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Francis Marion

      Francis Marion, the partisan general of South Carolina, was of Huguenot descent, the first American settlers of the name being Benjamin Marion and Judith Balnet, his wife, who came from France in 1690, and established themselves in a plantation on one of the tributaries of the Cooper River, near Charleston. Gabriel, the son of Benjamin, married Esther Cordes. These were the parents of Francis Marion. He was born, it would appear, in St. John's Parish, Berkeley County, probably in 1732. His early life was passed, till his twenty-seventh year, in agricultural pursuits, when we first hear of him in connection with military matters in the period of the old French war. He took the field with Moultrie, and fought gallantly by the side of that officer in the Cherokee country against the savages at the battle of Etchoee. He then returned to his farm, near Eutaw Springs, ripening for the work of the Revolution, which found him at the height of manhood, at the age of forty-three. The people of his district relied upon his understanding, for we find them sending him as their delegate to the Provincial Congress of 1775, when he was appointed captain in the regiment of his former superior officer, Colonel Moultrie. His first duty was to gather a company, which he speedily effected in the Eastern region, where he was well known. He was then employed in the neighborhood of Charleston; being engaged in the occupation of Fort Johnson and the command of Dorchester.

      He was with Moultrie, at Sullivan's Island in May, 1776, during that fierce day of battle when the British were driven from the southern colonies, and particularly distinguished himself in the gallant defence.

      At the ill-managed attack upon Savannah, by the combined forces of D'Estaing and Lincoln, which ended so disastrously for the Americans, Marion was present with his regiment, which did much by its gallantry to redeem the honor, if not the fortunes, of the day. Next came, in the winter of 1780, the siege of Charleston, by Sir Henry Clinton. It was evident from the beginning that the city must fall, and it has been a point much discussed whether Lincoln should have attempted to defend it, whether it would not have been better for the cause that he should withdraw his troops, and besiege the British from the open country. This was what afterward took place when the conquerors were reduced almost to starvation. An accident which happened to Marion has been esteemed a piece of singular good fortune to the cause, in saving him from surrender. He was in command of the small body of light troops, outside of the city, when he was called to aid in the defence. During the first days of the very deliberate investment, he was dining with some friends in the town, when, according to a custom not unusual in those hard-drinking times, the door was locked that no one should avoid his share of the conviviality. Determined to escape the infliction, he threw himself from the window into the street. The fall fractured his ankle and incapacitated him from service. In obedience to an order of Lincoln, commanding all officers unfit for duty to retire from the city, he left while the country was still open, and took refuge in his native region of St. John. His freedom was thus preserved for the service of his country.

Marion crossing the Pedee.

      Now came the incursions of Tarleton and the devastating warfare of Cornwallis--a policy of savage extermination which would have driven a people with less capability of exertion to despair. But it happened, as it has before, that the very means employed to crush, excited the spirit of resistance, and deliverers were raised up for the oppressed. It was a peculiar species of warfare which was now entered upon, requiring novel resources both for attack and defence. A thinly inhabited country was the scene of operations, cut up in all directions by rivers and their branches, and innumerable swamps. Large bodies of troops could move only with difficulty; it was a service for small parties of cavalry always in movement, making up by rapidity for want of numbers. On the side of the British, Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton, an officer of spirit, whose fiery youth has been vividly handed down to us in the portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, was the leading representative of this method of warfare, harrying the land with his mounted troops, and overcoming by his activity and unscrupulousness. Success added terror to his name, as he gained victory after victory, and seemed destined to sweep the land of its patriot defenders. He was the right arm of Cornwallis, in his movements in the interior, and began to be deemed invincible, when his course was arrested by Morgan, the Virginian, and his resolute companies of native defenders of the State, at the battle of Cowpens. But it was in Marion that the chief spirit of resistance was incorporated. On the arrival of Gates from the North, in command of the Southern army, having partially recovered from his lameness, he presented himself before the hero of Saratoga, on his march toward the fatal field of Camden. American commanders were accustomed to odd sights of dress and equipment in the patriot soldiery who enlisted under their banners, and Gates must have been used to appearances with which the eye of Washington himself was but too familiar. The little band of Marion, however, seems to have astonished even their American brethren-in-arms. As for the well-equipped British, they always held the ragged American regiments in contempt, till they were soundly flogged by them. An intelligent looker-on at the camp, Colonel Otho Williams, in his narrative of the campaign, speaks of Colonel Marion's arrival, "attended by a very few followers, distinguished by small leather caps and the wretchedness of their attire; their number did not exceed twenty men and boys, some white, some black, and all mounted, but most of them miserably equipped. Their appearance was, in fact, so burlesque, that it was with much difficulty the diversion of the regular soldiery was restrained by the officers; and the general himself was glad of an opportunity of detaching Colonel Marion, at his own instance, toward the interior of South Carolina, with orders to watch the motions of the enemy, and furnish intelligence."

