As did most slaves of the day, Oscar shared the “family” name of his master. Oscar and his “master to be” were raised together, they played and learned together, with the exception of course that Francis would receive a formal education while Oscar went to work on the plantation.
The bonds that were formed in those early years would not be broken later in life. Possibly even more important, the times spent in the back woods and swamps of their native South Carolina would result in a turning point in the War For Independence.
Francis would begin his military career and experience under Captain William Moultrie fighting for the British during the French and Indian War. His allegiance ultimately was to South Carolina, and when tension built with Great Britain in the mid 18th century, Francis’ natural inclination was of course to continue to support and protect his native state.
After the defeat in Saratoga, the British looked to re-establish a strong foothold. There was a strong Loyalist sentiment in the Carolinas so it made sense to refocus efforts there. Possibly more in the south than in the north, the war was more of a civil war as Patriots took on the Loyalists.
The plan was to take advantage of the Loyalist support and secure Georgia and the Carolinas and meet up with forces from the north to put the Patriot forces in an impossible position in the Chesapeake region.
The fall of Charleston was a devastating loss for the Patriots, and subsequent British victories made it appear the British plan would be a success. In 1779, British General Henry Clinton issued the Philipsburg Proclamation, offering freedom to all slaves owned by revolutionaries even if they did not join the Royal Army. Other offers were made on a state by state basis offering freedom for service to the British. There are estimates of up to 100,000 slaves attempted to leave their owners during the course of the revolution.
Oscar was not one of those slaves. At a time when he might have sought his freedom, at a time when volunteers to the Continental Army typically served one year, Oscar served for seven years. Certainly above and beyond the call of duty. Oscar served as a personal aide to then Lt Colonel Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, cooking in addition to fighting, scouting and intelligence gathering.
Initially, Marion was not well regarded by his superiors and was sent to remote areas to gather information and intelligence. In the beginning, his unit was only about 20 men. In a day when armies fought head on, force on force, Marion used guerilla tactics similar to what was later adapted by modern units such as Delta Force and the Green Berets. After the fall of Charleston, “Marion’s Men” were the only organized force opposing the British in the state.
Surprise attacks, hitting, pulling back, and hitting again, continually badgered the Loyalists and British. They defeated a large group of Tories at Briton’s Neck without suffering a single casualty. The British so hated Marion they sent “Bloody” General Banstre Tarleton to kill or capture him. After Marion and his men disappeared in the swamp for a 25 mile chase, Tarleton commented, “As for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.” The name stuck and Marion became known as the Swamp Fox.
During the time of the fall of Charleston, Francis Marion broke his ankle. He was still trying to heal when he began his escapades tormenting the British forces. There is little doubt that his success and very survival at this point was due to his personal aide, indeed friend, Oscar Marion. The Mel Gibson movie “The Patriot” was in fact based on the history and lore of the Swamp Fox.
“Marion’s Men” were more than just volunteers. In many cases, they served without pay. They brought their own horses and frequently supplied their own food. Their loyalty to their state and new nation, and to their leader was indisputable. Their success most certainly helped turn the tide of the war so that the one trapped at the Chesapeake was Cornwallis, not Washington.
In the early 19th century, a painting was done by South Carolina artist John Blake White, depicting Marion talking to a British officer discussing a prisoner exchange. Oscar is beside Marion cooking sweet potatoes on a fire. The painting was donated to the US Senate in 1899 by the painter’s son. Oscar was unnamed, referred to as a “Faithful servant negro”, until an ancestor did the research to uncover his identity.
Oscar Marion was recognized as an “African American Patriot” in a ceremony at the US Capitol in 2006. President George W Bush signed a proclamation expressing the appreciation of a “grateful nation” for Oscar Marion’s “Devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country in the Armed Forces fo the United States”. This was certainly a wonderful event for his distant cousin Tina C Jones who did the research and uncovered his identity and searched for the honor due him.