240 years ago, on 30 August 1781, a surprise attack against the British just west of Charleston, South Carolina changed the course of the American Revolution. The David-and-Goliath scale of the Patriots’ victory at Parker’s Ferry affirmed the reputation of the man behind the strategy: Francis Marion, also known as the “Swamp Fox.”
Francis Marion, Army Ranger: The Swamp Fox
Born in Berkeley County, South Carolina in 1732, Francis Marion was the son of Huguenots who had immigrated to the area sometime before 1700, from France. Francis was a small boy who grew to be a small (barely five feet tall) man with knock-knees, a thin frame, and a reputation for toughness that he earned when he was just a teenager.
At age 15 Marion left home to work onboard a ship traveling to the West Indies (Caribbean). Having possibly collided with a whale, the ship sank. Over a week later Marion and six crewmates were discovered floating in a lifeboat and lived to tell the tale.
Marion returned to South Carolina and in 1757 was recruited to serve in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), during which he participated in actions against the Cherokee people. The Cherokee War (considered part of the greater French and Indian War) was notably brutal, more of a series of bloody raids and ambushes than a traditional engagement of troops. By the time the American Revolution began in 1775, Marion was well trained in sneak attacks and surviving in the forest.
Marion’s experience in the South Carolina militia made him well qualified to take on new foes in the South Carolina landscape with which he was so familiar. In 1776 Marion was assigned a regiment of Provincial troops and he oversaw their training and not always successful battles for the next three years. In 1779 another unpredictable accident changed the course of Marion’s life. He was attending a dinner party in Charleston and, because the host wished to make a toast to the American cause, all the doors and windows in the house had been locked for safety. Marion didn’t drink and thus sought an escape from the alcoholic celebration. He finally jumped out a second-story window to get out of the house. He broke his ankle in the fall, which forced him to leave the city to recuperate at his country home. While there, Charleston fell to the British. But Marion, once again, was saved.
Now that they held the important port city of Charleston, the British were in firm control of South Carolina. With a small percentage of the number of troops the British had, Marion formed a militia and trained them in the stealthy tactics he’d learned during his war against the Cherokee. He taught his troops how to camouflage themselves in foliage, how to creep silently through underbrush, and in setting traps for the enemy.
In August 1780 Marion’s men successfully attacked and raided a British encampment, managing to free 150 American prisoners as they did. During that year Marion’s successes at Tearcoat Swamp, Great Savannah, Black Mingo, and Georgetown brought renown to him and his methods. Marion’s men often focused on disrupting the enemy by interfering with their communications and supply lines. He was earning a reputation amongst the British for being a notable pest. To the American Patriots, he became a folk hero.
It was late in 1780 when Marion earned his nickname. By this point the British knew Marion’s name and had targeted him for attack, if possible. Acting on information provided by an escaped prisoner, British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton ordered his troops to pursue Marion. After following him for 26 miles through the Carolina swamps the British lost his trail. "As for this damned old fox,” Tarleton later wrote of Marion, “the Devil himself could not catch him." After this getaway the Patriots began calling him the “Swamp Fox” with affection.
Marion continued his war of attrition against the British, forcing the larger force to split up into smaller groups looking for Marion and weakening their defence. In August 1781 Marion was informed that the Loyalist Commander William "Bloody Bill" Cunningham was planning to join his regiment with a larger group of British and Hessian soldiers at a crossing of the Pon Pon River (now known as the Edisto River).
Marion positioned his troops to hide in the forest surrounding a narrow causeway leading to the Parker’s Ferry crossing. When over 600 Loyalist troops arrived on 30 August 1781 they marched right into Marion’s trap. By the end of the ambush attack the Loyalists had over 125 killed and 80 wounded, while Marion’s militia of 445 had only one dead and three wounded.
Thanks to Marion’s ambush the British were unable to join up with larger supplemental forces and they were forced back to Charleston. In the Battle of Eutaw Springs eight days later both sides claimed victory, but for the British it was the last major fight in Carolinas. A few months later the war effectively ended with the American victory in Yorktown, Virginia and Marion’s military career was over. He returned to his plantation in South Carolina where he served in the South Carolina Senate and died there 1795, at the age of 63.
Today Marion is recognized as one of the innovators in modern guerrilla warfare and of the U.S. Army Rangers and the 75th Army Rangers Regiment, and the Parker’s Ferry Ambush is acknowledged as one of the turning points of the American Revolution.
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Records of a Revolution: Identifying Your Ancestor’s Revolutionary War Service
If you don’t spend a lot of time researching Revolutionary War or Colonial-era records, it can be a difficult task to determine what might be available to identify the military service of your ancestors and what those records mean. Sometimes there can be an abundance of documentation with dates, battles and first-hand accounts, and other times it may be one small notation.
Much like the current events of today, the Revolution was inescapable for anyone living in the colonies. In 1775, there were about 2.5 million inhabitants of the colonies, this is slightly less than the population of modern-day Chicago. The British government was expanding the levy of taxes on most goods which affected everyday life, and the populace was split, Patriots versus Loyalists – those who wanted a new nation and those loyal to the Crown. Skirmishes, sieges and battles happened in all of the thirteen colonies and in states that were not yet formed, such as Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana and Tennessee, as well as in Canada and in the Bahamas. War was all around.