      It was while Marion was engaged on this service, that the battle of Camden was fought; but luckily, he had no share in the misadventure. He was employed, in fact, in quite an independent career of his own, organizing his own forces and acting at his own discretion. He was at the head of that system of partisan warfare, which, in its developments, was to rid the State of the foreign foe. His present command, "Marion's Brigade," was formed from the hardy spirited population of Irish descent, settled between the Santee and the Pedee, in the territory of Williamsburg. They were convinced of the intentions of the British rulers at Charleston to reduce them to political servitude; they knew their rights, and knowing, dared to maintain them. Their movement was voluntary, as they gathered their small but resolute force of picked men, and called Marion to its command. He had already assumed it, and caused the Tories to feel his new authority when the defeat of Gates took place. It roused him at once to a new effort to redeem the fortunes of war. He was already in the neighborhood of the field, and hearing that a British guard was on its way with a considerable body of prisoners, he determined to arrest the party on its march. Two days after the battle, he concerted an attack, and with the loss of but one man, killed and took 22 regulars and 2 Tories prisoners, and retook 150 continentals of the Maryland line. He was now a recognized leader in the field, and the British commander-in-chief directed his efforts to his overthrow. "I most sincerely hope," wrote Cornwallis to Tarleton, "that you will get at Mr. Marion." But Mr. Marion was not so easily to be caught. On the appearance of a superior force, under the command of Tarleton, which it would have been vain to resist, the skilful partisan turned his forces in another direction, to the borders of North Carolina, where he overawed the Scotch Tories in that disaffected region. The ruthless conduct of the British whom he had left behind, now raised the South Carolinians to fresh resistance, when Marion, ever mindful of his opportunity, returned to the State with speed, accomplishing sixty miles in one day, and in a bold night attack, defeated a large body of Tories on the Black Mingo. Following this up with some smaller successes of the kind, he again attracted the attention of Tarleton, who issued out of Charleston in force for his capture, and when he was fairly on his heels, wearied out and perplexed by the windings of his foe, gave up the chase, it is said, with the exclamation, "Come, my boys! let us go back. We will soon find the Game Cock [Marion's brother partisan, Sumter], but as for this damned Swamp-fox, the devil himself could not catch him."

      The tide was now turning, as the people felt their strength. King's Mountain, in the autumn of this memorable 1780, brought a vast accession of strength to the popular cause, in the proof that the best British troops were not invincible before an aroused yeomanry; but there was much yet to be done before the day of final deliverance was secured. It was a slow, weary, harassing policy which was to be pursued, of surprises and escapes, of self-denial and endurance, of the watchful, unyielding virtue of Marion and his men. They took post in an island fortress of wooded swamp land, at the junction of the Pedee and Lynch's Creek, known as the "camp of Marion," where he recruited his forces, husbanded his strength, and sallied forth on his raids against the foe. This is the spot where the popular admiration of Marion finds its home and centre. "His career as a partisan," says his faithful biographer, the novelist Simms, "in the thickets and swamps of Carolina, is abundantly distinguished by the picturesque; but it was while he held his camp at Snow's Island that it received its highest colors of romance. In this snug and impenetrable fortress, he reminds us very much of the ancient feudal baron of France and Germany, who, perched on a castled eminence, looked down with the complacency of an eagle from his eyrie, and marked all below him for his own. The resemblance is good in all respects but one. The plea and justification of Marion are complete. His warfare was legitimate." It is in this place the scene is laid of an interview with the British officer, so familiar to the public in popular narratives and pictorial illustration. A flag from the enemy, at the neighboring post of Georgetown, is received with the design of an exchange of prisoners. The officer is admitted blindfold into the encampment, and on the bandage being taken from his eyes, is surprised equally at the diminutive size of the General and the simplicity of his quarters. He had expected, it is said, to see some formidable personage of the sons of Anak of the standard military figure, which, as Mr. Simms remarks, averaged, in the opposing generals during the war, more than two hundred pounds. On the contrary, he saw "a swarthy, smoke-dried little man, with scarcely enough of threadbare homespun to cover his nakedness, and instead of tall ranks of gay-dressed soldiers, a handful of sunburnt, yellow-legged militiamen, some roasting potatoes, and some asleep, with their black firelocks and powder-horns lying by them on the logs." This is Weems's narrative, a little colored with his full brush, but true enough as to detail. The improvement which he works up from the plain potato presented as a dinner to the officer, is equally sound as a moral, though we will not vouch for the exact expression of the sentiment. As a specimen of Weems, it is characteristic; but certainly Marion never talked in the fashion of this zealous biographer.

