Life of General Francis Marion – By W. Gilmore Simms

Life of General Francis MarionFrancis Marion was not the most famous General of the Revolutionary War. However, he was a very influential leader. Thanks to Walt Disney, more American’s know Francis Marion by his nickname, the “Swamp Fox”. Francis Marion received the nickname of Swamp Fox from a British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton. One day Tarleton was very frustrated as he was chasing Marion and it seems like Marion had just disappeared into the swamps. Tarleton said “Come, my boys! Let us go back. We will soon find the Game Cock (Sumter), but as for this d—d Swamp-fox, the devil himself could not catch him.”

Marion was so elusive that you never found him unless he wanted to be found. Most of his followers had a hard time finding him or his camp. If Marion’s followers had such a hard time finding him, could you imagine the frustration of the British?
Walt Disney was not the only Hollywood producer to showcase the exploits of the Swamp Fox. In the movie Patriot, Mel Gibson plays the character Benjamin Martin. Benjamin Martin is a fictional chapter that was created loosely upon the life of General Marion. In the movie, another fictitious character was Col. William Tavington. Col. Tavington’s character is very similar to the life of Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton.


As a young man, Marion had a desire to make his fortunes on the sea. Marion decided he was going to be a pirate. Marion joined a crew but on his first voyage, the ship was sunk by a whale. Only six members of the crew were able to escape onboard the lifeboat. A dog also escaped, but the dog was killed in order to feed the men. They were stranded for over 7 days with no drinkable water. Two of the sailors died before the young Marion and 3 other sailors were rescued by a passing ship. Upon returning to land, Marion headed straight for home and became a farmer. He had no desire to return to the sea.

When the British decided to attack Georgia and march north to eventually surround General Washington, the citizens of South Carolina made Marion the leader of the militia. Marion bravely held the line distracting the British and thwarting their plans until the Continental Congress finally gave General Nathanael Greene his commission to lead the southern Army.

Marion was not your typical General. Most Generals on both the British and Colonist side were large men. The average general was over 200 pounds. Marion, by contrast was a small man. One day, the British sent a young officer to go to Marion’s camp in order to negotiate a prisoner exchange. The British officer was blindfolded and was led all over the woods until they, at last, brought him into the camp. When the blindfold was removed, he was standing in front of a small man. The British officers could not believe that the man he was standing in front of was the redoubted chief who had baffled the pursuit and defied the arms of the best British captains. He described Marion as being “in stature of the smallest size, thin, as well as low.”

Another way that Marion was different than your typical General is in how he led his men. Marion had an interesting leadership style that many would say was counter productive. He did not lead by fear, but instead, he led by love. Marion had a rare command of his temper, he had a bland affectionate manner with calm superiority. His standard practice when handling an officer who was not living up to his high standards was simply to ostracize the officer. These officers would soon quit. Marion had no time for those who were not willing to stand up and be men while fighting for their country.

Marion’s style of leadership created great loyalty with his men. They loved Marion and they loved his cause for the country. Under Marion, the militia never faced defeat.

When Marion fought, it was well planned and executed. He rarely would travel on the beaten paths, or on the deer paths, but would make his own paths. He rarely used bridges in fact he often destroyed them. Sometimes he would cross rivers at the spring, and sometimes at the deepest point, he was completely unpredictable.


Marion’s reputation for ambush was so great that one day, the British surprised a group of Marion’s men. They quickly scattered into the swamp but the British refused to follow because they were sure that an ambush was waiting for them.

Marion would often lead his men on long marches starting at dusk. They would often go 60-70 miles non-stop, never stopping for food. Sometimes, he would do this on back to back days. Marion would rarely give his men advanced notice of an impending march. His men soon figured out that the best way to be prepared for Marion was to watch his cook. If the cook was preparing food that was packable, they knew they were in for a long hike and they should do the same.

As the war progress, Marion’s reputation was such that the British, upon hearing that Marion was near,  would drop all their supplies and head to the nearest fort. Marion was always struggling with his men’s lack of ammunition. Marion, knowing that the British did not know his weakness, would march his men after the fleeing British. He would set up camp near a British encampment. Even though the British had a superior force and had plenty of ammunition, they would be afraid to attack.Life of General Francis Marion

Another example of the ingenuity of Marion can be seen in how he managed to win battles that most people would have thought could not be won. Once the British barricaded themselves at Fort Watson. Fort Watson was on a steep hill, 40 feet above the land around it. Marion had his men cut down a bunch of trees that surrounded the area. That night, they proceeded to build a log tower out of these trees. In the morning, the British troops awoke to Marion’s men picking off the British soldiers from the tower that was built overnight.