When researching the military service of Revolutionary War ancestors, there were four “tiers” of troops in which your ancestor may have been a part:
Continental Army– Created by the Second Continental Congress in 1775 and comprised of volunteer soldiers, mostly between the ages of 15 and 30, from all thirteen colonies who enlisted for a period of one to three years. At any given time the Continental Army never had over 48,000 soldiers (or more than 13,000 in one place) and a total of about 231,000 served over the course of the war. The Continental Army was the foundation for the United States Army.
Continental Navy and Marine Corps– Also created by the Second Continental Congress in 1775 and took its direction from the naval and marine committees of Congress. In 1776, there were only 27 ships and the number dwindled to 20 by the end of the war; many of the skilled seamen left the Navy to become privateers. Although much lesser known and utilized during the war, these were the early foundations of the United States Navy and Marine Corps.
Colonial (State) Militias– The British government actually established organized militias of citizen-soldiers for each colony (state) after the French and Indian War (1754-1763) to alleviate the expense of garrisoning regular soldiers in the colonies (this is why you will often see civilian records organized by military district or under the jurisdiction of a Captain, such as in tax records). All males aged 16 to 45 were generally required to serve in the militia and maintain arms and equipment necessary for service (the exact age ranges and duties differed by state). During the war they would complete tours of an average of about three months, and may have completed five or more tours when called to various duties (such as garrison guards or gathering provisions, or to supplement the Continental Army when needed), so the service was not necessarily continuous. Within each colony, there were militias for both the Patriots and Loyalists.
Local Militias – Local town militias could be raised quickly for their own defense when necessary. Often these were self-formed and “unorganized;” the Minutemen of Massachusetts, the first to engage at the opening Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, were local militiamen. Their service was often called up quickly and dispersed within hours or days as need arose and abated.
Some of the major record sets for military service in the Revolutionary War are:
Compiled Service Records- These are abstracted service cards for regular soldiers of the Continental Army and for the militias, volunteers and other units who served with them. These records are essentially abstracts of select information from regimental lists such as muster rolls and pay cards which are excellent for providing you with unit information, rank and a timeline of service. It is possible for a soldier to have more than one set of these service cards depending on which units he served with throughout the war. The Army service records constitute NARA record group M881 (about 350,000 cards) and the Navy service records record group M880 (about 2,000 cards); both have been 100% digitized on Fold3.
Revolutionary War Rolls are the unit records which primarily consist of pay rolls from 1775 to 1783. These are the original records from which the service records were abstracted. Using information from the Compiled Service Record, you may be able to locate the unit in which your ancestor served and find the company, name, rank, pay information, other members of the unit and any other pertinent information which could vary by unit. These pay rolls constitute NARA record group M246 and contain over 1.6 million images; the record group is 100% digitized on Fold3.
Pension Files and Bounty-Land Warrant Applications, although two separate records, are grouped together in National Archives publication M804. Pensions were provided by the federal government for disability, service in specified time periods and to widows whose spouse had either been killed during the war or served for a specific period of time. Pension files are the richest in biographical and genealogical data and can contain additional information such as family bible pages or marriage records which are no longer otherwise extant. Bounty land was land set aside by the federal government (such as Ohio’s Virginia Military Survey district) or by states like New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia as a reward for service. This land could be claimed by veterans or their heirs through an application filed at the local courthouse. If your ancestors moved after the war ended, searching the bounty land applications may provide you with a wealth of new information. The index to the pension and bounty land applications can be found on FamilySearch and the images, 10.2 million which are 99% digitized, can be found on Fold3 or obtained through the National Archives.
The 1835 Pension Roll was a list of pensioners, provided to Congress by the Secretary of War, who were or had been on the pension roll and included both veterans of the Revolution and the War of 1812. It provided names, dates, service and pension information and, in some cases, death dates. This roll covered 27 states and one district. The original printing has been digitized onGoogle Books in three volumes, organized by state, and the 1992 reprint can be found in four volumes on Ancestry.
State Records – States often have their own sets of records from the war and have also, in the centuries since, undertaken extensive collection and preservation to document the veterans of their state. These can be found in special archival collections and published works which vary by state. Sometimes these records have been digitized and are available online, but most often they can be found in State Library and Archive facilities. Familiarize yourself with state records for the war, and include states where veterans may have migrated, these records are not exclusive to the original colonies.
If you have patriot ancestors who were taken prisoner of war, or ancestors who were Loyalists or British soldiers, you may also want to search the Library and Archives Canada and The National Archives of the United Kingdom, these records will be covered more thoroughly in a future article.
Although these are just some of the records available to identify military service of Revolutionary War ancestors, they provide an excellent starting point with varying types of information that can offer exciting new details about your family history!
The article Utilizing Muster Rolls to Identify the Dead provides additional insight into the uses for muster rolls created during the Revolutionary War.
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Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Soldiers in Uniform WDL2960.png : 25 August 2021), digital image of original watercolor, Jean Baptists Antoine de Verger (1762-1851), taken, ca. 1781-1784, ” File:Soldiers in Uniform WDL2960.png;” file uploaded by Fæ.