Seen by many as the father of special operations and Rangers, Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” was a man feared by the British for his guerrilla warfare.
Montana Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT) recently introduced legislation into the 114th session of The Congress of the United States to formally recognize October as Special Operations Appreciation Month. It’s fitting that Representative Zinke was the person to introduce this piece of legislation, since he also has the distinction of being a retired Navy Commander (O-5), Navy SEAL , and former Commanding Officer of The U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group (NSWDG/DEVGRU). The unit known by it’s more popular and household name, SEAL Team 6.
The month of October will highlight the rise and development of special operations forces in both World Wars, the evolution of tactics and weaponry, and key figures in the history of special operations. We will start this month long series off a look at a man who is widely considered to be the father of special operations and small unit tactics in America: Brigadier General Francis Marion “The Swamp Fox”.
In the Late 18th and early 19th century, North America was still a world full of uncertainty and chaos. Many of the stories of that time are told through the eyes of biographers who spend countless ours trying to piece together minute details of battles long ago. These were the times that Francis Marion lived in, and as a result, there is some degree of embellishment on the tales of our early American Patriots and Heroes. Many readers will know of the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot. The Patriot centers around the life of a peaceful South Carolina farmer named Benjamin Martin, a character inspired by the life and exploits of Francis Marion. Where does fact end and fiction begin?
We do know that Francis Marion was born on or around February 26th 1732 at his family’s plantation named Turnbull Place near the small town of Cordesvile South Carolina. The plantation was on the banks of the Copper River in Berkeley County, and he lived their until the age of five when the family relocated to a new plantation outside Georgetown, South Carolina. Francis was the youngest male of the family and by all historical accounts was in the words of some scholars “small and puny with deformed legs”. We lose historical track of him until the age of 15, when records reported that he survived being adrift at sea for seven days in a life raft after trying his luck as a merchant sailor to the West Indies. It would be the only time Francis Marion thought of being on the ocean.
Anglo Indian War Service
January 1757 Francis and his older brother were recruited by Captain John Postell to join the South Carolina Militia in a campaign against the Cherokee Indians in what would later be known as the French and Indian Wars. This war was a series of on and off again conflicts that would stretch on for several years. Nearly four years passed before Francis was made a Lieutenant and transferred under the command of Captain William Moultrie. It was shortly after this when Marion & Moultrie would go on a campaign that surely shaped his understand of small unit tactics and the effects of guerrilla warfare. The Cherokee Campaign of 1760-1761 would be a turning point.
In the late 1750’s, the Cherokee had been raiding along the frontier of what is now North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama with great effect. The Cherokee with their Indian and French allies were ready to make aggressive movements into the English controlled south. Francis Marion witnessed first hand the blitzing tactics that the Indians had used and its effects on the people and towns of the Carolina frontier. The map pictured below shows a general overlay of the area covered in the Cherokee War.
This time in Marion’s life is important and we have to separate him from the Benjamin Martin character of The Patriot. In the movie, Martin dismembers Cherokee and French soldiers and sends their bodies down a river in retaliation for atrocities they committed. This is wholly fiction. In all my research, I have yet to read or find a historically documented incident like this about Francis Marion or any of the men in the Carolina Militia he served with. The Cherokee Campaign showed Francis Marion that his adversary made excellent use of cover and concealment as well as proper marksmanship techniques. The Cherokee excelled at striking the towns, villages, and troops of the English Colonists and quickly fading back into the forests, swamps and mountains. The continuous game of cat and mouse was not something that was lost on Marion, he would be a careful student of war and his enemies strengths.
The Cherokee War turned around quickly for the Carolina Militias when they joined British Army’s 77th Regiment of Foot under the command of James Grant and embarked on a campaign of scorched earth against the Cherokee Nation. This was in an area referred to as Lower Town, which is highlighted on the map above. The combined forces burned fifteen Cherokee villages to the ground, rendering them incapable of providing food or assistance to their warriors. This action effectively began to starve the Cherokee of resources needed to sustain action against the English. In short period of time, the combination of sustained pressure by the English forces, sickness in Cherokee towns, and dwindling food supplies forced the Cherokee to pursue peace terms. I am curious to know if Francis Marion discussed any of his observations with his comrades in arms on their long march home following the Cherokee surrender, because nearly 20 years later he showed he learned a lot from his time on the Carolina frontier.
