The Swamp Fox: Who was Francis Marion?

By Joe Kriz


Like any good story, we must start at the beginning – long before Francis Marion earned his “Swamp Fox” namesake, became a revered figure of the American Revolution, and inspired us and so many others.

Early Years

Born to French immigrant Gabriel Marion and Esther Cordes in 1732 – the same year as George Washington – Francis Marion was the youngest of seven children and raised on his family’s plantation in St. John's Parish of Berkeley County, South Carolina, north of Charleston. Like Southern youth of the time (and today), Francis enjoyed the outdoors; hunting, fishing, riding horses, and the freedom that came with rural life.

However, growing restless with age, Francis joined the crew of a merchant ship at the age of 15. Bound for the West Indies, the ship would sink on its voyage, leaving five of the seven men, including Marion, to drift at sea for a week before running ashore. Having experienced enough of life on the water, Francis opted to stay on land where he managed the family’s rice plantation with his siblings over the next decade.

Cherokee Influence

Shortly before his 25th birthday, Francis and his brother, Job, were recruited to join the South Carolina Militia and fight in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), and later, the Anglo-Cherokee War (1758–1761). Finding fulfillment and success in the militia, Marion rose through to the ranks of lieutenant, learning a great deal from the Native Americans he fought.

Rather than fight in large European style lines, Francis noted how the Cherokee used their smaller numbers and knowledge of the landscape to mount devasting ambushes on Marion and his militia – tactics he would later employ himself.

After the war, Marion returned to St. John’s Parish and farming, settling on nearly 1,500 acres at Pond Bluff Plantation in 1763, now submerged under Lake Marion. Two years later, he was elected to the first South Carolina Provincial Congress, a general assembly in support of colonial self-determination that would change the course of Marion’s personal and political life.

Revolutionary Tales

Francis Marion was made Brigadier General in 1780

Marion Crossing the Peedee, painting by William Tylee Ranney (1850)

Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the Provincial Congress voted to authorize three regiments and commissioned Marion to be Captain of South Carolina’s 2nd Regiment and nearly 400 men.

That June, Marion would help lead the regiment in the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in Charleston Harbor – the first patriot victory over the British Royal Navy of the Revolutionary War. Over the next few years, Marion would be promoted to Major and Lt. Colonel, eventually taking command of the racially integrated Continental Army in 1778.

In the fall of 1779, Marion took part in the Siege of Savannah, a failed Franco-American attempt to capture the capital of Georgia which had been previously occupied by British forces. Retreating to Charleston, Marion would avoid capture under bizarre circumstances when the city eventually fell in May 1780.

While attending a dinner party at the Charleston home of a fellow officer, Marion discovered the host had locked the doors, as was customary of the time. But, as toasts to the American cause dragged on, Marion, who was not a drinking man, felt trapped and escaped by jumping out a second story window. Breaking his ankle in the fall, he would then leave town to recuperate in the countryside, missing the battle and the surrender of 5,000 American troops.

With Charleston lost, the American army on its heels, and Marion on one good ankle, he managed to organize a small group of farmers and slaves in the area and hobbled his way north to join forces with Continental Army Major General Horatio Gates.

Guerrilla Campaigns

Unfortunately for Marion, General Gates was less than welcoming upon their arrival. Having developed a low opinion of Francis, and with no need for his ragtag band of men, Gates sent them out to the interior to gather intelligence on British forces – a move that would save Marion from another critical American loss, this time at the Battle of Camden in August 1780.

Now on their own against the advancing British, Marion’s Men were tasked with challenging Royal rule in the South Carolina lowcountry, armed with nothing more than horses and makeshift weapons. But what they lacked in numbers and supplies, they made up in strategy.

From dense forest cover, Marion launched guerrilla-style raids and ambushes on British encampments – just as he observed the Cherokee do two decades earlier – targeting supply lines and rescuing American prisoners. Though his numbers were almost always smaller than his British and Loyalist opponents, Marion used speed, his intimate knowledge of the region, and the element of surprise to his advantage.

Between August and December of 1780, Marion gained national recognition for his actions at Great Savannah, Black Mingo, Tearcoat Swamp, and Georgetown, making South Carolina inhospitable for the British between the Santee and Pee Dee Rivers.

