On this day in 1780, American Lieutenant Colonel Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” and his irregular cavalry force of 250 rout a party of Loyalists commanded by Major Micajah Gainey at Port’s Ferry, South Carolina. Meanwhile, General Horatio Gates’ men consumed half-baked bread, which sickened them overnight and contributed to their disastrous performance at the Battle of Camden, also in South Carolina, the following day.
Marion, a mere five feet tall, won fame and the “Swamp Fox” moniker for his ability to strike and then quickly retreat without a trace into the South Carolina swamps. Famed as the only senior Continental officer to escape the British following the fall of Charleston on May 12, 1780, his military strategy is considered an 18th-century example of guerilla warfare and served as partial inspiration for Mel Gibson’s character in the film The Patriot (2000).
Marion took over the South Carolina militia force first assembled by Thomas Sumter in 1780. Sumter, the other inspiration for Mel Gibson’s character in the film, returned Carolina Loyalists’ terror tactics in kind after Loyalists burned his plantation. When Sumter withdrew from active fighting to care for a wound, Marion replaced him and joined forces with Major General Nathaniel Greene, who arrived in the Carolinas to lead the Continental forces in October 1780.
Greene was given the Southern command after Gates’ poor decision to fight the British with his ailing troops at Camden. After suffering over the night of August 15 with diarrhea, Gates engaged the British on the morning of August 16. Although the Continentals outnumbered the British two to one, the encounter was a disaster for the Patriots, leaving 900 men dead and 1,000 as British captives.