As a child, University of South Carolina conflict archeologist Steven Smith was fascinated with Francis Marion.
Part of his fascination came from a Walt Disney television show “The Swamp Fox” that captured the imaginations of many kids in 1959-60 and starred a young Leslie Nielsen, who also sang the theme song that most anyone who watched the show can still sing. It was part of Disney’s Sunday evening show, “The Wonderful World of Color.” The Disney Channel showed re-runs in the 1980s and 1990s.
Fueled by a love of reading and history, and abetted by the Disney show, Smith grew up interested in the Revolutionary War hero embraced by surreal myth and legend.
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Today, Smith, director of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at USC, remains focused on Marion, whose early guerrilla warfare exploits befuddled the British during the war.
Smith has become what many consider the foremost expert on the Lowcountry native.
“He is certainly a leading scholar internationally in the field of military and battlefield archaeology, and he is certainly one of the top Francis Marion historians anywhere,” said James Legg, one of Smith’s colleagues at the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.
As the expert, he’s disproved some of the myths and legends that have made the Swamp Fox such a romantic historical figure. But he’s also validated a few.
“All of these myths combine with reality,” Smith said. “Some are false. Some have some truth to it. ... The more work I do, the more I find some of the myths have some reality behind them.”
Even with some of the myths debunked, Marion still remains a Revolutionary hero of legendary proportions for people of all ages.
“Steve’s great achievement has been the development of a nuanced understanding of the historical Francis Marion and his context,” said Ben Zeigler, the original head of the Francis Marion Trail Commission. “Because of the work Steve has done, we understand Francis Marion a lot better, with historical facts versus the Francis Marion mythology.”
Smith grew up in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, more than 500 miles away from Marion’s Pee Dee stomping grounds. Revolutionary War sites were scarce there, but as a voracious reader, he became immersed in the subject. Some of his favorite books’ were from Random House’s Landmark Series, and one of his favorites was “The Swamp Fox of the Revolution,” by Stewart Holbrook.
Smith still has that book, shelved among hundreds in his office. Smith also still has a decades-old newspaper clipping he read as a child, an article by George F. Scheer, who wrote a short piece on Marion in a book about the American Revolution. The clipping is yellowed with age, a bit torn, but stored safely in Smith’s office.
That article was another spark that ignited Smith’s interest in Marion and the Revolutionary War. As a child, Smith penned Scheer a letter, and wrote a four or five page book that his mother typed for him.
And a career was born.
“It wasn’t a direct route,” said Smith.
He received a history degree from Virginia Military Institute, then his masters in anthropology and archaeology from the University of Kentucky. He came to USC to work as an archaeologist, and ended up earning his doctorate there. He wrote his dissertation on Marion.
“It never really occurred to me that I was coming to the heart of the American Revolution,” Smith said. And the home of the Swamp Fox.
Then one day, in 1989, another historical researcher knocked on Smith’s office door, glanced around and whispered, “I’ve got him.”
“Him” was Francis Marion, who 234 years later has proven to be as elusive for archaeologists as he was for the British who nicknamed him the “Swamp Fox.”
The researcher thought he had found Marion’s near mythical camp on Snow’s Island, a swampy area at the confluence of the Pee Dee and Lynches Rivers in Florence County where legend says he and his rag-tag militia hid between raids.
“We never found a camp on Snow’s Island,” Smith said. “We found a couple across from Snow’s Island, but Marion wasn’t just camped in the middle of nowhere like everybody thinks.”
And often, his men weren’t huddled in the swamps hiding. “Marion was always trying to keep his people together,” Smith said. “Most were farmers. The myth was they would fight and then disappear. Well, the reality is they all went home after to check on their crops and families.”
Still, the myth of Marion hiding in South Carolina swamps is part of what stoked his legend.
From letters, he has surmised Marion really didn’t want to go into the swamp.
“He wasn’t really interested in being a guerrilla fighter,” Smith said. “It was a means to survive at the time …They were on the edge of being desperadoes.”
Smith has spent years finding clues and putting together the puzzle of Marion’s military campaign that helped drive the British out of South Carolina.
“Steve has dug on more Marion sites and possible Marion sites than any other scholar,” said Christine Swager, a colleague and author who also studies Francis Marion. “He has examined every site where there might be a possibility of evidence. His purpose is to establish evidence to support or refute what we think we know about Marion.
“That ‘refute’ often gets him criticized when the evidence does not support local myth. We tend to cling to our folk stories even when the evidence tells us otherwise. Steve is a relentless researcher and a consummate scholar and will not go beyond the evidence.”
Smith worked for the Francis Marion Trail Commission, charged with finding sites that could trace the life of the phantom Revolutionary War general in the Pee Dee area.
“Steve was the natural person to head that project,” said Zeigler. “He was able to locate some pretty important sites.”
One of those is Fort Motte, currently the focus of an exhibit at the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum at the South Carolina State Museum.
Fort Motte, in Calhoun County, was a British outpost built in 1781, named after Rebecca Motte’s plantation house that was part of the compound. Marion’s militia laid siege to the fort, forcing a British surrender.
Smith and the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology have conducted historical and archaeological investigations there since 2004.
They have found artifacts, including an iron arrowhead that was probably prepared to set Motte’s house on fire during the attack. They re-dug a trench shoveled by men fighting with Marion and Henry Lee, with the help of slaves from nearby plantations, used to approach the British stronghold.
Another example of the reality that has clung to Marion for more than 200 years, solidifying his legend.
Col. John Watson, the British commander in South Carolina, wrote a letter to his Revolutionary War superiors about the frustration that was Francis Marion and his militia. John Oller, who wrote “The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution,” quoted an excerpt from that letter.
“They will not sleep and fight like gentlemen,” Watson wrote, “but like savages are eternally firing and whooping around us by night, and by day waylaying and popping at us from behind every tree.”
Oller used and cited some of Smith’s published papers and his dissertation.
Will Smith ever write a book on Francis Marion? Maybe. But for now he plans to continue digging up facts about the Swamp Fox.
Disney’s ‘The Swamp Fox’
The series starring Leslie Nielsen as Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion included eight episodes, which originally aired between fall 1959 through early 1961.
Its theme song, with words by Lew Foster and music by Buddy Baker:
Swamp Fox! Swamp Fox!
Tail on his hat,
Nobody knows where The Swamp Fox’s at.
Swamp Fox! Swamp Fox!
Hiding in the glen,
He runs away to fight again.
We got lead, and we got powder.
We don’t fight with an empty gun.
Only makes us shout the louder.
We are men of Marion.
Got no blankets, got no bed.
Got no roof above our heads.
Got no shelter when it rains.
All we got is Yankee brains.
Got no compone, got no honey.
All we got is Continental money.
Won’t buy bacon, hominy or grits.
Roasted ears and possum is all we ever git.