By midsummer 1780, the American Revolutionary cause in the southern colonies appeared close to ruin. Having seized Savannah and most of Georgia, a 10,000-man British army had marched on Charleston in May and adroitly trapped the main American field army in the South. Following a six-week siege, the defenders capitulated, resulting in the loss of 6,700 Continental troops, state militia, and sailors—a larger haul of prisoners than the Americans had taken when Lieutenant General John Burgoyne’s British army surrendered at Saratoga in 1777. Within three weeks, fast-moving British columns overran most of South Carolina. At a camp on Deep River in central North Carolina, the Americans were trying to build a force to halt further British advances and take back what had been lost. Fourteen hundred Maryland and Delaware Continentals sent by George Washington formed the solid core of the new army, supplemented by North Carolina and Virginia militia. Major General Horatio Gates, the victor at Saratoga, had taken command.
Marion understood the vital importance of aggressiveness and audacity in sustaining patriot morale and keeping the enemy off balance. But he was equally shrewd in assessing when he should refuse battle
In July, a bedraggled band of about 20 refugees from South Carolina rode into the Deep River encampment. Some were white, some black, and some were teenage boys. All were raggedly dressed and miserably equipped. Several had been officers in a now destroyed South Carolina Continental regiment, including their leader, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Marion. Despite his rank, Marion presented an utterly unimpressive figure—short, scrawny, homely, taciturn, and so crippled by a poorly healed ankle fracture that his black manservant had to help him dismount from his horse.
Colonel Otho Williams, Gates’s adjutant, recorded afterward that the appearance of Marion’s group prompted general derision among the proud and confident northern troops. Gates was only too happy to dispense with Marion by approving his suggestion that he and his men be sent back to their native state to gather intelligence and harass the enemy.
Shortly thereafter, Marion and his followers rode back to South Carolina—and into legend. During the next 13 months he proved himself a master at conducting partisan warfare and handling irregular troops. He repeatedly defeated larger and better-equipped forces with few losses, marking him as one of history’s outstanding guerrilla leaders.
But Marion’s most extraordinary accomplishment may have been that in a struggle marked by all the savagery of a civil war, during which he and his men were usually hungry and hunted, and in the face of wanton destruction and occasional heartbreaking cruelties committed by his enemies (including the capture and summary execution of his 16-year-old nephew, Gabriel), he never lost control of his men or succumbed to the urge for vengeance. Instead, he always correctly observed the established rules of war and maintained exceptional discipline over his constantly fluctuating partisan force.
Born in 1732, Francis Marion was the youngest of seven children of a moderately prosperous Low Country planter. He displayed a taste for adventure even as a boy, shipping out aboard a West Indies–bound schooner at the age of 16. A few days from Charleston, in an episode that could have been taken from Moby-Dick, a whale smashed into the vessel, which sank within minutes. The six crew members drifted in a lifeboat for nearly a week, and two died of thirst, hunger, and exposure before a passing ship rescued Marion and the other three survivors.
Marion then turned to farming, establishing a plantation not far from the Santee River about 45 miles north of Charleston. When Cherokee Indians rebelled in 1759 during the French and Indian War, he volunteered for the militia and served as the first lieutenant in a company of light infantry. In 1761, at the climactic battle of Etchoe, Marion led 30 men in a diversionary assault up a defile and against the flank of a strong Cherokee position. Two-thirds of Marion’s men fell dead or wounded under withering enemy fire, but the costly attack helped secure a decisive victory. Marion emerged a hero.
As relations between Great Britain and its colonies moved toward an open rupture in early 1775, Marion was elected as a delegate to the South Carolina Provincial Congress. When the fighting broke out, he was commissioned a captain and a company commander in South Carolina’s 2nd Continental Regiment. His success at molding raw recruits into an effective and disciplined unit was such that he was soon promoted to major, the regiment’s second in command.
During the first years of the war, Marion participated in most of the major campaigns in South Carolina and Georgia. On June 28, 1776, he was in the thick of the fighting when the 2nd Regiment, defending a partially completed fortification of palmetto logs and sand at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, repulsed an attack by nine British warships. Three years later, in the late summer and fall of 1779, he and his regiment participated in a badly mishandled Franco-American expedition to recapture Savannah that culminated in a costly and futile frontal assault against the well-entrenched British and loyalist defenders.
