The Brits Slander A Hero of the Revolution, Francis Marion

Frances Marion, the father of our modern special ops units, was both one of the finest military commanders our nation has ever produced and a good man. The slander that he was a “savage” killer and rapist is the worst of calumny.

Three things no one should ever trust: a wooden nickel; our historic temperature record, and history as rewritten by left-wing British historians.  So it is with the Daily Mail in their commentary yesterday on a 2000 film, The Patriot, which they cite for being one of the most historically inaccurate films ever made. According to the Mail:

The Patriot follows the life and times of an American colonist who fights in the American Revolutionary War against the British during the 18th century.

By his own admission, the scriptwriter was at pains to say that protagonist Benjamin Martin was a composite figure based on the life of four real-life figures from the war.

However that doesn’t stop the blockbuster movie, directed by Roland Emmerich, from being littered with historical inaccuracies, such as British forces being portrayed as evil and bloodthirsty psychopaths.

The most controversial scene sees said-British sadists rounding up a village of crying women and children and locking them in a church, which they then raze to the ground.

Martin is shown as a family man in the film, but one of the men his character is based on, Francis Marion, was a savage individual who killed Cherokee Indians for sport and raped his female slaves.

Some moviegoers also pointed out the film’s general ignorance of slavery, which was a prominent part of American life during the period, with the black slaves featured in the movie shown as happy-go-lucky individuals.

Black filmmaker Spike Lee said of the film: ‘For three hours The Patriot dodged around, skirted about or completely ignored slavery. The Patriot is pure, blatant American Hollywood propaganda.’

Let’s try to unpack this scurrilous and grossly inaccurate little blurb from the Mail.

It is historically accurate to portray the British forces in South Carolina, circa 1779, as “evil and bloodthirsty” from the perspective of the colonists.  While the Daily Mail is correct that the incident of burning the Church with women and children locked inside did not happen, the Brits committed a lot of other evil and bloodthirsty acts that did not make it into the movie.  The Church burning was a stand in for the many atrocities that the Brits and Loyalists committed during the Southern Campaign.

To mention just a few, first know that the antagonist in The Patriot, Colonel Travis, was based on the actual historical figure of Lord Cornwallis’s most trusted subordinate during the Southern Campaign, Banastre Tarleton.  Tarleton was the British commander of a mixed regiment of colonial Loyalists and British regulars known as the British Legion.  Tarleton became infamous in South Carolina shortly after the Southern Campaign commenced for his slaughter and serious wounding of some 260 soldiers trying to surrender during the Waxhaws Massacre.  Indeed, that act was largely responsible for solidifying Patriot resistance to the British in SC.  The rallying cry of Carolina Patriots thereafter became “show the Brits Tarleton’s quarter.”

The British did in fact burn several Presbyterian and Congregationalist Churches in SC, claiming that they were the source of colonial sedition.  Further, the Brits adopted a policy of summarily hanging those they suspected of having taken up arms against them.  Raping and pillaging were not official policy of the British military, but none the less such acts were committed by the British soldiers and their attached loyalist militia and Hessian units with all too much regularity during the Southern Campaign.  In one particularly heinous incident, Captain Huck, a Loyalist commander in Tarleton’s regiment, happening upon a young boy sitting by the road reading a Bible, ordered him bayoneted as a spy.  And then there were the prison ships used by Britain to house prisoners of war in Charleston Harbor and elsewhere.  The conditions in those hulks were beyond hellish, and more colonists lost their lives on prison ships than did in actual battle during the Revolution.

So is it fair to say that to the average colonist in South Carolina, circa 1779 – 1780, the Brits appeared brutal, evil and bloodthirsty?  Absolutely.

Now we get to Francis Marion.  He was an American hero of the Revolution whose development of guerrilla warfare fighting behind British lines has made him one of the fathers of our modern special operations forces.  But was he, as The Guardian originally reported in 2000, and now parroted by The Daily Mail, also “a savage individual who killed Cherokee Indians for sport and raped his female slaves?”  There is not a single thing in the historical record to support any of those assertions.  None.

