The Swamp Fox

Elusive and crafty, Francis Marion outwitted British troops during the American Revolution

General Marion Inviting a British Officer to Share His Meal (John Blake White)

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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…in 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.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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