Marion evaded the British after nearly seven hours and 26 miles through the South Carolina swamps.

The Swamp Fox

Under constant harassment, the British sent Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to capture or kill Marion and his men. Known for his own speed and ruthlessness, not even Tarleton could find Francis – though, he did come close.

Sometime in November 1780, Tarleton was informed of Marion’s position by an escaped prisoner and moved in to intercept the militia, but to no avail. After nearly seven hours and 26 miles of chasing Francis through the Carolina swamps, a despaired Tarleton eventually gave up the pursuit, saying, “as for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.”

The story of Francis Marion’s escape soon traveled quickly around the South, earning him the nickname, "Swamp Fox,” as well as a promotion to Brigadier General by South Carolina Governor John Rutledge.

Patriot Victory

In the last years of the war, Marion would lead charges at the Sieges of Fort Watson and Fort Motte and the Battle of Eutaw Springs, forcing a British retreat to Virginia that eventually led to a Royal surrender after the Battle of Yorktown (September-October 1781) and the last major land battle of the war in North America.

In a letter to Marion following the fall of Fort Motte, Major General Nathanael Greene wrote, “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 irregular troops to do it, is a talent peculiar to yourself.”

With the war largely over, Marion was elected to the Jacksonborough General Assembly in 1782, which voted to confiscate Loyalist estates. Francis and his brigade would later put down one last rebellion that year before returning home to a war-destroyed Pond Bluff.

On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Revolutionary War and cementing a Patriot victory.

Post-War Politics

Following American independence, Marion was awarded a gold medal, a full Continental colonelcy, and command of Fort Johnson in Charleston harbor. He would also marry his cousin, Mary Esther Videau, in 1786.

Continuing his political career, Francis served multiple terms in the South Carolina Senate (1783-1786, 1791, 1792-1794) and was elected to the 1790 state constitutional convention. He continued as a brigadier general in the militia until his retirement in 1794.

After a successful life of war and politics, Francis Marion would die on his plantation in February 1795 at the age of 63. He was buried at Belle Isle Plantation Cemetery in Berkeley County, South Carolina.

Marion's Legacy

Marion heavily influenced Mel Gibson's character in The Patriot

SC Air National Guard 157th Fighter Squadron Swamp Foxes

Over 200 years after his death, Francis Marion is still remembered, revered, and celebrated for his Revolutionary heroics. Today, numerous locations, landmarks, and organizations across South Carolina and the U.S. share his namesake and nickname, including:

  • 17 instances of Marion County and City of Marion, including South Carolina
  • Francis Marion National Forest, near Charleston, SC
  • Marion Park, in Washington, D.C.
  • Francis Marion University, near Florence, SC
  • 157th Fighter Squadron Swamp Foxes, of South Carolina Air National Guard 169th Fighter Wing
  • USS Francis Marion, decommissioned U.S. Navy attack transport
  • Marion Military Institute, junior college in Marion, AL
  • Marion High School Swamp Foxes, in Marion, SC
  • Francis Marion Hotel and Swamp Fox restaurant, in Charleston, SC
  • Swamp Fox Festival, held annually in Marion, Iowa

Marion has also been immortalized through popular culture, serving as the focus of and inspiration for multiple books, shows, and movies, including:

  1. The Life of General Francis Marion (1809), biography
  2. The Swamp Fox (1959-1961), Walt Disney Productions mini-series
  3. The Patriot (2000), movie starring Mel Gibson
  4. The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution (2016), biography
  5. Leading Like the Swamp Fox: The Leadership Lessons of Francis Marion (2022), book

In 1994, Francis Marion was inducted into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame for his distinguished service during both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, stating, “His actions and outstanding service to the United States of America truly exemplify what it means to be a Ranger.”

Swampfox Inspiration

Francis Marion and his Swamp Fox mentality are a foundational element of American independence and are deeply embedded into the psyche and culture of today’s citizens.

Founded on the Fourth of July in 2018, Swampfox Optics is proud to produce clear, precise, tough dot sights, prism scopes, LPVOs, and precision riflescopes with the same tactical ingenuity and tenacity that earned Marion his legendary nickname.

Like the Swamp Fox himself, we encourage civilians, law enforcement, military personnel to seize their freedom and are honored to keep his namesake alive today.