Over a decade prior to the Revolution, in the midst of the French and Indian war, about half the Cherokee fell under the influence of the French, who were able to convince the Cherokee to go to war on the colonists in South Carolina.  It was called the Anglo-Cherokee War.

When any of the Indian Tribes abutting the colonies went to war, it was brutal.  Civilians, very much including women and children, were fair game for the Indians.  Those who were attacked by the Indians and captured alive could face anything from execution by ritual torture to forced adoption into the tribe.  So it was with the Cherokee.  The worst incident of the war came in 1760 at the Long Canes Massacre, when a group of Cherokee fell upon a group of colonial families in a wagon train heading to Augusta, away from Cherokee lands.  The Cherokee slaughtered dozens, abducted some of the children, then mutilated and scalped the children they did not abduct.

When the colonists of South Carolina went on the offense against the Cherokee in 1760, the goals were to end the Cherokee raids on the colonists and to “chastise” the Cherokee until they sued for peace. The 1760 expedition was meant to be a joint force of British regulars and the South Carolina militia, which at the time included all able bodied men between 16 and 45.  But only a few colonists went on the first expedition into Cherokee country because of a massive small pox epidemic throughout the colony.  When LTC Montgomorie, commanding the British force, marched into the back country of SC to engage the Cherokee, he did so with express orders from the overall commander of the British Forces in North America, General Jeffery Amherst, to grant no quarter to Cherokee braves, but to spare and take prisoner any Cherokee women and children that they came upon.  Does that sound like colonists killing Cherokee for sport?  Or does it sound like “killing for sport” is the worst of politically correct historical revisionism?

At any rate, according to the single most authoritative biography written on Frances Marion, The Life of Francis Marion by William Gilmore Simms, Marion likely did not go on the 1760 expedition.  The Cherokee defeated this expedition at the First Battle of Echoee Pass,  The next year, in 1761, the small pox was a distant memory and most of the militia, including Francis Marion, turned out.  This time, a combined force of British regulars and South Carolina militia marched towards Cherokee lands.  This time, the orders of General Amherst were to grant no quarter to any Cherokee.

The Cherokee were on their home territory in densely forested and mountainous terrain.  They attempted another major ambush of the 1761 expedition, but the British regulars and colonial militia won the battle.  After that, the expedition marched from one Cherokee village to the next, always finding them deserted, and in a scorched earth campaign, destroyed the villages and surrounding crops.  Other than the one significant ambush and a few minor skirmishes, the Cherokee simply melted away from the expedition.  There were precious few Indian casualties, though many, perhaps a majority of the Cherokee, saw their lands destroyed before they finally sued for peace — a peace that was granted upon very generous terms by the South Carolinians.

In his biography of Marion, Sims includes a letter Marion wrote to a friend while on the expedition.  It is worth reading in its entirety:

We arrived . . .at the Indian towns in the month of July. As the lands were rich, and the season had been favorable, the corn was bending under the double weight of lusty roasting ears and pods of clustering beans. The furrows seemed to rejoice under their precious loads — the fields stood thick with bread.

We encamped the first night in the woods, near the fields, where the whole army feasted on the young corn, which, with fat venison, made a most delicious treat.  The next morning we proceeded, by order of Colonel Grant, to burn down the Indian cabins. Some of our men seemed to enjoy this cruel work, laughing very heartily at the curling flames as they mounted, loud-crackling, over the tops of the huts. But to me it appeared a shocking sight. “Poor creatures!” thought I, “we surely need not grudge you such miserable habitations.” But when we came, according to orders, to cut down the fields of corn, I could scarcely refrain from tears. For who could see the stalks that stood so stately, with broad green leaves and gaily-tasselled shocks, filled with sweet milky fluid, and flour, the staff of life — who, I say, with grief, could see these sacred plants sinking under our swords, with all their precious load, to wither and rot untasted, in their mourning fields !

I saw everywhere around the footsteps of the little Indian children, where they had lately played under the shelter of the rustling corn. No doubt they had often look ed up with joy to the swelling shocks, and gladdened when they thought of their abundant cakes for the coming winter. When we are gone, thought I, they will return, and peeping through the weeds with tearful eyes, will mark the ghastly ruin poured over their homes, and the happy fields where they had so often played. ” Who did this ?” they will ask their mothers. ” The white people, the Christians did it!” will be the reply.