Revolutionary War Service and the Rise of the Swamp Fox
After 1761. Francis Marion embarked on the life of a successful farmer. He married, had children, and even purchased his own plantation that he called Pond Bluff near Eutaw Springs, South Carolina in 1773. Life was progressing nicely for the popular farmer. Francis Marion was even was elected to the First South Carolina Provincial Congress in 1775. It was at this convention where the South Carolina Congress voted to raise three regiments of men to aid in the battle for independence – the 2nd regiment would be Marion’s to command. This is another point where Hollywood broke from the facts and made their character different from their original inspiration. Records show that Francis Marion did his duty to the people of South Carolina willingly.
Victory and Defeat
In the Autumn of 1775, Marion participated in the Snow Campaign that aided in forcing the British Governor to flee South Carolina. A few months after the victory, in early February 1776, he began overseeing construction of defensive fortifications at Fort Sullivan while being promoted to Major. The battle that Francis Marion was preparing for finally arrived on June 28th, 1776 when the British tried to retake Charleston and Fort Sullivan using a series of unsuccessful ocean based attacks.
The victory at Fort Sullivan meant another promotion for Francis Marion, allowing him the opportunity to take command of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment. As the Autumn of 1776 turned into Winter and early months of 1777, Major Francis Marion found himself busy drilling and training new recruits, far from any new battles or campaigns. Marion spent the next few years in and around Charleston and Georgetown. Soon, events would set in motion that would earn him his title of “Swamp Fox.”
Following two victories and nearly two years of inactivity and training, a plan was devised to liberate the city of Savannah, Georgia, which was lost to the British in December 1778. Under the command of Major General Benjamin Lincoln, a combined force of 5000 men and 42 ships began The Siege of Savannah, on September 16th 1779. It would be an international affair with France sending 500 Haitian volunteers as part of their troop contingent and Polish Nobleman Casimir Pulaski leading the American Calvary charge.
Following the initial bombardments meant to weaken the cities defenders, the Colonial troops attacked in a combined Cavalry and Infantry attack and quickly had their progress stopped by a series of redoubts, trenches, and other fortifications that military engineers had spent months preparing. The first wave were ineffective and in state of disarray as the 2nd wave arrived and were decimated by well placed crossfire and artillery. The remaining troops withdrew resulting in a total British victory. Savannah would remain under British control until the end of the war.
Injury leads to opportunity
Following his first taste of defeat in the Revolutionary War, Francis Marion returned to the Charleston area to rest and spend the holiday season with family and friends. It was in March 1780 that two events would lead to the rise of the Swamp Fox. The first happened at a dinner party in March 1780. In Colonial times when an officer was hosting a dinner party with drinking and socializing the custom was to lock the doors of the house and not let anyone leave. I assume this was an early version of operational and communication security. Several hours passed and Francis Marion grew tired of being penned up in a house with drunkards, so he went to the second floor of the house, opened the window, and jumped to the ground. The leap fractured his ankle and effectively sidelined him for several months, which he spent on his plantation. This injury would end up being a blessing in disguise.
While home on his plantation recovering from his broken ankle, the British under the command of Sir Henry Clinton deployed 13,000 troops to siege and captured the city of Charleston. In doing so, they captured Marion’s 2nd South Carolina Regiment and their commander Major General Benjamin Lincoln. If he wasn’t injured, there is little doubt that he would have also been taken as prisoner of war and spent the remaining months of the war in a prison camp.
Rise of the Swamp Fox
The fall of Charleston made Francis Marion a wanted man. As a Regimental Commander, he would have been on a list of high value targets the British would liked to have captured. As the British pushed into the countryside looking for American separatists, Marion and other Colonists retreated to North Carolina and reformed their forces at the camp of General Horatio Gates. While reforming at Gate’s camp, a message came to Francis Marion from the residents of the Williamsburg district, which had taken up an armed resistance against the British. They asked him to lead their militia as they fought back against the English atrocities that were being committed. They started with only 20-70 men, but Francis Marion would grow their numbers and their legend.
General Gates gave Marion and the men of the Williamsburg Militia a simple order – destroy all the British watercraft, supplies ,and communication lines along the Santee River. August 10th 1780, The Swamp Fox was set free. Taking 50 men divided into four companies, Marion began to disrupt and harass the British troops and distract them from General Gates eventual attack on Camden South Carolina. Using the skills he learned in the Cherokee War, Marion and his men raided, burned, and harassed the British supply lines with great effect.
Although he was personally successful in developing his troops into perfect non traditional forces, traveling fast and light while attacking with speed and precision, his contribution to the Camden Campaign wasn’t enough. A series of events lead to a crushing defeat of General Gates at Camden. 1900 of the total force of 3700 would either be captured or killed in the battle. Combined with the scorching heat and dysentery that was present in the Colonial camp, the South Carolina Regiments were effectively wiped out.
