Charleston and the American Revolution, 1776-1785: The Swamp Fox

From 1781-1782, Charles Towne was under siege by British forces. It was the second time the British had attacked the city, as their first attempt had failed miserably several years before. Charles Towne was the capitol of South Carolina and the center of commerce for the state, and represented a vital point of control for England. In fact, it’s likely the British would have been able to consolidate control in the South if Francis Marion had not sprained his ankle.

Francis Marion, born in 1732, was a South Carolina native of Huguenot descent, and fluent in French. As a young man, he voyaged by sea through the Caribbean, and upon his return home, he enlisted under Captain John Postell. He fought in the French Indian War, driving Cherokee Indians away from the border, although he would later regret taking part in much of the campaign, commenting that at times he “could scarcely refrain from tears.”

In 1776 he served under Colonel Moultrie as Captain of the second South Carolina regiment in defense of Fort Moultrie.  Marion was also a member of the South Carolina Provincial Congress. He gained valuable experience during his early service in the revolutionary war, which would come to serve him well over the following years.

Shortly before the Siege of Charleston began, Francis Marion was invited to a dinner party in what is presently identified as 106 Tradd Street, or the “house next to Roupell’s”. As the story goes, the host locked the doors so that his guests couldn’t leave until they had some of his choice Madeira. Marion, who is said to have been a teetotaler, jumped from an open window and sprained his ankle. He was advised to spend some time at his plantation in the hills of Santee to recuperate, and thus was not in Charles Towne when it was taken by the British.

Even with an injured ankle, Marion insisted on returning to his military command. However, his commanding officers didn’t share Marion’s confidence in his abilities, and they put him in command of a militia in the Pee Dee area, an appointment they considered to be relatively unimportant.

As it turned out, Marion and his militiamen (or, as they were commonly referred to, Marion’s men) would be vital in keeping the British from taking the entire state.¬† Marion’s men were an unconventional assortment of civilians, both black and white, who were unpaid and largely provided their own supplies, horses, and even food. What really made them unconventional, however, were their battle tactics.

Rather than fighting in the traditional way, Marion’s men used guerilla warfare, surprising large troops of British soldiers and using game trails and hideouts in the South Carolina swamp to evade pursuers. The British were confounded by Marion and were continually overtaken by his men in the Williamsburg area. Colonel Banastre Tarleton of England was charged with finding and killing Francis Marion, and is credited with giving him his famous nickname Swamp Fox when he said, “Come, my boys! Let us go back, and we will find the gamecock (Thomas Sumter). But as for this damned old fox, the devil himself could not catch him.”

Indeed the Swamp Fox never was caught, and because of his militia, the British were never able to take Williamsburg and never able to consolidate their position in the Lowcountry.

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