Revolutionary War Historical Article
The Swamp Fox and Nelson's Ferry
by William A. Simpson, Virginia Society, Sons of the American Revolution
August 1780 was one of the blackest months of the Revolution. Charleston had fallen to the British in the second largest surrender of American forces in history. General Horatio Gates, the Hero of Saratoga, was sent to the rescue. He rushed south to the Battle of Camden where he was crushed by General Lord Cornwallis. The defeat was so complete, units still marching to join General Gates defected wholesale to the British and took fleeing Patriots prisoner. Georgia and South Carolina appeared to be firmly in British control and it seemed to be only a matter of time before North Carolina and Virginia fell to the British.
Before the Battle of Camden, General Gates sent Colonel Thomas Sumter north of Camden and Colonel Francis Marion south of Camden to isolate the battlefield. Colonel Marion started burning all boats on the Santee River cutting off the British from their base in Charleston. Soon after the battle at Camden, Thomas Sumter was surprised and defeated by Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton at Fishing Creek leaving Colonel Marion as the only Continental officer in command in South Carolina.
On learning of these defeats, Francis Marion decided to fight on; he continued his mission and moved to destroy boats at Murry's Ferry. The next day he moved to Nelson's Ferry, where that evening, Colonel Marion received a report from a Tory deserter that 150 American night at Thomas Sumter's house at Great Savannah. Waking his men well before dawn, they rode through the night and approached Great Savannah before sunrise. Colonel Marion divided his men into two parties, and approached the house from front and rear. They rushed the house and found the weapons carelessly stacked outside while the enemy slept unarmed inside. In a quick fight, the Patriots killed or captured 22 enemy soldiers and two Tory scouts without losing a man. Their service finished, most of the militia went home, and Marion moved back across the Pedee River into friendly territory with his small cadre of loyal men. Marion wrote a report to General Gates, who forwarded it to Congress saying: Colonel Marien (sic) of South Carolina, has surprised a party of enemy near Santee River, escorting 150 prisoners of the Maryland Division, He took the party and released the prisoners.
CONGRESS CHEERED BY REPORT OF SUCCESSES
News of Colonel Marion's brilliant exploit cheered a drooping Congress. It was a bright spark of hope in a dark time. This report was published in leading newspapers throughout the country. For the first, but not the last time. Patriots and British read the name of Francis Marion, but with the perversity that often plagues press releases, his name was spelled Marien.
Francis Marion earned the sobriquet "Swamp Fox" from Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton because, unlike Thomas Sumter, he was never caught or surprised yet was able to conduct surprise attacks at will. The "Swamp Fox" kept out constant patrols to provide early warning. When these patrols reported an enemy in the area, Colonel Marion would wait until dark, when he would break camp and move swiftly under the cover of darkness to a safer position. However, if the foe was careless, these swift night marches would end before dawn in devastating attacks on the unsuspecting enemy. When threatened with overwhelming force, the Swamp Fox would dissolve his force and fade into the swamps. However, as soon as the enemy let down their guard, they would rapidly reassemble and conduct devastating counter attacks.
Colonel Marion was surrounded on all sides by the enemy, completely cut off from other American forces and supplies. He and his men operated with the barest of necessities and dressed in rags. One incident illustrates just how bad the conditions were. When Marion rode into General Gate's camp, Colonel Otho Williams wrote: Col Marion, a gentleman of South Carolina,- attended by a very few followers, (are) distinguished by small leather caps and the wretchedness of their attire.
On September 4, 1780 Major Ganey, commanding a regiment of 250 Tories, set out to capture Marion. Instead Colonel Marion attacked first and with 53 men, routed the Tory advance force and lured the remaining 200 Tories into an ambush at Blue Savannah. The Tory Regiment was broken up and totally dispersed. At the cost of four men wounded and two horses killed on both sides, he had broken Tory power east of the Pedee. Sixty more men joined Colonel Marion the next day.
