Portrayed by Ken Johnston
Time to separate the Movie myth from the man. In the 1800’s Parson Weems made Marion out as fanciful as George Washington and his cherry tree. Disney had him singing the Swamp Fox movie theme song, and then “The Patriot” exaggerated the legend for a whole other generation.
Francis Marion was a man of his times. He owned slaves, fought a brutal campaign against the Cherokee Indians. But he also was the unquestioned leader of, as Dr. Walter Edger pointed out, “a ragged band of both black and white volunteers” who just kept fighting until the Revolution was won.
Ken Johnston graduated from LaGrange College, receiving the Ingrid Bergman Scholarship and the Irene Arnett Drama Award. He has done Museum Theatre and Historic Character Interpretation for Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, the Smithsonian’s National Archives, National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American History, English Heritage-UK, and the Atlanta History Center.
Ken Johnston, a member of the Screen Actors Guild, has appeared on National Geographic Channel, History Channel, Food Network, PBS, and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. He has performed Shakespeare, jousted, toured with a rock band in North America/Europe, and is Curator of Education at the Northeast Georgia History Center. History-now.org
by Amy Crawford in “Smithsonian” 2007
In early 1781, Revolutionary War militia leader Francis Marion and his men were camping on Snow’s Island, South Carolina, when a British officer arrived to discuss a prisoner exchange. As one militiaman recalled years later, a breakfast of sweet potatoes was roasting in the fire, and after the negotiations Marion, known as the “Swamp Fox,” invited the British soldier to share breakfast. According to a legend that grew out of the much-repeated anecdote, the British officer was so inspired by the Americans’ resourcefulness and dedication to the cause—despite their lack of adequate provisions, supplies or proper uniforms—that he promptly switched sides and supported American independence. Around 1820, John Blake White depicted the scene in an oil painting that now hangs in the United States Capitol. In his version, the primly attired Redcoat seems uncomfortable with Marion’s ragtag band, who glare at him suspiciously from the shadows of a South Carolina swamp.
The 2000 movie The Patriot exaggerated the Swamp Fox legend for a whole new generation. Although Francis Marion led surprise attacks against the British, and was known for his cunning and resourcefulness, Mel Gibson played The Patriot‘s Marion-inspired protagonist as an action hero. “One of the silliest things the movie did,” says Sean Busick, a professor of American history at Athens State University in Alabama, “was to make Marion into an 18th century Rambo.”
Many of the legends that surround the life and exploits of Brigadier General Francis Marion were introduced by M. L. “Parson” Weems, coauthor of the first Marion biography, The Life of General Francis Marion. “I have endeavored to throw some ideas and facts about Genl. Marion into the garb and dress of a military romance,” Weems wrote in 1807 to Peter Horry, the South Carolina officer on whose memoir the book was based. Weems had also authored an extremely popular biography of George Washington in 1800, and it was he who invented the apocryphal cherry tree story. Marion’s life received similar embellishment.
Fortunately, the real Francis Marion has not been entirely obscured by his legend—historians including William Gilmore Simms and Hugh Rankin have written accurate biographies. Based on the facts alone, “Marion deserves to be remembered as one of the heroes of the War for Independence,” says Busick, who has written the introduction to a new edition of Simms’ The Life of Francis Marion, out in June 2007.
Marion was born at his family’s plantation in Berkeley County, South Carolina, probably in 1732. The family’s youngest son, Francis was a small boy with malformed legs, but he was restless, and at about 15 years old he joined the crew of a ship and sailed to the West Indies. During Marion’s first voyage, the ship sank, supposedly after a whale rammed it. The seven-man crew escaped in a lifeboat and spent a week at sea before they drifted ashore. After the shipwreck, Marion decided to stick to land, managing his family’s plantation until he joined the South Carolina militia at 25 to fight in the French and Indian War.
Most heroes of the Revolution were not the saints that biographers like Parson Weems would have them be, and Francis Marion was a man of his times: he owned slaves, and he fought in a brutal campaign against the Cherokee Indians. While not noble by today’s standards, Marion’s experience in the French and Indian War prepared him for more admirable service. The Cherokee used the landscape to their advantage, Marion found; they concealed themselves in the Carolina backwoods and mounted devastating ambushes. Two decades later, Marion would apply these tactics against the British.
In 1761, after his militia had defeated the area Cherokees, Marion returned to farming. He was successful enough to purchase his own plantation, Pond Bluff, in 1773. In 1775, Marion was elected to the first South Carolina Provincial Congress, an organization in support of colonial self-determination. After the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the Provincial Congress voted to raise three regiments, commissioning Marion a captain in the second. His first assignments involved guarding artillery and building Fort Sullivan, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. When he saw combat during the Battle of Fort Sullivan in June 1776, Marion acted valiantly. But for much of the next three years, he remained at the fort, occupying the time by trying to discipline his troops, whom he found to be a disorderly, drunken bunch insistent on showing up to roll call barefoot. In 1779, they joined the Siege of Savannah, which the Americans lost.
Marion’s role in the war changed course after an odd accident in March of 1780. Attending a dinner party at the Charleston home of a fellow officer, Marion found that the host, in accordance with 18th-century custom, had locked all the doors while he toasted the American cause. The toasts went on and on, and Marion, who was not a drinking man, felt trapped. He escaped by jumping out a second story window, but broke his ankle in the fall. Marion left town to recuperate in the country, with the fortunate result that he was not captured when the British took Charleston that May.