Marion would have been among the troops the British bagged when Charleston surrendered in May 1780 had it not been for an accident. Weeks before the British cut the last roads leading inland from the city, Marion attended a party during which the host locked his guests in to prevent them from leaving until they were soused. The abstemious Marion nonetheless tried to take his leave by jumping from a second-floor window, fracturing his ankle. Sent home to convalesce, he escaped captivity when the city was cut off and forced to surrender.
As British columns raced across the state after Charleston fell, Marion became a fugitive, constantly moving to evade search parties. Upon hearing of the new American army gathering in North Carolina, he made his way there with a few fellow officers and comrades from the 2nd Regiment to offer his services.
During Marion’s brief stay in Gates’s camp, residents of the Williamsburg district between the Black and Pee Dee Rivers in eastern South Carolina rose against the British and sent Marion a message asking him to take command. He readily accepted. Gates, who was planning to move against Camden, the main inland British base, instructed Marion to destroy all the watercraft along the Santee River, which ran south from the meeting place of the Wateree and Congaree Rivers below Camden before turning east to reach the coast above Charleston. Gates hoped that Marion’s small force could frustrate British efforts to reinforce Camden and then prevent their retreat once Gates defeated them with his army.
When Marion returned to his native state, he discovered that the British had badly bungled the pacification of their recent conquest. Initially, patriot soldiers were assured that they need merely lay down their arms, give their paroles, and take up their previous employments to return to good standing with the king. Only later did it emerge that once men renewed their allegiance to the Crown, the British would expect them to join the fight against their former compatriots in the northern colonies. That—coupled with looting and plundering by the British occupying forces and vengeful score-settling by local Tories—gave new life to the patriots’ struggle. Partisan bands soon sprang up around the state—Marion’s in the southeast, between the Santee and Great Pee Dee Rivers; that of Thomas Sumter, known as “the Gamecock” for his pugnacious personality, in the north; and Andrew Pickens’s in the northwest.
Marion assumed command of four companies of Williamsburg patriots on August 10. In keeping with his instructions from Gates, Marion took 50 men and moved to cut the British line of communications along the Santee between Charleston and Camden, about a hundred miles inland. He was on the upper Santee when he received the shocking news that Gates had been completely routed by Lieutenant General Charles, Lord Cornwallis, in a battle near Camden on August 16. Half of Gates’s 3,000 men were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, and the remainder of the American army had fled to North Carolina.
A lesser man might have decided that this was a good time to go to ground with his small force, but Marion recognized that being astride the enemy’s main line of communications might still present opportunity. Early on the morning of August 20, he and his men surprised a detachment of British regulars camped near Nelson’s Ferry, the main crossing on the upper Santee. Attacking from two directions, Marion’s force killed or captured 24 of the enemy and liberated 150 Continental prisoners, while suffering only one man killed and another slightly wounded.
Barely two weeks later, Marion and his band were in action again. Tory militia had gathered at Britton’s Neck, a tongue of land formed by the juncture of the Great and Little Pee Dee Rivers. Marion and his men rode through the night and swept into the Tory encampment at dawn, killing some and scattering the rest. They next moved up the Little Pee Dee to attack another Tory force nearby. When this unit greeted him fully deployed and in greater numbers than he expected, Marion feigned retreat, drew the Tories after him, then ambushed and defeated them at a spot known as Blue Savannah.
Marion thus demonstrated that he understood the vital importance of aggressiveness and audacity in sustaining patriot morale and keeping the enemy off balance. But he was equally shrewd in assessing when he should refuse battle. When Lord Cornwallis dispatched 800 British and loyalist troops to hunt him down following his first actions, Marion prudently released his men to their homes and rode to North Carolina.
As soon as the British expedition gave up the search, Marion returned to rally the local patriots and disperse the loyalists who had begun arming to hold the Williamsburg area. On September 24, learning that a force of Tories was constructing a small fort at Shepherd’s Ferry on Black Mingo Creek, about 30 miles north of the coastal port of Georgetown, Marion set out with his brigade on another night attack. When the clatter of their horses’ hooves on a bridge alerted an enemy sentry, Marion hurried his men across the stream, split them into three parties, and attacked from as many directions. But the Tories had received sufficient warning to deploy, and their initial volley caught part of Marion’s force crossing an open field and inflicted serious casualties.
A sharp fight ensued before one of Marion’s other detachments attacked the Tories from the rear, killing and wounding many and scattering the rest. After this battle, most of Marion’s men returned to their homes to bring in the harvest, while he retired for the first time to the base that became a central part of his legend. Snow’s Island was located on the west side of the Great Pee Dee River, just below its confluence with Lynches River in the southeast part of the state. It was further protected by a creek, a lake, and broad belts of cypress swamp and dense canebrakes. For the next six months, Marion used this naturally moated refuge as a supply depot, recruiting station, and sanctuary.
