The Swamp Fox

More ghost than man, his enemies claimed “the Devil himself could not catch” him. He was the knock-kneed tormentor of British forces in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War, giving him the distinction of father of modern guerrilla warfare, and the inspiration for Mel Gibson’s character in The Patriot. He was Franics Marion, the Swamp Fox.

The Swamp Kit

Francis Marion was born in (probably?) 1732 in Berkeley County, South Carolina where his family had a plantation. He grew up hunting and fishing in the area around his home, committing the swampy terrain to memory. At 15 he gave the sea a try but the ship sank and he spent a week adrift at sea where he no doubt had plenty of time to think of all the reasons he’d stay the fuck off the ocean moving forward.

francis marion national park

At 25 he joined the French and Indian War (aka the Seven Years War, aka that middle bit during the Second Hundred Years’ War). Here’s the seven year skinny: It was fought between France and England (who’s shocked?) in the American colonies from 1756-1763. The French expansion into the Ohio River Valley freaked out the British. The French were way better at securing Indian help than the English, likely because it was seen as a chance to defeat the English for good. The British (including a young George Washington) were repeatedly bitch slapped by the French and Indians. English Prime Minister William Pitt realized this war was a great way to steal all the New World marbles, so he borrowed tons of money, raised more colonial troops, and started kicking French and Indian ass. The Spanish jumped in, siding with the French, but still England won and got to take Canada from the French and Florida from the Spanish.

So, during all this super power squabbling, Francis is recruited by the British army and by 1761 he’s a lieutenant. He was instrumental in decimating French-allied Cherokee villages and crops in order to force their surrender. It, unsurprisingly, worked really well. He also learned the hard way how the Cherokee used their terrain to their strategic advantage. This experience likely sowed the seeds for his tactics in the Revolutionary War.

Speaking of– Francis fought against the British in the Revolutionary War. In 1776 he’s commissioned as a captain and helps defend Fort Sullivan in Charleston, South Carolina and soon Francis is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Continental Army.

A Revolutionary Fox

Cut to 1780 and the incredibly important port city of Charleston, South Carolina is taken by British forces after a siege. Francis missed it because he’d broken his ankle after jumping out of  window to get away from some fellow officers who, he felt, were drinking too much. No one said he was normal. His ankle took for-fucking-ever to heal causing him to be a virtual cripple for a long time, which does not make war on foot and horseback particularly pleasant. The governor of South Carolina fled to North Carolina, but before skipping town asked Marion to form a resistance group and mess with the Redcoats.

Like any good story, Francis’ recruits were about as janky as you can imagine: ragtag clothes, untrained, definitely not paid, and outfitted with whatever weapons they happened to have lying around. As for himself, Francis apparently used his sword so little that he found it rusted into the scabbard in a moment when he would’ve liked to have it.

Still, this group of guys achieved a lot of cool stuff using Francis’ GPS-like brain. They ambushed the British, saving 150 patriot soldiers who were being marched to prison in Charleston. In that same skirmish, he killed or captured 22 British soldiers. Hilariously though, 85 of the now-freed prisoners took one look around at Francis, his men, and their working conditions (read: no consistent food and residence in a swamp) and willingly chose to go to the British prison camp instead.

Francis’ tactics forced the British to parcel up their forces since they weren’t ever sure where he’d be. They kept ambushing the British in stinging raids, attacking then disappearing into swamps with such regularity that Lord Cornwallis gets annoyed enough to send Banastre “Bloody Ban” Tarleton (handsomely and villainously interpreted by Jason Isaacs in “The Patriot”) and his Dragoons on a special mission to get this dude once and for all.

