Outfoxing the British: Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion Used Ingenuity and Unorthodox Tactics to Play a Significant Role in the War for Independence. (History-Struggle for Freedom)

By Gilmore, Jodie | The New American, July 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

Outfoxing the British: Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion Used Ingenuity and Unorthodox Tactics to Play a Significant Role in the War for Independence. (History-Struggle for Freedom)


Gilmore, Jodie, The New American


General Francis Marion's heart must have sunk as he halted his men at the edge of the pine barrens around Fort Watson, South Carolina, on April 16, 1781. Situated on a 30- to 40-foot-high ancient Santee Indian mound, the fort was surrounded by a wide expanse of cleared ground. Halfway up the hill lay three rows of abatis, an obstacle composed of felled trees stripped of their leaves and smaller branches with remaining branches sharpened into points.

Attacking such a fortress seemed impossible with his small brigade, which included a contingent of Colonel Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee's infantry. He and Lee had about 80 men altogether, while the British had 120. Conventional military wisdom recommends that the attacking force have twice as many troops as the defense -- and there he was, planning to attack a highly fortified position with an inferior force. Yet the man known as the "Swamp Fox" was determined, as always, to beat the odds. Fort Watson, he well understood, enabled the British to control movement on the Santee River as well as traffic on the main road between Camden and Charleston. Its capture would severely weaken the British chokehold on South Carolina.

Creatively Taking the High Ground

Spotting Marion's forces, British Lieutenant James McKay ordered his men to fire upon the Americans. Although the bullets fell harmlessly short, they served notice that the British weren't about to give up the fort without a fight.

After a brief but unsuccessful exchange of musket volleys, Marion turned his attention to what appeared to be the fort's most vulnerable point -- its water supply. Ordering several sharpshooters with long rifles to mount the bluff overlooking Scott's Lake, he soon fully controlled the water source. But McKay, determined to hold his own, set his men to digging a well. On April 18th, they struck water, nullifying their need for an outside water source.

Not only had the Americans now wasted three days, but Marion's already meager force was dwindling. These were men who thrived on hit-and-run, exciting sorties. Bored by the inactivity of simply watching the exterior fort walls, members of his militia started dispersing to their nearby farms. A few more days of this, and he wouldn't have any troops. And, to make matters worse, smallpox struck his camp, debilitating or scaring off even more of his men. Although he had sent a request to General Nathanael Greene, asking for a small cannon, he had received neither a reply nor a field piece.

For another five days, Marion's and McKay's men continued to exchange occasional, mostly futile, musket fire. American morale continued to plummet. As Lee wrote in his 1812 reminiscences, "destitute of both artillery and intrenching tools, Marion and [I] despaired of success."

But on April 20th, all that changed. Lt. Col. Hezekiah Maham, one of Marion's s partisans, hatched a scheme. He suggested they build a wooden tower overlooking the fort, enabling the Americans to shoot directly down into the enclosure. Marion enthusiastically adopted the idea, and his men, glad to be doing something constructive at last, zealously threw themselves into the work. Marion deployed several details to scour the surrounding countryside for axes, then formed cutting parties to fell the plentiful tall, straight, pine saplings.

The ring of axes continued nonstop, while other groups of soldiers hurriedly limbed the fallen timbers, and still others ported the logs on their shoulders to landings just outside the fort's musket range. One can only marvel at men who could, without even a draft horse or ox, cut and haul several hundred logs. Then, since the tower had to be constructed within gunshot range of the fort, these same men, without rest, constructed the entire tower overnight in the pitch dark. At daybreak on April 23rd, McKay beheld a rude but functional tower, with a protective rampart at the top, overlooking his previously safe refuge. …

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