‘The Fox’ Had the British on the Run
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 and around his southern colony. 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 and became known for his leadership abilities. Marion 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,” befuddling the British.
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.
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, Marion 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 Revolutionary 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 modern-day legend was helped along by a popular 1959 Walt Disney TV series, “The Swamp Fox,” starring well-known character actor Leslie Nielsen. In 2000, actor Mel Gibson starred in “The Patriot,” whose lead character was based on Marion’s Revolutionary War legend.
Around the time of “The Patriot(‘s)” release, comments in the British press challenged the American notion of Francis Marion as a hero. British author Neil Norman called Francis Marion “a thoroughly unpleasant dude who was basically, a terrorist.”
British historian Christopher Hibbert described Marion as being “… not at all the sort of chap who should be celebrated as a hero. The truth is that people like Marion committed atrocities as bad, if not worse, than those perpetrated by the British.”
Was Hibbert’s commentary an attempt to rewrite American-British history? Probably, but some aspects are be true. Was Francis Marion a slave owner? Was he a determined and dangerous warrior? Did he commit acts in an 18th-century war that we would consider atrocious in the current world of peace and political correctness?
For his part, Disney brought alive U.S. history each week on his Sunday evening family show “The Wonderful World of Disney.” In addition to Marion’s story, that of Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Confederate Civil War leader John “Grey Ghost” Moseby and many others were brought to life. Sadly, today’s history classes at any and all grade levels mention little, if any of these and other famous historical members who had fascinating stories to tell.
When studying the legend of “The Swamp Fox,” and other historical characters, consider the words of famed film director John Ford: “If given the choice between filming truth or legend, choose the legend, it’s always more interesting.”
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