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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Swamp Fox

By Tom Morrow

During the Revolutionary War, the British were perplexed and confused by a new style of combat: guerilla warfare. At the heart of what the British called “ungentlemanly” combat was South Carolinian farmer-turned-military officer Francis Marion.

Serving with the Continental Army as a South Carolina militia officer, he was a persistent adversary of the British in South Carolina. He is considered the father of modern guerrilla warfare, and is credited in the lineage of the United States Army Rangers. He is known in history as the “Swamp Fox.”

In 1775, Marion was commissioned a captain in the 2nd South Carolina Regiment under the command of William Moultrie. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Marion became known for his leadership abilities and was sent to join the command of Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates just before the Battle of Camden. Gates was less than impressed and promptly sent Marion to take command of the Williamsburg militia in Virginia.

Thinking Marion would be kept out of the way, Gates assigned him to scouting missions. Marion showed himself to be an able leader of irregular militiamen and ruthless tactics in terrorizing of British loyalists.

Unlike George Washington’s Continental troops, “Marion’s Men,” as they were known, served without pay, supplied their own horses, arms and often their food.

Marion rarely committed his men to a frontal attack style of warfare, but repeatedly surprised larger bodies of Loyalists or British regulars with quick surprise attacks and equally quick withdrawal from the field. In other words, his tactics were ambush-style “hit and run” encounter, which were befuddling to the British, often causing their ranks to break and troops fleeing.

The British especially hated Marion and made repeated efforts to neutralize his force, but Marion’s intelligence-gathering was excellent, whereas that of the British was poor, due to the overwhelming patriot loyalty of the populace in the Williamsburg area.

Banastre Tarleton

In November 1780, the British had their own “head-hunter” in Col. Banastre Tarleton, who was sent to capture or kill Marion; Tarleton found it no easy task in finding the “old swamp fox.” Marion eluded him by traveling along swamp paths. It was Tarleton who gave Marion the moniker when, after unsuccessfully pursuing Marion’s troops for over 26 miles through a swamp. Tarleton gave up and swore “… as for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.”

Once Marion had shown his ability at guerrilla warfare, making himself a serious nuisance to the British, South Carolina Gov. John Rutledge commissioned him a brigadier general of his state’s militia.

In January 1782, left the fighting when he was elected to a new South Carolina State Assembly. Later that year, the British withdrew their garrison from Charleston and the war was brought to an end by the Treaty of Paris.

Marion is one of those characters in history who is surrounded by controversy. Many of his exploits have been exaggerated. His legend was helped along by a popular 1959 Walt Disney TV series, “The Swamp Fox,” starring Leslie Nielsen. In 2000, actor Mel Gibson starred in “The Patriot,” whose character was based on Marion’s legend. No doubt some future writer will come up with another scenario to bring back to life the “Swamp Fox.”

As I recently quoted legendary film director John Ford when discussing historical movie subjects, the legend of “The Swamp Fox” is a perfect example of what he was talking about: “If given the choice between filming truth or legend, choose the legend, it’s always more interesting.”

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