And we are to believe, based on NO factual evidence, that the man who wrote that letter (seemingly the bleeding heart liberal of the Cherokee-Anglo War) was the “savage” who killed Cherokee “for sport?” Or is their calumny against Marion simply part of a condemnation that colonialists defending themselves against Cherokee aggression was unjustified?

Scurrilous lying bastards.

This expedition was the only interaction Marion ever had with the Cherokee, either before or after peace was declared in 1761.  Marion lived near the coast of South Carolina.  Cherokee lands were near two hundred miles to the west.

As Simms writes of Marion before the letter quoted above:

It is pleasing to be able to show that Marion felt, in this matter, as became that rare humanity which was one of the most remarkable and lovely traits in his character,— the more remarkable, indeed, as shining out among endowments which, in particular, designated him for a military life — a life which is supposed to need for its stimulus so much that is sanguinary, if not brutal, in one’s nature.

That comports with all of the research that I have done on Marion.  I am aware of no time when Marion allowed his men to seek revenge against the British or Loyalists in South Carolina despite ample provocation to do so.  When the fighting was over in 1781, he, unlike Gen. Greene and the Continental Army in South Carolina, ended hostilities against the British.  Greene refused to do so, resulting in numerous unnecessary casualties after the war was all but over pending the signing of a peace treaty.  All in all,  Marion was one of the most competent warriors and leaders of men this nation has ever produced, yet he never lost his humanity in all of it.

Turning to blacks and slaves, we know a few facts.  Yes, Marion owned a number of slaves on his farm. both before and after the Revolution.  There is no evidence whatsoever that Marion raped his female slaves.  We know that some black men fought alongside Marion during his guerrilla war against the British.  This from the Smithsonian discusses one of those men, Oscar, one of Marion’s slaves:

In December 2006, two centuries after his death, Marion made news again when President George W. Bush signed a proclamation honoring the man described in most biographies as the “faithful servant, Oscar,” Marion’s personal slave. Bush expressed the thanks of a “grateful nation” for Oscar Marion’s “service…in the Armed Forces of the United States.” Identified by genealogist Tina Jones, his distant relative, Oscar is the African-American cooking sweet potatoes in John Blake White’s painting at the Capitol. Oscar likely “helped with the cooking and mending clothes, but he would also have fought alongside Marion,” says Busick. “We have no way of knowing if Oscar had any say in whether or not he went on campaign with Marion, though I think it is safe to assume that had he wanted to run away to the British he could have easily done so.” Historians know very little about Oscar, but the few details of his story add new interest to the Swamp Fox legend.

Spike Lee’s criticism of The Patriot as “propoganda” for the way it treated slaves is somewhat correct, but the reality is far more complex than the movie showed, and far more complex than Lee’s equally unrealistic and simplistic take which, if I understand him correctly, was that slavery was uniformly brutal, the pinnacle of evil, and any and all interactions between a slave and slave owner should reflect that reality.

For starters, the movie The Patriot was not about slavery.  Thus Mel Gibson can be perhaps forgiven for not living up to Spike Lee’s standards, such as they may be.

So what was the reality of slavery in 18th century America and during the Revolution?  The starting point to understand that is with John Locke, the man whose Judaeo-Christian based theory of natural rights and laws, both emanating from God, was the defining philosophy of the Revolution.  Quite literally, virtually every discussion of rights and laws during the period of 1760 to 1776 was within the framework of Locke’s work, Two Treatises of Government, first published in 1689.

In Chapter IV of his Second Treatise, Locke condemned chattel slavery as violating natural law, though without expressly pointing out that chattel slavery existed in full force then, both in Britain and throughout its colonies.  Locke did not start the abolitionist movement — but by 1779, his philosophy had combined with the Christian religious revival of the First Great Awakening to set the movement in motion.  By 1779, slavery, an institution regularly practiced throughout the world since before the written word, was for the first time coming under sustained attack on moral grounds.  Many of the Founding Fathers, including Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, James Otis Jr., Thomas Jefferson and even Henry Laurens to name a few, were coming to realize, each for their own reasons, that the institution of slavery was a moral wrong and needed to abolished.