A young British officer got a rare look at Snow’s Island when, sent to arrange a prisoner exchange, he was picked up by one of Marion’s patrols and led blindfolded to the hideout. Once there, he was astonished by the diverse character and high morale of Marion’s men, notwithstanding their ragged dress and obvious privations, as well as by their leader’s diminutive stature and unpretentious appearance. Marion invited the officer to share his dinner—a meal of roasted sweet potatoes served upon improvised plates of bark. “But surely, general,” the officer objected, “this cannot be your ordinary fare.”
“Indeed, sir, it is,” Marion dryly replied, “and we are fortunate on this occasion, entertaining company, to have more than our usual allowance.”
Although hunger dogged his men and pay was nonexistent, Marion refused to let them loot or plunder. An order dated March 8, 1781, clearly spelled out his policy: Soldiers who took “Provisions or forage from any person or plantations without a wrighting authority from me,…will be Deemed plunderers & Suffer Accordingly and part[ie]s will be sent to destroy all such plunderers wherever they may be found.” His solicitude extended even to those lowest on South Carolina’s social scale: He once ordered one of his men tried and disciplined for “Plundering Negroes homes and other goods.”
By late October 1780, enough men had rejoined his force that Marion could resume operations. Learning that the Tories had set up a recruiting base at a militia mustering ground near the Black River, Marion launched another lightning raid. Taking 150 men, he covered 40 miles, crossed three rivers, and took the enemy’s camp by surprise at midnight on October 25. Most of the Tories fled into nearby Tearcoat Swamp, and Marion’s men seized 80 new muskets and an equal number of horses and saddles.
Lord Cornwallis now sent his most audacious and aggressive officer after Marion. Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton commanded a combined-arms force known as the British Legion. Patriots called Tarleton “the Butcher” and “Bloody Ban” after his cavalry literally cut to pieces a retreating detachment of Virginia Continentals at the Battle of Waxhaws in 1780, killing and wounding many men as they tried to surrender.
Tarleton came after Marion with the thousand men of his command. On the night of November 9–10, Tarleton’s legion and Marion’s brigade almost blundered into each other at Richardson’s Plantation near the Santee, with each side discovering the other at practically the same moment. Marion’s force was barely half the size of Tarleton’s, so he decided to run for safety. The resulting chase lasted through much of that night and most of the following day. Finally, after covering 33 exhausting miles through swamps, creeks, thickets, and forests, Tarleton found himself on the banks of yet another watery morass—Ox Swamp, near the town of Manning—with no sign of his quarry. Turning to his officers, he said, “Come, my boys! Let us go back, and we will soon find the game cock [Sumter], but as for this damned old fox, the devil himself could not catch him.” Thus Marion’s famous sobriquet was born.
In early December 1780, a frustrated Lord Cornwallis fumed in a letter to his superior, Sir Henry Clinton, that “Col. Marion has so wrought on the minds of the people…that there was scarcely an inhabitant between the Santee and the Pedee, that was not in arms against us.” In recognition of his accomplishments, South Carolina’s patriot governor-in-exile promoted Marion to the rank of brigadier general in the state militia.
Having failed to suppress Marion and his brigade, the British turned their attention to protecting their line of communications from Charleston to their inland bases at Camden and the frontier settlement of Ninety Six. They erected a series of fortified posts, including Fort Watson, on the east side of the Santee, and Fort Motte, farther north, just west of the juncture of the Congaree and Wateree rivers.
By the New Year, Congress had relieved Gates and sent Major General Nathanael Greene to command the main American army in the South. Greene reached the army’s camp near Charlotte, North Carolina, in late November. He fully recognized the importance of coordinating his efforts with Marion, Sumter, and Pickens—Greene once said that one partisan was worth 10 militiamen—and wanted to support their efforts even at the cost of weakening his own small army.
Accordingly, in January 1781, Greene dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee and Lee’s Legion, an American counterpart of Tarleton’s force comprising both infantry and cavalry, to the Pee Dee with instructions to operate with Marion’s brigade. Lee recorded in his memoirs that it was only thanks to a lucky encounter with one of Marion’s foraging parties that he was even able to find the guerrilla’s camp.