Lessons of the Cherokee War in Plain View
With the remaining Colonial troops fleeing to North Carolina, Marion and his men were still under orders to harass and disrupt the logistics of their occupiers. Francis Marion turned the operational tempo up on his attacks and continued to use the lessons he learned in the Cherokee War to great effect. The skill and bravery of his unit continued to grow and it was the raid on Nelson’s Ferry that got the full attention of the British Army. In order to pull off the raid, Marion divided his men into a two prong attack and surprised the British garrison at Nelson’s Ferry who were guarding 150 Colonial Militia prisoners. Using concealment and blitzing attacks they easily took the skirmish. The brazen attack resulted in all 150 prisoners being free, 24 British casualties at the cost of only one of the Militiamen. As word of this spread and fanned the flames of resistance, the British were enraged and sent their most feared Calvary officer Lt. Col Banastre Tarleton of the 1st Dragoon Guards to hunt them down.
Tarleton and the Swamp Fox
Victory after victory by Marion’s Militia enraged the British as he continued as the master of small unit tactics. Francis Marion chose when and where to strike, and melted back into the Carolina countryside. Never using a traditional frontal attack that was common during normal large scale conflict, hit and run was the order of the day. Each time Tarleton and his Dragoons would get close to luring them into a trap, Francis Marion would simply send them back to their homes, vanishing into thin air.
It was during this on and off game of cat and mouse where one evening in November 1780, Tarleton led his Dragoons through Richardson’s Plantation on the Santee River and nearly came face to face with Francis Marion. According to accounts, both units saw the other at nearly the same time. Marion’s unit numbering less than half the strength of the British Dragoons chose to flee into the swamps. The resulting chase went through 33 miles of swamps, marsh, woods and hills.
It was near the town of Ox Swamp where Tarleton turned to a junior officer and said the phrase that would make Marion famous:
Come on boys, let us go back and we will soon find the gamecock (Thomas Sumter), but as for this old damn fox, the devil himself could not catch him.
In true Swamp Fox style, Marion and his men took a few weeks off and were back to raiding and practicing their specialized brand of warfare against the British, this time, with more support from local farmers and townsfolk. Reinforcements from General Nathan Greene were also sent to help Marion and his militia. The young officer sent to help was “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, who later would have a son that turned out to be a decent cavalry officer himself, General Robert E. Lee.
Success and Victory
Francis Marion and Lighthorse Harry Lee made an odd team based on their difference in their ages and personalities, but continued successful hit and run tactics for the remainder of the war. They staged daring attacks on bridges, supply depots, and any war sustaining asset that they felt was vulnerable. Within approximately five months, Marion, Lee, and the Colonials reduced the total British strength by 25% and the English position in South Carolina began to quickly deteriorate. The campaign against the supply and communications lines of the English troops was highlighted by the capturing of major supply depots at Fort Watson, Fort Motte, and Fort Ninety Six.
The rest of the war continued to go poorly for the British as the rise in popularity of Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion led to other commanders forming similar types of militias using techniques learned from Marion and his men. Once the British lost control of their ability to move supplies and assets to needed areas, it was a battle of attrition. In October 1781, the English finally admitted defeat at the Battle of Yorktown and American Independence was assured.
Once the war was officially over, Francis Marion returned to his Plantation and the South Carolina Legislature to help form a new government, protecting their newly won independence. Once elected to the legislature, he worked tirelessly to protect the lives and homes of the English loyalists in the colonies that he once fought against. His remaining years were lived in relative peacefulness, spending most of his time on his plantation.
Rangers and The Swamp Fox
In modern times, the U.S. Army 75th Ranger Regiment traces their lineage back to Francis Marion and generally consider him and Major Robert Rogers to be the fathers of the Ranger way of warfare. The techniques learned by Marion in the Cherokee War are still present and taught today when discussing small unit tactics. The vocabulary and weapons may have changed, but the tactics, discipline, and level heading thinking needed to perform such a style of warfare has not. Rangers in 1700’s relied on skill, intelligence, sacrifice, and devotion to the team to achieve victory and the same attributes apply today.
Thanks for Stopping by, be sure to check back often this month as we unveil Special Operations Appreciation Month. If you have any questions or comments use the Comms Check or post in the comments section
Feature Image Courtesy:www.taskandpurpose.com by Army Spc Conner Mendez