Just to run down the abolitionist justifications of these men, Ben Franklin had an epiphany in 1763 when he attended a black school in Philadelphia,  After observing the children at length, he concluded that they were the equal of white students, a conclusion that shattered his prejudices and illusions.  This set him on a path to eventually free his own slaves, and then to become President of the Abolition Society of Philadelphia in 1787.

George Washington had grown up in a slave owning family and been taught that blacks were, by nature, inferior to whites and were happy as slaves.  He was disabused of both notions during the early days of the American Revolution.  One, he found that many blacks wanted to serve in the Continental Army, that he needed them to have any chance against the British, and that they served well.  Two, he found that his “benevolent” treatment of his slaves was not enough to insure their loyalty.  Soon after the war began, more than half of the slaves on his Virginia plantations ran away as soon as the opportunity presented itself.  Washington, imperfect but always intellectually honest, finally took note that for blacks in America, freedom was every bit as sweet to them as to every other colonist.  After the war, Washington privately opined that he strongly supported abolition.

John Adams owned no slaves and supported the concept of abolition from its start.  His only concern, one shared by all of the Founding Fathers, was how to abolish slavery while providing for the former slaves to be educated and have an orderly and productive integration into civil society.

John Adams was of the opinion that the start of the Revolution began in 1761, when Boston attorney James Otis Jr. argue John Locke’s theories of natural law to a Massachusetts court in Paxton’s Case.  Although Paxton’s case dealt with general warrants, Adams record that, during his argument, Otis roundly condemned slavery on Locke’s theories, becoming the first and most notable of American colonists outside the pulpit to do so.

Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner by inheritance and, seemingly always running in the red, could not and did not emancipate his slaves.  That said, there was no more eloquent opponent of slavery on moral grounds then Jefferson.  Indeed, when Jefferson wrote the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, he was repeating an argument on Locke’s natural rights and natural law that he, Jefferson, had made in a courtroom a few years earlier when representing a slave seeking his freedom.

Then there was Henry Laurens, for many years a partner in the largest slave trading business in the American colonies.  Laurens had no moral issue with slavery for most of his life, but he raised a son who did have such moral issues. Henry Lauren’s son John became the most vociferous champion of abolition in South Carolina and often discussed his thoughts with his father.  He did influence his father in the end.  Even Henry Laurens would come to see the moral problem with slavery and, at his death, emancipated all of his slaves.

All of that said, it still leaves a truly vexing question.  All of the people I just named, and indeed, virtually all but the most cynical of slave owners looked in their mirror every morning and saw a good, moral person.   How could they?  Did they not recognize the cognitive dissonance?

For starters, slavery was the norm of the world throughout all of history until then.  There was no moral stain associated with owning slaves in the 18th century among any of the people world wide.  The word “slave” derives from the word “slav,” as in the Slavic people of central Europe who were so regularly enslaved by conquering armies during the Roman Era and the Dark Ages that their very nationality became synonymous with the institution of slavery.  Slavery was practiced at one time or another by virtually all nations, and people of virtually every nationality on this earth were, at one time or another, enslaved.  Slavery did not begin with British American colonists and Africans.  To the contrary, it was eventually ended as an accepted practice in the world by the Americans and British.

By the 18th century, African slavery was practiced in America not merely by white Europeans, but Indian tribes and free blacks as well.  On the world stage, it was not just the Europeans who practiced slavery.  The Muslims made the Europeans look like amateurs when it came to enslaving others, especially African blacks.  Slavery was rarely cast as a moral issue until John Locke’s condemnation in 1689 and then the start of the abolition movement on Christian religious grounds by several protestant sects in the mid 1700’s.

Moreover, I think that while many of the slave owners who came to maturity prior to the revolution deluded themselves in order to ignore the cognitive dissonance of considering themselves morally upstanding while owning slaves.  Others were more clear eyed, the most interesting of whom is John Laurens.  I do not yet know enough what drove John Laurens to become an abolitionist.  I do know that growing up on a huge slave plantation, that he must have seen two very different worlds.  On one hand, he surely would have seen the whippings and casual brutality laid upon the field slaves by the overseers.  On the other, he would have seen his father’s close relationship with his domestic slaves.  He would have watched as his father cried while embracing a particular slave near death, promising to immediately free the slave’s two children.  The cognitive dissonance would have been evident to a child, a group finely attuned to recognizing cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy.  I strongly expect my research will lead me to confirm my suspicions about the spark that lit John Laurens’s open embrace of abolition.