One British officer who had grown tired of the war tactics of Marion sent him a message demanding that Marion fight on an open field like a civilized army. Marion replied that it was not civilized to be burning down the houses of those who were not submitting to British rule. The British officer countered that it was not civilized to shoot the picket guards who were posted to warn the army of pending attacks of the enemy.

Marion challenged the British officer to select his top twenty men and let the men fight at a set location. The British officer agreed. Marion selected his men and bouldered their courage by saying  “[m]y brave soldiers! You are twenty men picked this day out of my whole brigade. I know you all, and have often witnessed your bravery. In the name of your country, I call upon you once more to show it. My confidence in you is great. I am sure it will not be disappointed. Fight like men, as you have always done — and you are sure of the victory”.

Marion’s men arrived at the battle and they were prepared to shoot once the red coats were at 50 yards. However, Marion’s men did not have to wait that long because once the British got to 100 years, they turned and retreated as they were well aware of the deadly shooting of Marion’s men. The red coats knew that they would never get close enough to use their bayonets.

Marion may have been a general, but his men were not paid soldiers. They received no pay, no food, and no clothing. They suffered through the dangers and toils of war, without the hope of pay. They fought for love of country.

Most of the generals on the Colonial side had major problems with the militia. They had unreasonable expectations that the militia would fight like trained soldiers. When dealing with the militia, Marion had no such difficulty. Marion was not surprised when the militia fled when faced with the pushing bayonets of the British military.

Marion took the time to train his men to retreat slowly from obstacle to obstacle. He taught them to use each post, tree, and rock as a location to reload and fire from before retreating to the next available shelter. Marion expected the men to retreat, but made sure that when they retreated, their retreat would be useful.

Another reason why the other generals disliked the militia is because they would often disappear to go plant or harvest their crops. However, Marion understood that these men had families and he was willing to work with these men whose families came first. Yes, the cause of liberty was important, but these were farmers, not soldiers and they needed to take care of their families.


Marion asked a lot of his men, but he also asked a lot from his fellow countrymen. Once, the British were hiding from him inside Fort Motte. A portion of this fort was the home of a widowed Mrs. Motte. The British had kicked her out of the house and she moved to a farmhouse a short distance away.

Marion decided he needed to burn he British out of Fort Motte. He sent a couple of men to ask Mrs. Motte if they could burn her house down. Mrs. Motte was a true patriot and she walked into the farmhouse and brought out a bow and some arrows. The arrows were already prepared to be lit with fire. Marion’s men shot the fire arrows into Fort Motte, resulting in the fort burning down.

In the movie Patriot, Benjamin Martin had a son named Gabriel. In real life, Gabriel Marion was a nephew of Francis Marion. Gabriel Marion was captured by the British. The British upon learning the relationship between Gabriel and Francis immediately killed the young man. Upon hearing of the death of his nephew, Francis Marion did not mourn but instead said: “The youth was virtuous, and had fallen in the case of his country!”

Another character in the movie Patriot was the spirited freedom loving Anne Howard who ended up marrying Gabriel Martin. One of Marion’s men, a Captain Conyers was engaged to a very spirited freedom loving patriot named Mary Witherspoon. Captain Conyers reputation among the men was so strong that when Mary came to visit him in the camp, none of the men dared to cross their Captain and treated Mary with the utmost respect. When Mary entered the camp, the word quickly spread, “Take care, – there is Conyers!”

One day, Mary was in the presence of a British officer who was saying disparaging things about Captain Conyers. Mary took off one of her shoes and threw it at him and called him a coward. She told him to go and face her man. Least anyone thinks that the throwing of a shoe was a cute little story of a young lady throwing a lite little slipper, we are told that Mary threw a heavy walking shoe with great force.

Towards the end of the war, Marion was elected as a state senator. Because many senators had not shown up out of fear or other obligations, Marion could not go fight as he was needed in order to maintain a quorum. He was also needed to make sure the legislature knew the needs of his men and they voted to properly provision them. Marion was torn between his two duties to his country. However, when he heard that the British were moving to attack his men, Marion dropped everything and returned to the field of battle, his men were his top priority.

Upon the end of the war, Marion returned home to find his land was in ruin, his house was destroyed, and his slaves were no more. He had received no pay. However, Marion had fought this war for the love of liberty, he risked his life for freedom.

The grateful citizens of Charleston decided to put him in charge of one of the local forts that protected the harbor. They knew that this position had limited duties and they gave the position a large salary. It was their way of thanking Marion for the sacrifices he had made.

After the war, Marion finally married for the first time. Both him and his wife were advanced in age. They had found that they had many common interests and they loved doing things together so they decided to get married. Marion died in 1795 at the age of 63.


This report is based upon my reading of the 1856 edition of W. Gilmore Simms book titled The Life of Francis Marion. This book was first published in 1846.

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