Born on his family’s plantation in 1732, Francis Marion was the youngest of six children. Though a small boy with malformed legs, Francis’ restless nature served to compensate for his birth defect.
At the age of 15, he sailed to the West Indies as part of a seven man crew. The voyage was short-lived when a whale rammed the ship and caused it to sink. The crew quickly manned a lifeboat, but was unable to salvage any of the food or water aboard the schooner due to the rapid rate at which it sank. After enduring six days under the tropical sun, two of the crewmen died from exposure and thirst. The next day the survivors reached shore. This experience made a land-lover of Francis and he returned home to manage his family’s plantation.
When Francis was 25, he joined the South Carolina militia to fight in the French & Indian (Seven Years) War. The experiences he derived from the conflict would serve to prepare him for more admirable service to his country later on. While fighting in a campaign against the Cherokee, he learned how the Indians used the landscape to their advantage by concealing themselves in the Carolina backwoods. From there, the Cherokee successfully carried out devastating ambushes. Twenty years later, Francis applied what he had learned to defeating the British.
Marion returned to farming in 1761 and in 1773 purchased his own plantation, Pond Bluff. Two years later, he was elected to the first South Carolina Provincial Congress. Following the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Congress raised three regiments, with Marion commissioned to captain the second. His regiment’s first assignment was to guard Fort Sullivan, located in Charleston Harbor.
During the Battle of Fort Sullivan in June 1776, Marion showed true courage. The next three years, however, found him still at the fort attempting to make soldiers of his troops – a drunken, disorderly bunch who normally reported for roll call in bare feet. An odd accident in March 1780 served to change the role Marion would play in the Revolution.
During a dinner party in the Charleston home of a fellow officer, the host followed a common custom of the time by locking all the doors while offering toasts to the American cause. As the toasting continued, Marion became bored because he was not a drinking man; however, given the fact the doors were all locked and the host had pocketed the key(s), Marion began to feel a slight bit straight-jacketed. In an effort to remove himself from the boring festivities, he jumped from a second story window. In the process, he broke his ankle, but managed to escape into the country without being captured by the British.
South Carolina’s situation began to look bad as the American army initiated a retreat. In August, Marion would experience his first military success as he led his militia against a British encampment. Using the techniques he learned from observing the Cherokee, Marion’s troops hid in the dense foliage and attacked from the rear. Their effort resulted in the rescue of 150 American prisoners. This outnumbered ‘David’ would continue to successfully shock the British ‘Goliath’ troops with surprise attacks, causing the British to divide up their forces, thus weakening their encounters against ‘David’. In time, Marion succeeded in making South Carolina totally inhospitable to British troops.
In November of that year, Marion received the title he would wear into the history books. Having been made aware of Marion’s location by an escaped prisoner, British Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton gave chase. After covering an area of 26 miles over a period of seven hours in search of the American militia group, Tarleton learned Marion had escaped into the swamp. Tarleton ‘threw in the towel’ with the statement, “As for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him!” Word soon reached the locals and they began to cheer the Swamp Fox.
Following the Revolutionary War, Marion returned to his plantation and the life of a quiet gentleman farmer. He helped write South Carolina’s state constitution and championed amnesty for the Loyalists. When describing the life of Francis Marion, biographer Hugh Rankin referred to it as something like a sandwich – a highly spiced center between two slabs of dry bread. Marion died on his plantation February 27, 1795, following a long decline in his health.
While actions of such patriots as George Washington and the battles fought in the North during the Revolutionary War are hearlded in American history; the events which occurred in the South also played an important role in the war’s outcome. Though he never led a major battle nor commanded an army, Swamp Fox is indeed one of the war’s most enduring characters.