Marion used irregular methods of warfare and is considered one of the fathers of modern guerrilla warfare and maneuver warfare, and is credited in the lineage of the United States Army Rangers. He was known as The Swamp Fox.
Francis Marion was born on his family's plantation in Berkeley County, South Carolina, c. 1732. Around the age of 15, he was 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. During the following years, Marion managed the family's plantation.
Marion began his military career shortly before his 25th birthday. On January 1, 1757, Francis and his brother, Job, were recruited by Captain John Postell to serve in the French and Indian War and to drive the Cherokee Indians away from the border. In 1761, Marion served as a lieutenant under Captain William Moultrie in a campaign against the Cherokee using scorched earth tactics, destroying many Indian villages and burning crops to starve the Cherokee into submission.
On June 21, 1775, Marion was 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.
In September 1776, the Continental Congress commissioned Marion as a lieutenant colonel. In the autumn of 1779, he took part in the siege of Savannah, a failed Franco-American attempt to capture the Georgia city.
A British expedition under Henry Clinton moved into South Carolina in the early spring of 1780 and laid siege to Charleston. Marion was not captured with the rest of the garrison when Charleston fell on May 12, 1780, because he had broken an ankle in an accident and had left the city to recuperate. Clinton took part of the British army that had captured Charleston back to New York but a significant number stayed for operations under Lord Cornwallis in the Carolinas.
After the loss in Charleston, the defeats of General Isaac Huger at Moncks Corner and Lieutenant Colonel Abraham Buford at the Waxhaw massacre (near the North Carolina border, in what is now Lancaster County), Marion organized 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. At this point, Marion was still nearly crippled from the slowly healing ankle.
Marion joined Major General Horatio Gates on 27 July, just before the Battle of Camden, but Gates had formed a low opinion of Marion. Gates sent Marion towards the interior to gather intelligence on the British enemy. Marion thus missed the battle, which proved to be a decisive British victory.
Marion showed himself to be a singularly able leader of irregular militiamen and ruthless in his terrorising of Loyalists. Unlike the 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 frontal warfare, but repeatedly surprised larger bodies of Loyalists or British regulars with quick surprise attacks and equally quick withdrawal from the field. After the surrender of Charleston, the British garrisoned South Carolina with help from local Tories, except for Williamsburg (the present Pee Dee), which they were never able to hold. The British made one attempt to garrison Williamsburg at the colonial village of Willtown, but were driven out by Marion at the Battle of Black Mingo.
Cornwallis observed "Colonel Marion had so wrought the minds of the people, partly by the terror of his threats and cruelty of his punishments, and partly by the promise of plunder, that there was scarcely an inhabitant between the Santee and the Pee Dee that was not in arms against us".
The British especially hated Marion and made repeated efforts to neutralize his force, but Marion's intelligence gathering was excellent and that of the British was poor, due to the overwhelming Patriot loyalty of the populace in the Williamsburg area.
Colonel Banastre Tarleton was sent to capture or kill Marion in November 1780; he despaired of finding the "old swamp fox", who eluded him by travelling along swamp paths. It was Tarleton who gave Marion his nom de guerre when, after unsuccessfully pursuing Marion's troops for over 26 miles through a swamp, he gave up and swore "[a]s 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, Governor John Rutledge (in exile in North Carolina) commissioned him a brigadier general of state troops.
Marion was also tasked with combating groups of freed slaves working or fighting alongside the British. He received an order from the Governor of South Carolina, to execute any blacks suspected of carrying provisions or gathering intelligence for the enemy "agreeable to the laws of this State".
When Major General Nathanael Greene took command in the South, Marion and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee were ordered in January 1781, to attack Georgetown but were unsuccessful. In April they took Fort Watson and in May they captured Fort Motte, and succeeded in breaking communications between the British posts in the Carolinas. On August 31, Marion rescued a small American force trapped by 500 British soldiers, under the leadership of Major C. Fraser. For this action he received the thanks of the Continental Congress. Marion commanded the right wing under General Greene at the Battle of Eutaw Springs.
In January 1782, he was elected to a new State Assembly at Jacksonborough and left his troops to take up his seat. During his absence his brigade grew disheartened, particularly after a British sortie from Charleston, and there was reportedly a conspiracy to turn him over to the British. But in June of that year, he put down a Loyalist uprising on the banks of the Pee Dee River. In August he left his brigade and returned to his plantation. In 1782, the British Parliament suspended offensive operations in America, and in December 1782, the British withdrew their garrison from Charleston. The war was brought to an end by the Treaty of Paris.
Marion returned to his plantation to find it had been burnt during the fighting. His slaves had run away to fight for the British and had later been evacuated from Charleston. He had to borrow money to purchase slaves for his plantation.
After the war, Marion married his cousin, Mary Esther Videau.
Marion served several terms in the South Carolina State Senate. In 1784, in recognition of his services, he was made commander of Fort Johnson, South Carolina, practically a courtesy title with a salary of $500 per annum. He died on his estate in 1795, at the age of 63, and was buried at Belle Isle Plantation Cemetery in Berkeley County, South Carolina.