MARION FOILS CAPTURE BY BRITISH FORCES
The British were outraged over Colonel Marion's victories and terrified of the threat he posed to their lines of communications. They assembled nine regiments to capture Colonel Marion. The Swamp Fox, knowing that the enemy would concentrate against him, sent out patrols. One patrol captured a British officer and his orderly book revealed to Marion the full scale of the danger. Knowing that his 100 men had no chance against 1,0001,500 men converging from three directions, he released his local men to return to their homes and retired with a small cadre into the Great White Marsh in North Carolina. In his absence the British and Tories burned homes in a swath fifteen miles wide and seventy miles long from Kingstree to Cheraw. Far from suppressing the rebellion, these atrocities only forced men to break their paroles and join Colonel Marion.
At midnight on September 28th, Colonel Marion in a swift night march, returned and attacked the enemy at Black Mingo Creek. Using a frontal attack as a diversion, Colonel Marion routed the Tories with a flank attack and captured men, valuable supplies and horses. Many of the Tories had been his friends and neighbors and Colonel Marion treated the wounded and prisoners with such dignity and care that five of them renounced the King and joined his force.
The sound of his horses crossing a wooden bridge over Black Mingo Creek alerted the Tories to the attack, took away the element of surprise and cost Marion several casualties. From then on, Marion used blankets to deaden the sound of hoof beats when crossing bridges.
This victory and other actions by Marion forced General Cornwallis to dispatch regulars from Charlotte, North Carolina to reinforce Tory units in the area, hindering British efforts in North Carolina.
At Tearcoat Swamp at dawn on October 26, Marion attacked a large Tory force with three columns. Two columns attacked the enemy flanks and Marion led the third in a frontal attack. In this surprise attack, the Tories lost over 430 men and the rest fled. Many of the prisoners, who were impressed by his skill and leadership, joined the Fox. Soon Colonel Marion was able to assemble a force of 400 armed horsemen on short notice.
CORNWALLIS TURNS TARLETON LOOSE AGAINST PATRIOTS
Marion unsuccessfully attacked Georgetown twice, prompting General Cornwallis to send Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton and his British Legion to deal with the Swamp Fox. The redcoats ravaged the country side but failed to capture the Fox and were soon pulled off to deal with Daniel Morgan at Cowpens.
General Cornwallis reported in December 1780 that Colonel Marion had raised all the inhabitants between the Santee and Pedee Rivers in arms against him and even threatened Charleston.
Later that December, General Nathanael Greene sent Lieutenant Colonel "Light Horse Harry" Lee with 150 infantry and 150 dragoons to join Francis Marion. General Greene promoted Colonel Marion to Brigadier General and gave him command of all regiments in eastern South Carolina. Together Brigadier General Marion and Lieutenant Colonel Lee brilliantly captured critical enemy outposts in coastal Carolina cutting off British communications between Charleston and the interior. Their attacks, combined with General Greene's moves against other posts, forced the British troops to retreat until they were confined to Savannah, Charleston and Wilmington. With the exception of three coastal cities, the Carolina's and Georgia were liberated from the grasp of British troops by September 1781. After the withdrawal of the British Regulars, Brigadier General Marion negotiated cease fires with the Tories and by June 1782 restored peace to a region racked by years of bitter partisan warfare.
MARION RETIRES IN 1794
Brigadier General Marion continued his public service until 1794 when he retired with great honor. HIs health, sacrificed to years of warfare under the most wretched of conditions, was failing rapidly. He died at his home, Pond Bluff, February 17, 1795 and was buried at his son's Belle Isle estate.
General Nathanael Greene in a letter to Francis Marion wrote: History affords no instance wherein an officer has keep possession of a country under so many disadvantages as you have. Surrounded on every side with a superior force, hunted from every quarter with veteran troops, you have found means to elude all their attempts, and to keep alive the expiring hopes of an oppressed militia, when all succor seemed to be cut off To fight the enemy with prospect of victory is nothing; but to fight with intrepidity under the constant impression of defeat, and inspire irregular troops to do it, is a talent peculiar to yourself (sic)
Greene, Jack P. and Pole, J. R. - A Companion to the American Revolution - Blackwell Publishers - Maulden, MA 2000
Bass, Robert D. - Swamp Fox, The life and campaigns of General Francis Marion - Sandlapper Publishing Company - Orangeburg, SC - 1974
Commanger, Henry Steele and Morris, Richard B., - The Spirit of Seventy-Six, The story of the American Revolution as told by participants - Harper & Row, Publishers - New York, Evanston, and London - 1967