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.
- c. 1732 – born on his family’s plantation in Berkeley County, South Carolina
- c. 1747 – hired on a ship bound for the West Indies which sank on his first voyage; the crew escaped on a lifeboat but had to spend one week at sea before reaching land
- 1757-1761 – served in the French and Indian War, mainly in campaigns to drive the Cherokee away from the border, using scorched earth tactics, destroying many Indian villages and burning crops
- 1775 – On June 21 commissioned captain in the 2nd South Carolina Regiment under William Moultrie, with whom he served in June 1776 in the defense of Fort Sullivan (today known as Fort Moultrie), in Charleston harbor.
- 1776 – In September the Continental Congress commissioned Marion as a lieutenant colonel
- 1779 – Took part in the siege of Savannah, a failed Franco-American attempt to capture the Georgia city
- 1780 – City of Charleston falls on May 12; Marion is not captured as he left the city before the siege began to recuperate from a broken ankle
- 1780 – In May and June Marion organizes a small unit, which at first consisted of between 20 and 70 men and was the only force then opposing the British Army in the state
- 1780 – On July 27 Marion joins Major General Horatio Gates, just before the August 16 Battle of Camden, but Gates had formed a low opinion of Marion and sends Marion towards the interior to gather intelligence on the enemy; Marion thus misses the battle, which proved to be a decisive British victory.
- 1780 – In November Colonel Banastre Tarleton is sent to capture or kill Marion, who eludes him by travelling along swamp paths; it is Tarleton who gives Marion his nom de guerre, writing in a letter “[a]s for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.”
- 1781 – Major General Nathanael Greene takes command in the South, working efficiently with Marion; over the course of the year Marion unsuccessfully attacks Georgetown (January), takes Fort Watson (April), captures Fort Motte (May), breaks communications between British posts in the Carolinas (throughout spring and summer), rescues a small American force trapped by 500 British soldiers (August 31), and commands the right wing under General Greene at the Battle of Eutaw Springs (September 7) which while a tactical British victory was a strategic victory for the Americans
- 1782 – Marion is elected to a new State Assembly (January) and leaves his troops to take up his seat, returns (June) to put down a Loyalist uprising on the banks of the Pee Dee River, then returns to his plantation (August) – the British cease military operations and withdrew their garrison from Charleston (December)
- 1786 – Marries Mary Esther Videau on February 20
- 1790 – After serving several terms, resigns from the South Carolina State Senate
- 1795 – Marion dies February 27, at Pond Bluff in St. John’s Parish
“My brave soldiers! I know you all, and have often witnessed your bravery. In the name of your country, I call upon you once more to show it. My confidence in you is great. I am sure it will not be disappointed. Fight like men, as you have always done–and you are sure of the victory.” – Marion to his men before going into one of the scores of skirmishes of early 1781
“To fight the enemy bravely with the prospect of victory, is nothing; but to fight with intrepidity under the constant impression of defeat, and inspire regular troops to do it, is a talent peculiar to yourself.” – General Greene to Marion, April 24, 1781 in a letter thanking him for his services
“I aim at no higher dignity than that of essentially serving my country.” – Marion’s response to being voted the thanks of the Continental Congress
“My brigade is composed of citizens, enough of whose blood has been shed already. If ordered to attack the enemy, I shall obey; but… 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.” – Marion replying to a proposed attack on British forces in late 1782
“Then, it was war. It is peace now. God has given us the victory; let us show our gratitude to heaven, which we shall not do by cruelty to man.” – Marion’s reaction to a proposed bill in the South Carolina legislature for prosecuting former Loyalists
“If, I have given any occasion for complaint, I am ready to answer in property and person. If I have wronged any man I am willing to make him restitution. 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.” – Marion’s response to a proposed bill that would give him and other irregular South Carolina militia forces exemption from prosecution for their actions during the War for Independence
“Death may be to others a leap in the dark, but I rather consider it a resting-place where old age may throw off its burdens.” – Marion contemplating his mortality in a letter in the early 1790s
“I can lay my hand on my heart and say that, since I came to man’s estate, I have never intentionally done wrong to any.” – Marion, shortly before his death in 1793, contemplating his life in correspondence with a friend.
- The Life of Francis Marion by William Gilmore Simms by William Gilmore Simms (1844)
A solid treatment of Marion’s life and military career, made all the more impressive in Simms’ use of primary documentation, multiple source verification, and dismissing apocryphal anecdotes as such – putting him above the standards found in other 19th century biographies.
- Swamp Fox: The Life and Campaigns of General Francis Marion by Robert D. Bass (1959, 2nd edition 1989)
Cutting through the “Swamp Fox” legend, Robert Bass has arrived at a realistic and even-handed appraisal of Marion’s military genius.
- Francis Marion: The Swamp Fox by Hugh F. Rankin (1973)
The go-to volume by one of the best regional historians of the 20th century; well researched and written in a very accessible narrative style. If you’re asking yourself what would be the best all round introduction to Marion, this is it.
- The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution by John Olier (2016)
Although the title is hyperbolic (no one person “saved” the American cause) Oller takes a balanced approach to his subject, acknowledging Marion’s military abilities and humanity in the often barbarous civil war that the War for Independence became in South Carolina and the back-country of 1780-1782, yet avoids lapsing into the hagiography that undermines many biographies. Marion’s activities are presented within the larger context of the campaigns in the South, allowing readers to understand the overall military picture and Marion’s place within it.