The Revolutionary War's "Swamp Fox"

“Swamp Fox! Swamp Fox!/Tail on his hat/Nobody knows where the Swamp Fox’s at/Swamp Fox! Swamp Fox!/Hiding in the glen/He runs away to fight again!”

That lovely lyric above is the theme song from the 1959-61 Walt Disney TV show in which a young Leslie Nielsen — later of the Airplane! and Naked Gun movies — played American Revolutionary war hero Francis Marion (warning – don’t look it up on YouTube! You won’t get the tune out of your head for days!). Marion was also the model for Mel Gibson’s character in the 2000 film The Patriot.

But as this new biography points out – the first major one on Marion in more than four decades and utilizing much new research and evidence – the battle for this country’s independence was hardly all campfire sing-alongs in glorious Technicolor.

One fact remains indisputable: At  5’2” and weighing 110 pounds, the taciturn Marion was a giant of the war, called by many “The Washington of the South.” And Oller’s book separates the real man from the myth and tall tales of his life and achievements.

Many of which took root in poetry and an 1809 biography by Parson Weems. Weems was no stranger to stretching the truth for better literary value – he’s the one who came up with the story about the young George Washington’s chopping down a cherry tree and admitting, “I cannot tell a lie.”

What made Francis Marion different from almost all other military commanders – and indeed, from the very norms of warfare – was that he used then unheard of tactics of “guerrilla warfare,” including asymmetrical fighting, ambushes from secret hideaways, and hit-and-run-style attacks to deplete and drain the British army from his base of operations in the swamps of the South Carolina low country.

As his forces were made up largely of local militiamen – and not the more polished Continental Army – they were likely more attuned to and accepting of Marion’s unorthodox tactics. That, along with their desire to prove that a somewhat ragtag bunch could wage war on the level of a professional soldier.
“They will not sleep and fight like gentlemen,” Oller quotes British leader John Watson as saying, “but like savages are eternally firing and whooping around us by night, and by day waylaying and popping at us from behind every tree.”

The state’s capital, Charleston, had already fallen to the British. So preventing further victories, and containing British forces who wanted to launch against George Washington’s forces in the north, became Marion’s motivation.

He practically made the local citizenry partners in his endeavors, never abusing them for supplies or shelter, and limiting pillaging from Tories and Loyalists as much as possible.

Oller writes that South Carolina saw a far larger percentage of battles, injuries and deaths than almost any other state. Marion did not always see eye-to-eye on strategies with his fellow militia commanders, so each concentrated efforts on different regions of the state.

With little backup from the Continental Army and waiting to find out if and/or when reinforcements would ever be sent, he also played some psychological games on the British. By sending out an unusually large number of patrols, Marion gave the enemy the impression that the Swamp Fox had far more soldiers than he actually did.

As for where he got the nickname “The Swamp Fox,” Oller says it was (according to legend) given to him by Banastre Tarleton, a British cavalry leader sent specifically to kill or capture Marion. After pursuing his target unsuccessfully for seven hours through 26 miles of swamp, he reportedly said, “As for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.”

“Gravity – seriousness of purpose – was what gave Marion the intangible, almost mystical power he held over his men,” Oller writes. “Although he lacked physical presence or a magnetic personality, they regarded him with awe. Part of their reverence was due to his success, which naturally bred respect. But it was his steady, equable character that most caused them to follow where he led.”

After the Revolutionary War, Marion served in the South Carolina state senate, and died in 1795 at the age of 63. The Palmetto State is dotted with buildings, monuments, schools and historical sites in his honor. And now he also has the biography he deserves.

The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution
By John Oller
368 pp.
Da Capo Press

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero