Patriot Francis Marion Earns His Famous Nickname — "The Swamp Fox”— After a Futile Chase by British Commander Banastre Tarleton
While the British and Loyalists occupied Charleston in the fall of 1780, Patriot Colonel Francis Marion and his brigade of unconventional fighters patrolled the Lowcountry, destroying supply routes and executing guerrilla raids against the enemy in the swamps and forests of rural South Carolina. British Lieutenant General Cornwallis seethed with anger at Marion’s harassment of his army and was frustrated by the Patriot commander’s elusiveness. He ordered one of his most cold-hearted officers, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, to capture or kill Marion. In November 1780, Tarleton set out after his adversary, beginning a long and winding chase through about 26 miles of unforgiving landscape that ended near this spot.
Both commanders were determined, and both were hard fighters, but Marion knew the backroads and impassable swamps of this region well. On November 8, he led Tarleton on a meandering course from Jack’s Creek northwest of Nelson’s Ferry and proceeded to Benbow’s Ferry to await Tarleton’s arrival. For more than seven hours Tarleton pursued Marion, driving his cavalry supply wagons, and two pieces of artillery at a pace that made his horses drop in their tracks. Some British Legion riders lost their mounts and were left to trot along until they, too, expired from exhaustion. When Tarleton’s scouts reported that Marion’s route headed into the unnavigable Ox Swamp, Tarleton finally gave up. Upset at letting the Patriot menace slip through his grasp, the despairing Tarleton remarked “as for this damned old fox, the devil himself could not catch him!” The phrase inspired Marion’s illustrious nickname, “The Swamp Fox.”
Tarleton, failing to catch Marion, punished the surrounding community. Marion reported: “Col. Tarleton has burnt all the houses, and destroyed all the corn, from Camden down to Nelson’s Ferry... It is distressing to see women and children sitting in the open air around a fire, without a blanket, or any clothing but what they had on ..., for he spares neither Whig nor Tory.” Ultimately, Tarleton’s cruel tactics backfired and persuaded many South Carolinians to turn against the British and actively support the Patriot cause.