An Aside on the Villain in “The Patriot”

Banastre Tarleton
Banastre Tarleton

A quick aside on Bloody Ban: he was a classic middle child.  Born into a merchant family, he went to Oxford, planned to be a lawyer, but when daddy died, he was handed £5,000, which he quickly spent on gambling and women. So he took what little dignity and money he had left and bought a commission in the 1st Dragoon Guards. He turns out to be an exceptional horseman and soldier. He gets his sanguine reputation from a massacre in May of 1780: Tarleton and his 149 Dragoons ambushed Col. Abraham Buford and his 350-or so Virginia Continentals. Col. Buford initially refused to surrender, but after getting their asses handed to them, he changed his mind. Tarleton ignored the white flag of surrender and it was a bloodbath, cementing Tarleton in American minds as a butcher. But more on this another day… The point is, Tarleton was a ruthless leader of an elite, lethal, efficient force and Cornwallis was sending him/them off in search of one dude. Helluva compliment for Francis, really.

Francis catches wind of the Dragoons, probably from some swamp bird he befriended. Francis planned to gather 400 men and meet Tarleton on the battlefield, but rethought that strategy when he heard how many men Tarleton was packing. Instead, Francis led Tarleton and his Dragoons on an infuriating chase through the swamps for seven or eight hours until Tarleton gave up near Kingstree, South Carolina. It’s here that he gave Francis his soon-to-be famous nickname, calling him a “damned old fox,” that “the devil himself could not catch…”

Revolutionary Hijinx 

He’s not perfect though. There was that time that he and 700 of his closest friends surrounded a group of British recruits under the command of Major Robert McLeroth. The British major suggested that instead of duking it out, killing and wounding countless men, what if they just nominated like, 20 dudes from each side to duel and whoever won that round takes the victory. While Marion was undoubtedly doing Rock, Paper, Scissors to pick the 20 unlucky soldiers to duel, Major McLeroth slowly tiptoed backwards, motioning his troops to follow him and they snuck away. In plain sight.

One time they seized Fort Watson, destroying the English supply line between Charleston and the rest ofFort Watson the Lowcountry. Another zany episode saw him, with the permission of the lady of the house, use a bow and arrow to burn down her stately mansion, which the British had taken over as a garrison. Francis was promoted to general towards the end of the war.

Lest you think he’s knock-kneed American perfection he, like anyone, had his faults. He was a slave owner, which was not unusual for his time or position in society.  George W. Bush actually bestowed horribly belated honors on Francis’ slave, Oscar Marion, who was instrumental in keeping this ragtag band clothed and fed throughout the swamps, as well as fighting alongside him for a freedom the victors chose not to extend to him.

The wily Swamp Fox’s reward for decisively helping achieve American independence was returning home to find his plantation, Pond Bluff, burned and pillaged by not only the British, but also the Americans. Thanks for your service!

Pond Bluff in the 1930s

He rebuilt, married his cousin, and became a senator for South Carolina where he helped draft the state’s constitution and spoke out passionately against punishing American Loyalists. He died at the ripe old age of 63.

So, how do you drink like the man even the Devil can’t catch?

You don’t drink alcohol for starters. Marion was a notorious teetotaler– remember the broken ankle? Even during war when it’s incredibly common for soldiers to drink spirits, Francis stuck to a concoction of water and vinegar. Doesn’t that sound great?

He didn’t exactly make it up: The ancient Greeks created a similar medicinal drink called posca, which became hugely popular among Roman soldiers. Soldiers and peasants got the wine that would’ve made Two Buck Chuck look like a Chateau Lafite, but mixing the sour wine with vinegar made a fortifying drink that prevented scurvy and was a natural antibiotic.

bragg's apple cider vinegarOur boy Francis sounds like he was mixing apple cider vinegar with water. Part of the idea was that the vinegar put a pep in your step! Another old wives’ tale turned out to have some merit: it was believed vinegar was a good anti-malarial. Science kinda concurs; turns out vinegar makes you smell unappealing to mosquitos. Whether or not Francis knew it, vinegar is a good source of calories (there’s your pep), vitamin C, and as some antibacterial qualities.

We don’t have Marion’s exact recipe but a reasonable guess would be mix two (2) tablespoons apple cider vinegar, Bragg’s is a popular brand, into one (1) glass of water. Drink it down and go annoy the British.

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