      The Briton, however, entrenched at Charleston, and with his double line of forts encompassing the interior, was not all at once driven out. When he was compelled to leave, it was by the slow process of an exhaustion, to which even victory contributed; for every British conquest in that region was as costly as a defeat. Greene came with his Fabian policy, acquired in the school of Washington, to repair the errors of Gates. It was a course with which the policy of Marion was quite in agreement, attacking the enemy when they were vulnerable; at other moments retreating before them. Both officers knew well how to drain the vitality of the British army. Greene appreciated Marion. "I like your plan," he wrote to him, "of frequently shifting your ground. We must endeavor to keep up a partisan war." He sent Lieutenant-Colonel Lee to his aid, and together they attempted the capture of Georgetown in a night attack, which was but partially successful, in consequence of a loss of time and the want of artillery. Though not fully carried out, it served as a diversion and alarm in the rear of Cornwallis, who now, after the defeat of an important portion of his force under Tarleton, was advancing rapidly through North Carolina at the heels of Greene. Lee was recalled to join his commander, and Marion continued his partisan warfare in South Carolina. He was after a while reinforced by Greene on his return to the State, and assisted that general greatly in the movements which resulted in imprisoning the enemy in Charleston. After a brilliant affair with the British, in conjunction with Lee and Sumter, and other bold spirits, he hastened to Greene in time for the battle of Eutaw, in which engagement he commanded the right of the South Carolina militia, and gallantly sustained the fierce attack of the enemy. Toward the close of the war, he took his seat in the Legislative Assembly which met at Jacksonborough, as the representative of St. John, Berkeley. He was engaged in one or two further conflicts with the enemy, and the struggle which he had so manfully sustained was at an end.

      He now retired to his plantation, to find it broken up by the incursions of the British. While engaged in its restoration, he was sent as representative of the district to the Senate of the State. It is recorded to his credit that he displayed in this situation a ready magnanimity toward Tory offenders in preserving their lands from confiscation.

      "It was war, then," said he; "it is peace now. God has given us the victory. Let us show our gratitude to heaven, which we shall not do by cruelty to man." In the same lofty spirit, he refused to receive any advantages from a bill exempting the soldiers of the militia from prosecution for acts committed in the service. He felt that his conduct needed no shelter. The Legislature rewarded him with thanks, and the more substantial appointment of Commandant of the Port of Charleston, a nominal office, with the salary of #500, which were cut down to dollars. A timely marriage, however, with a wealthy lady of Huguenot descent, Miss Mary Videau, a spinster of fifty, who was attracted by the hero, relieved him of pecuniary anxieties, leaving him an old age of ease in agricultural pursuits. He still represented his parish in the State Senate, and sat in 1790 in the Convention for forming the Constitution. In 1794 he resigned his military commission given to him by Rutledge, and the following year, yielding to a gradual decline, expired on February 27th, at the age of sixty-three.

      Marion was a true, unflinching patriot--a man of deeds, and not of words; a prudent, sagacious soldier, not sudden or quick in quarrel, but resolute to the end; a good disciplinarian, and beloved by his men, who came at his call.

      There was no power of coercion, such as restrains the hired soldier, in his little band; it was held together only by the cohesive force of patriotism and attachment to the leader. We hear of no acts of cruelty to stain the glory of his victories, but much of his magnanimity.

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