Francis Marion, Swamp Fox
These two families, the Marion and Cordes, left France in 1685 and settled in Carolina. They found and bought land in St. James Parish between Charles Town and the Santee River. It was hard work, but these colonists cleared the land. They felled trees and cleared brush. They picked up rocks and built fences. Husbands and wives worked together. It was hard, back-breaking work, but finally the houses were built. They planted the seeds they had brought with them but when the crops failed, they learned from the Indians how to grow corn. These families, the Marions and Cordes, were colonial farmers. They were hard working and temperate and clung to their French language and Huguenot customs.
These two families had children. Benjamin and Judith Marion had a son in the early 1690s. They gave him the biblical name of Gabriel. Anthony and Esther Cordes had a daughter and named her for her mother, Esther. Around 1715 Gabriel Marion married Esther Cordes, his first cousin.
Dr. Anthony Cordes and his wife took a group of colonists up the Santee River to St. John’s Parrish. Gabriel and Esther Marion moved with him. They settled at Goatfield Plantation, built a house, and began raising their children. Gabriel and Esther Marion had six children. Their names were Esther, Isaac, Gabriel, Benjamin, Job, and Francis. Francis was the last son born. He was born in midwinter, 1732. Francis was weak and sickly, and his parents weren’t sure he would make it.
“I have it from good authority,” said Peter Horry, “that this great soldier at his birth, was no larger than a New England lobster, and might easily enough had been put into a quart pot.” But make it he did. As a child, he had a normal boyhood. About five years after Francis’ birth, his parents moved from Goatfield Plantation to a plantation in Prince George, a parish on Winyah Bay. Gabriel and Esther Marion moved there because of the English school in Georgetown. Gabriel had grown up with little formal education. His dad, Benjamin Marion, had taught him how to farm the earth. They planted wheat, rye, and barley, but Gabriel wanted his family to have a good chance at life, and knew they needed an education. Gabriel and Esther provided all their children with a school education. It was at this time Gabriel and Esther Marion dropped their French traditions.
Growing up, Francis played in the woods and loved to explore the swamps. Many a day he would go to Georgetown and watch the ships come in to load or unload their cargo. Watching the ships made Francis believe that was the life for him. He loved the ocean and the sailors’ tales. Why he even liked the smell of the ships holds. At about 15 years of age, Francis asked his parents if he could go to sea. After some discussion, his parents said yes. They hoped that a voyage would have a tonic effect upon their under grown son.
In 1748, Francis signed on as a crewman of a schooner sailing for the West Indies. This time he was on board the ship that left Georgetown. The sea breeze and the ocean mist were wonderful! It turned out that working on board ship was hard work, but Francis did his part. It was an uneventful trip to the West Indies but they were now loaded and ready to return. They set sail for the colonies. As luck would have it, things changed. The ship was sailing home when a big whale attacked the schooner. The six crew men were shocked! Then, the whale hit the deck with his tail. The ship started sinking while the men got into a life boat. They didn’t have time to take anything, no food or water. They got off the ship just in time to save their lives. Rowing a short distance they watched as the ship sank.
About that time they noticed a dog in the water. They rescued him, bringing him into their boat. For five days the men went with the current. It was hot with the sun beating down on them during the day. Because of the men’s hunger and thirst, the dog was killed. The men drank the blood and ate him raw. On the sixth day two of the crewmen died. The next day the four remaining men reached land.
By this time Francis was rethinking his decision to become a seaman. When he got home, he decided to stay with farming. By the time France’s reached home he was in good health. “His constitution seemed renewed, his frame commenced a second and rapid growth,” said Peter Horry, “while his cheeks, quitting their pale, suet-colored cast, assumed a bright and healthy olive.”
Back at home Francis took up farming. The rest of his siblings were getting married and moving away from their parents home, and starting homes of their own. Gabriel Marion, Francis’ dad, died about 1750. At the time of death he was in his 50s. Francis assumed the care of his mother. With a deep love for his mother and family members, he followed Job and Gabriel moving back to St. John’s. Francis started farming there in St. John’s. He learned to grow rice and indigo.
His brother Isaac had married Rebecca Alston, and they had built a house on Little River close to the border of North Carolina. Cherokee Indians had been threatening hostilities for a couple years prior to this. Those hostilities turned into action, and that action into war. The war turned into the French and Indian War. The settlers were worried about losing their homes and even their lives.
Gov. William Henry Lyttelton decided to expand the militia. He approached the Huguenots looking for men. On January 31, 1756, Gabriel and Francis Marion joined the militia company of Upper St. John’s, being formed by Capt. John Postell. Francis was 24 years old when he enlisted. He and his brother Gabriel became even closer friends at that time. The Cherokee War broke out in 1759, but didn’t last very long. Neither man saw action.