Marion and Lee worked together on and off for the next eight months. They made an odd pair. At 25, “Light Horse Harry” Lee—the future father of Robert E. Lee—was convivial and dashing. Marion, in contrast, was nearly twice Lee’s age, hooknosed, swarthy, bowlegged, and personally reserved. He drank primarily a mixture of vinegar and water, and was so indifferent to cutting a martial appearance that he loyally continued to wear his old leather 2nd Regiment cap even after it was partially burned when a bed of pine straw on which he was sleeping blazed up from a campfire spark.
Despite these differences, the two men formed a highly effective partnership. Both were daring and inventive, aggressive without being reckless, and careful with the lives of their troops. These qualities were clearly displayed in late January, when they nearly captured the port of Georgetown with a bold and complex operation that combined a night landing by a waterborne commando force and an attack against the enemy land defenses. It was typical of Marion and Lee that after taking the British commandant prisoner and overrunning much of the town, they elected to withdraw when it became clear that a complete victory would require house-to-house fighting and a potentially costly assault on the town’s main redoubt.
Lee rejoined Greene’s army after the unsuccessful coup against Georgetown, and thus Marion stood alone in March 1781 when the British made their third attempt to destroy his command. Colonel Francis, Lord Rawdon, who took command of the occupying forces when Lord Cornwallis moved north in pursuit of Greene’s army, planned a two-pronged attack on Marion’s base on Snow’s Island. The main striking force, 500 loyalist light infantry, militia, and rangers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Watson, was to proceed east from the fort carrying his name on the Santee River road north of Nelson’s Ferry. A second force, consisting of 300 New York loyalists under Lieutenant Colonel Welbore Doyle, was sent east from Camden with orders to descend the Great Pee Dee River from the north, cutting off Marion’s avenue of retreat to North Carolina and serving as the anvil to Watson’s hammer.
But this campaign likewise did not go as the British had planned. Alerted to Watson’s advance, Marion and 400 men laid an ambush along the Santee River road at Wiboo Swamp. When he approached on March 7, Watson avoided stumbling into Marion’s trap, but the British had the worst of a back-and-forth series of charges and countercharges along the narrow causeway through the swamp.
Watson and Marion clashed again two days later at Mount Hope Swamp, where Marion’s men had removed the bridge over the stream, but this time Watson blasted his way through the defenses by loading his cannons with grapeshot. Watson then feinted as if he intended to continue east along the Santee, but instead moved north and headed for the Lower Bridge over the Black River.
Marion divined Watson’s true intentions and sent a party of 70 mounted riflemen racing across open country to beat him to the bridge. They arrived in time to destroy the span and block the crossing. After the American marksmen frustrated several British attempts to ford the river—Watson grudgingly conceded that he never saw such shooting in his life—Watson took refuge at a nearby plantation where there were few trees to provide cover for Marion’s men. Here he remained for 10 days, perhaps hoping he would be reinforced by Doyle’s command, the left hook of the Tory offensive.
The hunter had thus become the hunted. On March 15, Watson was reduced to asking Marion for passes so that his wounded could be taken to Charleston, a request Marion granted. By March 20, Watson’s troops had exhausted their provisions, but Marion’s skilled riflemen made foraging impossible. So Watson and his men broke out, bolting for safety in Georgetown 30 miles away. Marion again sent a party of horsemen ahead to destroy the bridge over the Sampit River, west of the town. When Watson’s desperate troops reached the ruined bridge, they plunged into the stream and splashed across just as Marion’s main force came up and pounced upon the rear guard. The Tories panicked and fled; 20 were killed and 38 wounded, while Marion lost only a single man. Watson’s command limped into Georgetown the following day, its remaining wagons loaded with wounded.
The humiliating rout of Watson’s larger force in what became known as “the Bridges Campaign” was Marion’s most impressive accomplishment to date. But even as his command celebrated its triumph over Watson, a messenger arrived with shattering news: Colonel Doyle’s regiment had discovered and destroyed the brigade’s base at Snow’s Island. All the weapons, ammunition, and stores so laboriously accumulated there over the previous six months had been burned or dumped into the surrounding rivers.
Marion and his brigade at once set off for the Pee Dee, determined to exact revenge. But Doyle burned his heavy baggage and scuttled back to Camden, content with salvaging a partial success from an otherwise embarrassing campaign.
It was at this discouraging moment that Marion received the news that General Greene’s army, after a hard-fought battle against Lord Cornwallis at Guilford Courthouse, planned to reenter South Carolina. Greene ordered Marion and Henry Lee to operate jointly against the line of British forts between Charleston and Camden. Their first target was Fort Watson. This post occupied an old Santee Indian mound that rose almost 30 feet above the surrounding plain. A stockade crowned the mound, with abatis—rows of sharpened stakes—driven into its sloping sides. Only six weeks earlier, Fort Watson had successfully withstood an attack by Thomas Sumter and his partisans, 18 of whom were killed in the attempt.