To add another layer of complexity, for many slave owners in the American colonies, their close, if not closest, relationships were with one or a few of their slaves.  George Washington was tied at the hip to Billy Lee.  Henry Laurens had very close relationships with all of his domestic slaves.

My supposition is that for many slave owners, they were at least one level removed from the brutality of slavery in the fields.  An overseer — often as not black himself — watched over their fields and meted out the discipline of the lash.  The slaves that daily interacted with the slave owner were inevitably only the domestic slaves, and the owner’s bonds with those slaves often became very strong.  Many a slave owner saw his humane treatment of the domestic staff as being a proxy for him being an “enlightened” master for all of his slaves.

And it is still more complex, for during the Revolution, perhaps less than half the slaves and black freemen ran off to the British.  To the contrary, many blacks supported the Revolution, what with its language of freedom.  The Continental Army was the most integrated military the U.S. would see until 1960 and beyond.  By the time of Yorktown in 1781, fully twenty percent of the Continental Army was black, and most of those troops were part of integrated units.  Most of these blacks were free men who volunteered to serve their country, but many were slaves serving upon a promise of earning their freedom for their service.  So a sizable portion of the black population supported the Patriot cause.

At any rate, the long and short of it all is that the whole slavery issue was in flux during the American Revolution and, for the first time in history, it was being treated being treated as a Christian moral issue.  No movie not centered on slavery could possibly reflect the complexity and reality of slavery in 1779.  Nor could any movie solely focusing on the colonies possibly reflect the reality of slavery at the time as an accepted institution world wide.  The mere fact that a person owned slaves in the 18th century simply cannot, without gross historical revisionism, be deemed immoral by the standards of the time.

Thus to put Francis Marion in perspective, he was a slave owner, but there is no evidence that he was uniquely cruel to his slaves.  Nor is there any evidence that he raped his female slaves.  He was most certainly an imperfect man.  But he was likewise a true American hero, famed throughout the colonies — the Brits be damned.



Let’s give final word to the poet William Cullen Bryant,

Marion’s Men

Our band is few, but true and tried,
Our leader frank and bold;
The British soldier trembles
When Marion’s name is told.
Our fortress is the good greenwood,
Our tent the cypress-tree;
We know the forest round us,
As seamen know the sea;
We know its walks of thorny vines,
Its glades of reedy grass,
Its safe and silent islands
Within the dark morass.

Woe to the English soldiery
That little dread us near!
On them shall light at midnight
A strange and sudden fear;
When, waking to their tents on fire,
They grasp their arms in vain,
And they who stand to face us
Are beat to earth again;
And they who fly in terror deem
A mighty host behind,
And hear the tramp of thousands
Upon the hollow wind.

Then sweet the hour that brings release
From danger and from toil;
We talk the battle over,
And share the battle’s spoil.
The woodland rings with laugh and shout,
As if a hunt were up,
And woodland flowers are gathered
To crown the soldier’s cup.
With merry songs we mock the wind
That in the pine-top grieves,
And slumber long and sweetly
On beds of oaken leaves.

Well knows the fair and friendly moon
The band that Marion leads-
The glitter of their rifles,
The scampering of their steeds.
‘Tis life to guide the fiery barb
Across the moonlight plain;
‘Tis life to feel the night-wind
That lifts his tossing mane.
A moment in the British camp-
A moment – and away,
Back to the pathless forest,
Before the peep of day.

Grave men there are by broad Santee,
Grave men with hoary hairs;
Their hearts are all with Marion,
For Marion are their prayers.
And lovely ladies greet our band,
With kindest welcoming,
With smiles like those of summer,
And tears like those of spring.
For them we wear these trusty arms,
And lay them down no more
Till we have driven the Briton,
Forever, from our shore.