Washington monument for a “damned old fox”

W. Thomas Smith, Jr
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Posted: Feb 13, 2006 12:38 PM

As a boy riding in the family car down an oak-lined dirt road leading to my uncle’s summer house on South Carolina’s Santee River, I remember standing in the back-seat floorboard as Dad – who was driving – waved his free hand toward shadows in the dark woods. “Francis Marion used to gallop down this same highway,” Dad would say, giving me a wink. “Yep, it was just a trail then. Those ol’ redcoats would be hot after him, but they never could ketch ‘im.”

Most Carolina boys may recall similar stories told by fathers and grandfathers of the man we came to believe was something more akin to a Robin Hood figure than a horse-soldier. But Francis Marion was a soldier albeit an irregular soldier or guerrilla. Indeed, he was and is one of the most celebrated guerrilla fighters, not only in American military history, but in American military tradition. And amateur historian John Franklin McCabe is on a quest for some Washington, D.C. recognition of him.

Recently, McCabe, a Columbia, S.C.-based financial advisor, was visiting the nation’s capitol when he began to look for South Carolina Avenue on a city map. “I asked myself, if there’s Pennsylvania Avenue, Massachusetts Avenue and others, where is South Carolina Avenue?” That question and a short stroll down a two-lane road led him to “Marion Park,” a small public common in the inner-city with no monument to its eponym who McCabe argues made the District of Columbia possible.

Not that there aren’t many historic figures in American history without – and who deserve – national monuments. But as McCabe says, none are more significant than Marion.

Anyone with a real grasp of the American Revolution understands that despite the enormously justifiable classroom recognition given to operations in New England, the Southern campaigns of that war often get short shrift: Yet it was in the South that the tide actually began to turn against the British army in North America. Moreover, no Southern commander was more instrumental in shifting that tide than Marion.

WHO WAS MARION?

A physically slight man of Huguenot ancestry who would ultimately become a state senator, Marion cut his command teeth during the French and Indian War, including service as a Colonial Militia lieutenant in an independent campaign against the Cherokee in 1761. By the time the American Revolution broke out in 1775, he was a 43-year-old veteran officer.

Rapidly promoted from captain to lieutenant colonel, Marion served in both the successful June 1776 defense of Charleston, S.C. against Britain’s Royal Navy and an unsuccessful attack against British defenses in Savannah, Georgia in 1779. The following year, he was promoted to brigadier general, and therein began his legendary career as “the swamp fox:”

Time-and-again, the King’s men were struck by the so-called “will-‘o-the-wisp” Marion and his rag-tag band of irregulars. Though referred to as “Marion’s Brigade,” the unit was essentially a company-sized force of Black and White patriots, some slave, some free, all of whom subsisted on little more than cold sweet potatoes and river water, and often slept in their saddles. Yet, they were constantly striking where they were least expected – killing the enemy, snatching prisoners, seizing supplies, cutting lines of communication – then melting away into the dark Carolina backcountry before the British knew what had hit them.

THE FAMOUS MONIKER

Following the British defeat at Kings Mountain, S.C. in the fall of 1780, British General Charles Cornwallis who had recently moved his headquarters from Camden, S.C. to Charlotte, N.C.; pulled back into South Carolina and regrouped at Winnsboro. From there he sent Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton and his green-jacketed dragoons (mounted infantry) on a mission to track and destroy Marion and his guerillas.

Across open fields and through misty pine thickets, Tarleton’s men followed tracks, leads, and rumors. But when Marion slipped into the deep swamp, any effective chase was all but over.

In one instance, after a continuous pursuit of some 26 miles, Tarleton halted. He then turned his horse and trotted along his lines, his hat’s ostrich-plume bouncing above him as he reviewed his exhausted troopers.

Then tugging on the horse’s reigns and wheeling the animal about, he shouted in his cocky Lancashire accent: “Come my boys! Let us go back and we will find the Gamecock [Gen. Thomas Sumter]. But as to this damned old fox, the devil himself could not catch him.”