The public memory of Francis Marion has been shaped in large part by the first biography about him, The Life of General Francis Marion written by M. L. Weems (also known as Parson Weems, 1756–1825) based on the memoirs of South Carolina officer Peter Horry. The New York Times has described Weems as one of the "early hagiographers" of American literature "who elevated the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion, into the American pantheon". Weems is known for having invented the apocryphal "cherry tree" anecdote about George Washington, and "Marion's life received similar embellishment", as Amy Crawford wrote in Smithsonian Magazine in 2007.
In the 1835 novel Horse-Shoe Robinson by John Pendleton Kennedy, a historical romance set against the background of the Southern campaigns in the American Revolution, Marion appears and interacts with the fictional characters. In the book he is depicted as decisive, enterprising and valiant.
Walt Disney Productions produced an eight-episode mini-series about Marion, The Swamp Fox, airing 1959–1961. It starred Leslie Nielsen as Marion, and Nielsen also sang the theme song. The series depicted Marion's nephew Gabriel Marion being killed by Loyalists.
Francis Marion was one of the influences for the main character of Benjamin Martin in the 2000 movie The Patriot, which according to Crawford "exaggerated the Swamp Fox legend for a whole new generation". The contrast between the film's depiction of Martin "as a family man and hero who single-handedly defeats countless hostile Brits" and the real-life Marion was one of the "egregious oversights" that TIME magazine cited when listing "The Patriot" as number one of its "Top 10 historically misleading films" in 2011. In the film, the fictional character Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) describes violence he committed in the French and Indian War.
Around the time of The Patriot's release, comments in the British press challenged the American notion of Francis Marion as a hero. In the Evening Standard, British author Neil Norman called Francis Marion "a thoroughly unpleasant dude who was, basically, a terrorist".
Concurrently British historian Christopher Hibbert described Marion as "... very active in the persecution of the Cherokee Indians and 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."
In a commentary published in the National Review, conservative talk radio host Michael Graham rejected criticisms like Hibbert's as an attempt to rewrite history: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? As another great American film hero might say: "You damn right."
That's what made him a hero, 200 years ago and today.
Michael Graham also refers to what he describes as "the unchallenged work of South Carolina's premier historian Dr. Walter Edgar, who pointed out in his 1998 'South Carolina: A History' that Marion's partisans were "a ragged band of both black and white volunteers."
British historian Hugh Bicheno has compared Gen. Marion with British officers Tarleton and Maj. James Wemyss; referring to the British officers as well as Marion, Bicheno wrote: “...they all tortured prisoners, hanged fence-sitters, abused parole and flags of truce, and shot their own men when they failed to live up to the harsh standards they set.”
According to Crawford, the biographies by historians William Gilmore Simms (“The Life of Francis Marion”) and Hugh Rankin can be regarded as accurate. The introduction to the 2007 edition of Simms' book (originally published in 1844) was written by Sean Busick, a professor of American history at Athens State University in Alabama, who says that based on the facts, "Marion deserves to be remembered as one of the heroes of the War for Independence." Crawford commented:
“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 Francis Marion National Forest near Charleston, South Carolina, is named after Marion, as is the historic Francis Marion Hotel in downtown Charleston. Numerous other locations across the country are named for Marion. The city of Marion, Iowa, is named after Francis, where an annual Swamp Fox Festival and parade are held each summer. Marion County, South Carolina, and its county seat, the City of Marion, are named for Marion. The city features a statue of General Marion in the town square, and has a museum which includes many artifacts related to Francis Marion; the Marion High School mascot is the Swamp Fox. Francis Marion University is located nearby in Florence County, South Carolina.
In Washington, D.C., Marion Park is one of the four "major" or large parks in the Capitol Hill Parks constellation. The park is bounded by 4th & 6th Streets and at the intersection of E Street and South Carolina Avenue in southeast Washington, D.C.
The municipalities of Marion in Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and Marion Center, Pennsylvania are named for Francis Marion. Marion County, Indiana (of which the city of Indianapolis is a part), is named for the general, as are Marion Counties in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia, and more than 30 townships in 9 states. The Military Junior College Marion Military Institute in Marion, Alabama has an organization called Swamp Fox which is attributed to Francis Marion. The marionberry is named after the county in Oregon and so derives its name from him. The South Carolina Air National Guard, located about 12 miles east of Columbia in Eastover, South Carolina, boasts the title "Home of the Swamp Fox" and has an image of the face of a fox painted on the body of their F-16 Fighter Jets.
In 1850, the painter William Tylee Ranny (1813–1857) produced Marion Crossing the Pee Dee, based on events following the battle of Camden in the American Revolution. The picture, displayed at the Amon Carter Museum, depicts Marion sitting on a horse and talking with a subordinate on the back row of a small boat, Marion being second from the left.
In 2006, the United States House of Representatives approved a monument to Francis Marion, to be built in Washington, D.C., sometime in 2007–08. The bill died in the Senate and was reintroduced in January 2007. The Brigadier General Francis Marion Memorial Act of 2007 passed the House of Representatives in March 2007, and the Senate in April 2008. The bill was packaged into the omnibus Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008, which passed both houses and was enacted in May 2008.
The U.S. Navy was home to the USS Francis Marion, a Paul Revere class attack transport. The ship served as the flag for COMPHIBGRU 2 (Commander Amphibious Group 2). For many years, Submarine Squadron Four at the Charleston Naval Base called itself the Swamp Fox Squadron.