Susan F. Craft
Historical Fiction Author
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Francis Marion the Man

Marion was 48 at the time, "rather below the middle stature," one of his men recalled, "lean and swarthy. His body was well set, but his knees and ankles were badly formed. He had a countenance remarkably steady; his nose was aquiline, his chin projecting; his forehead was large and high, and his eyes black and piercing." It was the kind of face some men considered "hard visaged."

He was a man with the steady habits of a modest planter who had lived alone most of his life. He ate and drank abstemiously; his voice was light but low when he talked, and that was seldom because he was not a talkative man.

In the field he wore a close, round-bodied, crimson jacket and the blue breeches piped in white of his old Continental regiment. His black leather hat was the hard, visored helmet of the Second South Carolina, adorned with a plume and, in front, a silver crescent engraved, "Liberty or death."

Whether he fought his brigade mounted or afoot-he usually rode to the enemy and then fought as infantry-he was always in the front of the attacks that made his name a terror in the British and Tory camp. But he was not given to ferocious gesture. In fact, they say he drew his sword, a light dress weapon, so seldom that it rusted in its scabbard.

It was not for personal conspicuousness in battle that his men remembered him, but for a quiet fearlessness, for sagacity and perseverance, and for never foolishly risking himself or the brigade. They rode with confidence behind a man who never hesitated in the face of impossible odds to fight and run to live and fight another day. And he endeared himself to them when he slept with them on the ground, ate their fare, and endured fatigue and danger with the hardiest of them. They told, for example, that one night while he slept by the fire his helmet was scorched and his blanket half burned before he awoke. He smothered the flames, refused a blanket from any of them, and in the charred remains of his own slept out the night. For months afterward, he weathered the nights uncomplainingly under his tattered blanket and rode through sun and shower with the shriveled helmet perched jauntily on his head.

Marion's men actually had no official status. They were purely volunteers. When they came into the field, their state was overrun by the British and their rebel government had evaporated. Of their own will they took up arms to fight the invader, and it was impossible to preserve any more discipline and regularity among them than their patriotism and the dangers of the moment imposed on them.

Fighting without pay, clothing, or provisions furnished by a government, compelled to care for their families as well as to provide for their own wants, they were likely to go home at planting or harvest time, or whenever family needs became acute, or simply when the going got too dreary. Therefore, brigade strength fluctuated from as few as twenty or thirty men to as many as several hundred, and Marion had to plan his operations accordingly. He seldom could count on more than 150 to 200 men, and at least once he became so disgusted with their casual coming and going that he considered giving up his command and going to Philadelphia to seek a Continental Army appointment.

The marches and actions that ensued between Marion and the British and Tories are hard to follow, even on large-stale maps of the river-and-swamp country of South Carolina, and they are almost lost in the larger history of the campaigns in the South: but they were shrewdly planned, smoothly executed, and very damaging to the enemy. To them Marion brought not only the training of an officer of the regular service and the remembered experience of Indian-style lighting on the frontier, but also an intimate knowledge of the country. And it was the terrain that gave to the native fighter a distinct advantage. It was unbelievably flat, unbelievably wet, and unbelievably wild-this world of the low country. North and south some eighty miles from Charleston and west some fifty were its roughly figured boundaries, and down across it swept seven large rivers and many smaller ones which gave it its character. For miles bordering them were the deep, vast, and gloomy cypress swamps. And between the great swamps were the forbidding shrub bogs, spongy tangles of impenetrable smilax, holly, myrtle, and jessamine, and broad brakes of cane. No roads crossed the swamps and bogs, except the secret paths of the hunter; only a few highroads, following the ridges between the great rivers and passing through forests of moss-hung live oak, tied together the plantations and scattered towns. Maps were not of much use oil the main roads. But it was country that Marion knew and understood, so that for him its trails became avenues of swift surprise attack and sale retreat, its swamps and bogs his covert.

In this country during that fall of 1780, Marion's men fought at Black Mingo, northwest of Georgetown. It was another night attack, but their horses' hoofs clattering on a wooden bridge gave them away, so that they lost the element of surprise and learned ever after to lay down their blankets when crossing a bridge near the enemy. They raided Georgetown, but could not draw the garrison out of the town redoubt for a stand-up fight. Another night they pounced on Tory militia at Tarcote Swamp, near the forks of Black River.

For all his pursuing, Tarleton merely gave exercise to Marion's brigade; for several more weeks the old fox was busily gnawing at British supply trains and posts and parties. Then, with his ammunition and supplies nearly exhausted, he took up an encampment in a romantic spot not far from the original ground of the Williamsburg men; it was called Snow's Island and was a large, high, river swamp plateau at the joining of Lynche's Creek with the Great Pee Dee. Here, deep in a forest of cypress, laurel, and pine, protected by the watercourses and tangles of canebrake and vines, he made a supply depot and rest camp that served him, off and on, for the rest of the war. From the island he threw into the lower country patrols which soon had Cornwallis complaining that they "keep the whole country in continual alarm, and render the assistance of regular troops everywhere necessary."

Through the rest of the winter of 1780 and into the spring of 1781, Marion played his partisan role while great events wrought great changes in the condition of the American cause in the South. In December General Nathaniel Greene arrived at Charlotte to succeed Gates in command of the Continental Army of the Southern Department. By mid-April, 1781, in perhaps the most brilliant campaign of the war, he had maneuvered a greatly weakened and confused Cornwallis into Virginia and returned to South Carolina to battle for repossession of the state.

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