The moniker, with the addition of the geographic modifier – “Swamp” – stuck.

“A HORDE OF SAVAGES”

In their book, The Life of General Francis Marion, Brig. Gen. Peter Horry and Parson Mason L. Weems (Yes, the same over-dramatizing Parson Weems who spawned the legend of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree) published a letter from British Colonel John Watson to Marion that reads: “Why sir, you must certainly command a horde of savages, who delight in nothing but murder. I can't cross a swamp or a bridge, but I am waylaid and shot at as if I were a mad dog. Even my sentries are fired at and killed on their posts. Why, my God, sir! This is not the way that Christians ought to fight!"

Marion’s purported response to Watson’s letter stated that from what he knew of British officers, he was as duty bound to kill them as he was the wild animals of the woods.

“A haunting nemesis” is how author Robert D. Bass described Marion in his book, Swamp Fox. “He usually struck at midnight, slaughtering and frightening and throwing his enemies into a panic.”

Preeminent British historians John Keegan and Andrew Wheatcroft may have provided the best single description of Marion in Who’s Who in Military History: “Marion’s hit-and-run tactics against the British during Cornwallis’ advance into the South proved effective. … His attacks showed how a tiny band of skirmishers, who had the advantage of terrain on their side, could unhinge the operations of a much larger body of traditionally deployed troops, even troops who had been led to expect this type of attack.”

CLAIMING “THE SWAMP FOX”

Histories aside, Marion often is given marginal treatment in grades K-12, yet his legend is such that that everyone in America seems to want to claim him as their own.

Nationwide, some 29 towns and cities, 17 counties, countless streets and highways, one National Forest, a lake, a four-year liberal arts university, amusement park rides, myriad small businesses, one hotel, and at least one park (the spare acre-and-half near the U.S. Capitol) are named for Marion.

But the U.S. armed forces have staked the greatest claim to the “damned old fox.” After all, Marion is considered one of the fathers of American irregular warfare. He is in fact, the father of U.S. Army Special Forces (perhaps grandfather, since, in many circles, the late Col. Aaron Bank is considered the “father of the Green Berets”). Marion is a member of the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame. Both the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have named ships after Marion, one of which was designed to land U.S. Marines.

Even military pilots claim the lineage, including the “swamp foxes” of the Army’s Vietnam-era 199th Recon Airplane Company; the Navy’s current 44th Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (Light), based at Mayport Naval Station, Florida; and the famous 157th Fighter Squadron of the S.C. Air National Guard. Currently flying F-16 fighters, the 157th has fought in numerous conflicts and overseas expeditions – including Iraq during Gulf War I and over Afghanistan in the current global war on terror – where the jets are easily recognizable by the gray “swamp fox” emblazoned on the fuselage.

Nevertheless, there is only one statue to Marion in North America, says McCabe, that being in the city square of Marion, S.C. (Though one will soon be placed in S.C.’s Berkley County Courthouse.)

WASHINGTON RECOGNITION

Since his return from D.C., McCabe has been phoning and meeting with everyone from sculptors to architects to Congressmen to U.S. Park Service officials. He’s also been crunching numbers. The cost he says will be approximately $500,000, to be paid for through grants, private donations, and a capital campaign.

According to an email received by McCabe from the office of U.S. Congressman Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), the Marion monument project has already received the blessings of U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), as well as Congressmen Henry Brown (R–S.C.), Gresham Barrett (R–S.C.), Bob Inglis (R–S.C.), John Spratt (D–S.C.), James Clyburn (D–S.C.), and Wilson. The next step is the actual bill, which McCabe believes, will be introduced in Congress over the coming weeks. Not waiting on legislation, officials with the Department of the Interior are pressing forward with a Marion-monument meeting slated for March 24.

McCabe’s monument to Marion is not simply an effort based on a passion for military history. Granted, the passion is there, but as McCabe says, “Washington is the most powerful city in the world, and Marion is one of the primary reasons why that city exists.”