this ellipsis, it’s actually from Francis Bacon’s work dating back to 1625, and the original text reads “if the hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the hill.” Coincidentally, this particular work of Bacon’s begins with “Mahomet made the people believe he would call a hill to him” and in this case, the mythical Mahomet didn’t call it, he built it.)
The idea is said to have come from one of Marion’s men, a militiaman by the name of Major Hezekiah Maham. Maham’s idea was fairly straightforward and involved utilizing the green pines all around to build a log tower with two main traits: enough height to allow sharpshooters to do their jobs and enough solidity to protect the shooters from return fire once they were ensconced within the nest at the top. And so, in what could easily be referred to as an early version of a sniper’s hide – is it hiding when everyone can see it? – the soldiers set about building something tall enough to grant sharpshooters a clear line of sight into the fort.
The resulting siege tower was 30 feet tall; climbing it was not for the faint of heart. Days of off-site preparation went into its creation in an attempt to delay the enemy seeing it as long as possible, and when at long last it was ready, the men carried it in. And sailors in BUD/S think they’re tough carrying logs? Try carrying a 30-foot tall log tower (Please don’t, guys, I’d rather not become known as the writer responsible for dozens of hernias and ruptured discs).
Imagine for a moment you’re a British soldier safe behind the walls of Fort Watson. Since April 15, the Americans have been making fruitless attempts to batter down the walls in a war-time version of the wolf huffing and puffing to blow the house down, and for a week now the wolf’s been asthmatic at best. The walls remain, no real damage has taken place, and you’re probably feeling pretty cocky right about now. It’s been a solid week, after all. If you’re on night watch the evening of April 22 you might have noticed the Swamp Fox and his men lugging a big wooden monstrosity towards the fort, and you and your friends are rolling with laughter as you discuss what it could possibly be. A giant’s battering ram, useless with no giants in sight? Supplies for a bonfire to roast potatoes and heat water for the gritty swill Americans call coffee? Whatever it is, you watch as it’s propped up outside the fort. Although it isn’t extremely close, it is a bit close for comfort, and perhaps you wonder if you should be concerned. Then you think, no, it’s been a solid week and the Americans continue to fail. What could they possibly do now?
This is how, the morning of April 23, 1781, a bunch of 18th century Chris Kyles and Carlos Hathcocks settled into the nest at the top of the siege tower and proceeded to sling lead into Fort Watson like nobody’s business. Receiving steady – and effective – fire from the sniper’s tucked into the log tower, British soldiers in defensive positions along the fort’s walls were forced to get the heck down. They could have stayed put if they liked, but staying put had the unpleasant side effect of being shot in their red coats by snipers probably yelling some version of “Put that in your tea and drink it!” or possibly something more colorful and era-appropriate. While the snipers did their work, a pair of forlorn hope teams set out to scale the fort’s walls. (A forlorn hope is a group of soldiers taking on a mission likely to result in death, leading the charge in an op, and though some of you have undoubtedly heard this phrase it isn’t nearly as common today as it was in centuries past. It’s a cool turn of phrase one doesn’t have the chance to use often, so one takes one’s opportunities when they arise. Also, in this case, it’s exactly the right time.) The soldiers in the two forlorn hope groups successfully entered the fort, and by the time April 23rd came to a close, Fort Watson belonged to the Americans. The Swamp Fox and his men had done it again. If a big enough sniper hide doesn’t exist, build a thirty-foot tall one out of trees, because you’re cool like that.
Awesome vengeance side note, the commander of the fort was John Watson, and prior to the events outlined above he’d been ordered to hunt down Francis Marion. So after the fort fell and it became obvious a certain number of the Brits had turned tail and ran, including Watson himself, Marion did what any self-respecting badass would do and went after him. Because nobody, and we mean nobody, messed with the Swamp Fox.
There is one more tale to tell today of Marion’s abilities, only this one pertains to his apparent charisma. It was the winter of 1781, and The Swamp Fox and his men were on Snow’s Island in South Carolina. For the moment they weren’t entirely hidden, because they had a prisoner exchange to arrange. As they awaited the arrival of the British officer tasked with hammering out the details they began roasting sweet potatoes over a fire, remaining at the ready even as they prepared breakfast. The officer arrived, probably goggle-eyed at the scene before him: a filthy, ragtag unit of men clearly living off the land and the occasional pilfered provisions, outfitted with random and frequently homemade weapons, all giving off a deceptively calm air a smart man would recognize as the kind of stillness a cobra might exhibit moments before striking. Negotiations took place, and once they came to a conclusion Marion offered the British officer a portion of their breakfast. The officer was stunned by the strength, grit, and resourcefulness of the Americans, who were basically living by their wits alone. When the agreed-upon exchange was handled, he switched sides, defecting to the American cause, and all because of the unity and determination he’d witnessed that morning. Well, those things and the way Marion carried himself, even going so far as inviting the officer to partake of their hard-won meal. If you doubt the veracity of this tale, doubt no more. It was told by one of the militiamen himself after the war came to an end and, in 1820, immortalized in oils by artist John Blake White. The painting capturing the moment – a moment which, in truth, depicts a slice of what our great nation is founded on, not to mention the impressive power of our military – can be seen today in the United States Capitol.
Following the war Marion returned to his plantation only to find it had been burned down. He wasn’t one to let anything get him down, though, and ended up serving several terms in the South Carolina Senate. He was also made commander of Fort Johnson in 1784 as a gesture of respect and honor for his military service. At some point after his return home some particularly cheeky nephew began to point out it was past time he got married and others helped by letting him know a particular woman was especially enamored with tales of the Swamp Fox. Her name was Mary Esther Videau, and Marion did indeed end up marrying her. In 1795 he passed away at his estate. He was 63, and he’d done more seriously badass fighting and carried out more successful guerilla-style attacks than most of us could ever dream of managing.
Francis Marion is the man who set the foundation for the Army Rangers. His ability to see the intelligence and application for the methods used by the indians during the French and Indian War set him apart and paved the way for the guerilla tactics our men use today. Methods seen by so many during that time as barbaric or ungentlemanly were actually exactly what was needed to turn the tide of the American Revolution. Lining up in neat rows to shoot at one another in an orderly fashion was no smarter than painting a bullseye on one’s chest and handing your opponent a loaded weapon, but it’s how it was done. Marion didn’t just set things in motion for our ass-kicking Rangers, he got the ball rolling for the stealth tactics used by the military at large. Soldiers everywhere began to realize the wisdom in Marion’s maneuvers, finally understanding it was better to ambush the enemy than to agree to a time and place to stand in the open and take pot shots at one another. Francis Marion wasn’t just The Swamp Fox, and he wasn’t just an American Hero. He was a Badass American Hero you’d never see coming, because he was sneaky like that. Perhaps our nation’s enemies would do well to remember The Swamp Fox, because we have a whole slew of American Heroes out there who take his skills to a whole other level of sneaky. Watch out, bad guys, Francis Marion may not be around anymore, but the Army Rangers could be standing right behind you this very moment. Made you look.
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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