Although Marion and Lee had no cannons, they took the fort after an eight-day siege. One of Marion’s officers, Colonel Hezekiah Maham, conceived the idea of constructing a tower made of logs laid in alternating crosswise layers until it was taller than the fort. Trees were felled, the logs were readied, and the tower was erected in a single night. When dawn came and the British discovered that American riflemen could now command the stockade’s interior, they promptly surrendered.
The war in South Carolina had now reached its turning point. On April 25, Lord Rawdon lost a quarter of his army in a costly attack upon Greene’s forces at Hobkirk’s Hill just outside Camden. Two weeks later, he evacuated the town and marched south after burning many of its buildings and destroying the supplies he could not take.
Marion and Lee, meanwhile, reunited on May 8 for an attempt on Fort Motte, the principal British supply depot between Charleston and their strongholds upstate. Fort Motte consisted of a stockade that encircled the hilltop mansion of Rebecca Motte, a wealthy planter’s widow who was devoted to the patriot cause. Lee proposed burning out the British by shooting flaming arrows into the house’s dry cedar roofing shingles. Mrs. Motte endorsed the plan and even supplied a high-powered African bow owned by her late husband. When several well-placed bowshots ignited the shingles and a few rounds from a lone cannon brought by Lee’s command made it impossible for the British to douse the flames, Fort Motte surrendered.
The British position in South Carolina rapidly crumbled. Between April 18 and May 14, three more British forts capitulated. At the end of May, Marion and his brigade appeared before Georgetown and started digging siege trenches. But the British and loyalist garrison and its local supporters boarded three ships in the harbor and sailed away to Charleston. Marion marked the bloodless victory with a few uncharacteristic self-indulgences: a new dress uniform, a refurbished wardrobe, and a pair of mules to carry his baggage.
In July 1781, the British abandoned Ninety Six, their last remaining post deep in the interior of South Carolina. Marion’s brigade distinguished itself on raids conducted outside of Charleston in July and August, and again when it fought as a regular unit with Greene’s army in the Battle of Eutaw Springs on September 8. There, the Americans came close to victory before falling into disorder and withdrawing. But the smaller British army suffered 40 percent casualties, effectively wrecking its offensive capability.
For the remaining 15 months until the British evacuated Charleston in December 1782, the fighting was limited mostly to insignificant encounters between foraging parties on the outskirts of Charleston. Marion displayed a robust good sense about putting his men in harm’s way unnecessarily during this final phase of the war. Urged to attack British troops who had landed upriver from Charleston to obtain water, he replied, “If ordered to attack, I shall obey, but with my consent, not another life shall be lost….Knowing, as we do, that the enemy are on the eve of departure, so far from offering to molest, I would rather send a party to protect them.”
Political affairs now again called upon Marion. In January 1782, he took a seat in the reconstituted South Carolina state assembly. In the war’s final stages and after peace came, he supported measures to foster reconciliation with the state’s loyalists, on one occasion preventing his men from lynching a notorious Tory commander.
When the war ended, Marion returned to a quiet life. His plantation was severely damaged during the fighting, but in the mid-1780s he married a wealthy cousin, Mary Videau, and thereafter lived in a comfortable if unpretentious manner. True to form, when the state legislature granted militia commanders immunity from civil or criminal liability for actions undertaken by their troops during the war, Marion refused to have his name enrolled. “If I have given any occasion for complaint,” he said, “I am ready to answer in property and in person….If, in a single instance, in the course of my command, I have done that which I cannot fully justify, justice requires that I should suffer for it.”
In 1790, he served in the convention that drafted South Carolina’s state constitution, but thereafter he largely retired from public life. He died at the age of 63 in 1795. A plaque on his tomb aptly describes him as a “noble and disinterested” citizen and a soldier “who lived without fear, and died without reproach.” But the finest tribute came in a letter that Nathanael Greene wrote to Marion just after the fall of Fort Watson. Greene noted that Marion, despite fighting against superior foes, had kept “alive the expiring hopes of an oppressed militia.”
Green continued: “To fight the enemy bravely with the prospect of victory is nothing, but to fight with intrepidity under the constant impression of defeat, and to inspire irregular troops to do it, is a talent peculiar to yourself.”