When the Cherokee Indians concluded the war with a peace treaty, the men went home. Gabriel, with a growing family, moved to Belle Isle Plantation in St. Stephen’s Parish. Francis moved up the Santee River to live near his brother Job. But word came that the Cherokee Indians were fighting again. William Bull, interim governor of South Carolina, asked Lord Amherst for help. Lieut. Col. James Grant and his 1200 regulars received word from Lord Amherst to prepare for a campaign against the Cherokee Indians.
In January of 1761, Col. Grant and his troops arrived in Charles Town. Capt. William Moultrie recruited a company of infantry, of which his friend Francis Marion was the First Lieutenant. About March 15, 1761 Col. Grant began the long march. By May 29 he had reached Fort Prince George. On June 6, 1761, Col. Grant started northward along the same route used by Col. Archibald Montgomery earlier. In fact, the Indian scouts advised Col. Grant that the Cherokees had set up an ambush in the same location.
Before Grant could advance his troops he had to dislodge the Indians. Lieutenant Francis Marion, along with 30 men, was chosen for this hazardous operation. Rapidly, but cautiously, Marion led his men to the attack. Quietly moving from tree to tree, they advanced into the pass. When the men got within range, the Cherokees gave a war whoop and started firing their rifles. Men were dropping all around him, but Francis Marion did not stop, he kept moving forward. The main column then came through, advancing uphill. All morning the battle raged, fighting back and forth. Then about noon, the Indians fled into the woods.
Col. Grant and his men went forward to the town of Echoe and burned it. Col. Grant burned a total of 15 villages that day. Of Francis Marion’s 30 men, 21 laid dead or wounded. Col. Grant’s men went into the cornfields cutting down the green corn and setting fire to anything that would burn. Col. Grant stayed in the Cherokee country for 30 days and then returned to Charles Town.
This was the first time Francis Marion had been under fire, but he handled himself well showing great courage. The way he had fought caught the attention of William Moultrie who would be his friend for the rest of his life. “He was an active, brave, and hardy soldier,” William Moultrie said, “and an excellent partisan officer.”
His brother Job had married Elizabeth de St. Julian, but after she passed away, he married Elizabeth Gaillard. The wedding was December 14, 1762, and Francis served as best man for his brother’s wedding. For the next 10 years, Francis Marion went back to his farming. He enjoyed seeing the seed planted, and reaping the harvest. He did quite well and made money.
Here in South Carolina, we had a huge number of Tories, but we also had a huge number of Patriots. The Whig party of South Carolina elected their first Provincial Congress. The Whig party in St. John’s Perish chose Job and Francis Marion to represent them in Charles Town.
On January 11, 1775, the Providential Congress met for the first time, but Francis Marion was disappointed because no action was taken. But on April 19, 1775 it happened. The Massachusetts militia in Lexington fired on the king’s soldiers. Word spread through the colonies. When the news reached Charles Town, President Henry Laurens called the Congress again to assemble. This time they were ready for action.
On June 4, 1775, the delegates came together. In the meeting, they pledged themselves to stand united in the defense of South Carolina. They adopted the American Bill of Rights, urged by the Continental Congress. They also adopted the Act of Association by which the colonies would not import goods, wares and merchandise from the mother country, Great Britain. The Provincial Congress was asked by the Continental Congress to raise two regiments of infantry and one of Calvary. The Provincial Congress asked Col. William Moultrie to head up the Second Regiment. They appointed 10 captains for the Regiment, and one of those captains was Francis Marion.
Capt. Marion set off for the Santee, Black, and Peedee Rivers. He soon found 60 men willing to fight, including Gabriel Marion, his nephew from Belle Isle. Capt. Francis Marion began drilling his men, and by September they were ready to fight. The first order for the men was to take Fort Johnson. The order came at 11 o’clock at night. They went by boat, but the captain wouldn’t anchor too close to the Fort because he was afraid of their cannons. It took time to put them ashore at James Island. In fact, at the light of dawn only Captains Elliott and Pinckney’s men had come ashore. Capt. Marion’s men were still in their boat when the order was given to charge. The men that did charge found to their surprise, the gates of the fort open and the cannons thrown from their platforms. The men had left during the night, going out to a couple of ships.
It was about this time in Charles Town, they decided they needed a second place to store some of their gunpowder. Dorchester, some 20 miles up the Ashley River, was decided to be the spot. They built a fort of tabby and stored the gunpowder there. Col. William Moultrie asked Capt. Francis Marion to handle this important command. The order was given on November 19, 1775.
Because of his seniority and his reputation for hard work, on November 22, 1776, the Provincial Congress promoted France’s Marion to the rank of Major.
On February 12, 1776 Lord Cornwallis went aboard the flagship Bristol and British Commodore Peter Parker hoisted sail. They sailed up to Cape Fear, North Carolina. Sir Henry Clinton then took command. He ordered Commodore Parker to go south, and on June 4th the British fleet dropped anchor off the bar at Charles Town.
On the morning of June 28, 1776, the British fleet attacked Fort Sullivan. You know how the story goes,a fort built of Palmetto trees and sand couldn’t be taken by the British fleet. It is said that William Moultrie gave the final shot at the British fleet to his friend Francis Marion.
Francis Marion kept busy doing different things. He drilled his men at Bacon’s Bridge Road near Dorchester. He went down to Charles Town, getting the city ready to withstand attack. On March 19 Col. Marion was with his regiment. Capt. Alexander McQueen, Adjutant General, gave a dinner party at his house on the corner of Orange and Tradd Streets in Charles Town. Capt. McQueen locked the doors to the house. The Whig’s started giving toasts and drinking. Francis Marion, not willing to get drunk, looked for a way of escape. He noticed the window on the second floor was open. Without much thought, he jumped out the window breaking one of his ankles. This was probably one of the smartest things he did. When Charles Town fell to the British, William Moultrie and almost 300 men were arrested but not Francis Marion. He was up in the Santee River area, mending his ankle.
On March 29, 1780, Sir Henry Clinton crossed the Ashley River and strung his troops across Charles Town neck. On April 1, he sent Bloody Tarleton up to seize Bacon’s Bridge. Col. Tarleton earned his name from the vicious way he dealt with the patriots. Francis Marion, having escaped arrest in Charles Town, traveled to North Carolina. When his ankle healed, he came back to the Santee River.
Francis Marion had about 13 men who fought with him. He kept the number small. They set up their camp in the swamps and moved from camp to camp. They would rest during the day, but at night they would come out, striking the British or Tories. They did not usually do major damage but kept the British and Tories on their toes. They were almost like ghosts, and did that get the British talking. Marion would strike usually about midnight, but melt into the swamp by the next morning. British officer Banastre Tarleton wanted to catch this patriot. More than one time, he would come close, but Francis Marion would escape. Tarleton was the first to call Marion a ‘fox.’ It is said that on one of the many times that Marion eluded capture, the distinguished officer explained, “… as for this damned old fox, the devil himself could not catch him!” When the patriots heard about Tarleton’s comment they begin calling Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox”.
For over a year Francis Marion was the only military action in South Carolina. When the Continental Army came back into the South Carolina, Francis Marion teamed up with them. Col. Francis Marion was busy all around the state of South Carolina. He was with Major Mayham, as he built his tower at Fort Watson. He was at the battle of Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781 when Gen. Nathaniel Greene, with his 2000 man, fought Lieut. Col. Stewart, with his 2300 men.
In 1783, Great Britain signed a formal treaty recognizing the independence of the colonies of the United States. At the end of the war, Charles Town became Charleston. From 1781 to 1784 Francis Marion served in the state Senate. To show their appreciation for his courage and service the state of South Carolina appointed him commander of Fort Johnson in Charleston.
Even though short in stature, five feet tall, Francis Marion is tall in our history books. Francis Marion married Mary Esther on April 20, 1786. He was 54 years old at the time of his marriage. Francis and Mary Esther Marion had no children, but they did have a wonderful life together. Nine years after he was married, Francis Marion died, at the age of 63.
People of America have remembered Francis Marion. There are currently 29 cities and 17 counties named after him. Francis Marion University, a four year liberal arts school, was founded in Florence, South Carolina in 1970. The Francis Marion National Forest, located near the South Carolina coast, offers activities such as hiking, biking, boating, fishing, and much more. The Francis Marion Hotel is located in a 12 story landmark building downtown Charleston. The building was built in the 1920s, but after a 12 million renovation was complete in and it’s a must see. All of these great things point to the man who made our freedom possible, Francis Marion “Swamp Fox.”
Written by Mark Woodard, Summerville Tours
Bass, Robert. Swamp Fox The Life and Campaigns of General Francis Marion. Orangeburg, SC: Sandlapper Publishing Co. Inc. 1982.
Gordan, John W. South Carolina and the American Revolution, A Battlefield History. University of South Carolina Press, 2003.