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Life of Gen. Francis Marion inspiration for "The Patriot"

FLORENCE, S.C. – Film superstar Mel Gibson’s character in the upcoming Revolutionary War epic, “The Patriot,” is largely based on the life of Gen. Francis Marion, the hero for whom Francis Marion University in Florence is named.

The film, set for release on June 28, tells the story of Benjamin Martin (Gibson), a reluctant hero who is swept into the American Revolution when the war reaches his farm and the British endanger his family. He takes up arms alongside his idealistic Patriot son, Gabriel, and leads a rebel American militia into battle against the Redcoat army.

Much of the movie was filmed in Historic Brattonsville in York County, as well as Chester County and Charleston.

The original script, written by Robert Rodat, focused on the real-life Francis Marion. Later drafts changed the main character to the fictional Martin, a composite of various Patriot leaders including Marion, Col. Daniel Morgan, Elijah Clark, Thomas Sumter and Andrew Pickens.

The change “frees (the film) up dramatically,” said Rodat, who also wrote the screenplay for “Saving Private Ryan.”

Francis Marion was born at Goatfield Plantation in 1732, in what is now Berkeley County. He was raised in Georgetown, where he was a farmer.

He began his fighting career in an expedition against the Cherokee Indians in 1761 and was later named a captain in the 2nd South Carolina Regiment. He quickly learned the Indian techniques of surprise attack and sudden disappearance, and how to use forests and swamps as cover.

He was promoted to major in February, 1776, and participated in the defense of Charleston on June 28. When England sent a vast fleet to capture Charleston, Marion and his men crippled 50 warships from a tiny, unfinished island fort and saved the city. Later in 1776, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and assumed command of the regiment. In October, 1779, he led his command in an unsuccessful assault at Savannah. He escaped capture at Charleston when that city fell to the British in 1780, because he was on sick leave.

With organized resistance to the British in South Carolina non-existent after the American defeat at Camden in 1780, Marion gathered a troop of 150 tattered, penniless Patriots known as “Marion’s Brigade.” The group, which did not receive pay, food or even ammunition from the Continental Army, became the chief colonial force in the state.

Engaging in guerilla warfare, Marion disrupted the British lines of communication, captured scouting and foraging parties, and intimidated Loyalists. His tactics earned him the nickname “the Swamp Fox” by British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, who spent much time chasing the elusive Marion. (The evil character of Col. William Tavington in “The Patriot” is based on Tarleton, who was nicknamed “Bloody Ban the Butcher” for his policy of killing surrendering troops.)

Marion and his troops regularly roamed the swamps of the Pee Dee. Snow’s Island, at Johnsonville, near where the Pee Dee and Lynches rivers converge, was the site of the hero’s hideout.

In late 1780, Marion was appointed brigadier general of the South Carolina Militia. Virginia’s Lt. Col. Henry “Light-Horse” Lee (father of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee) brought reinforcements to Marion and the two fought together in several battles, most notably at Eutaw Springs on Sept. 8, 1781. (The character of Col. Harry Burwell in “The Patriot” is modeled after Lee.)

After the war, Marion served in the state senate, where he advocated a lenient policy toward the Loyalists. In 1786, he married Mary Esther Videau. The couple had no children. Marion died at his home, “Pond Bluff,” on Feb. 27, 1795. He is buried at Belle Isle, near present-day St. Stephen.

FMU’s James A. Rogers Library has what is likely the world’s most comprehensive collection of books about the Swamp Fox, with about 70 titles. The university library also has several pieces of memorabilia from the general, including a table that belonged to him and his autograph on five different letters.

More information about Gen. Francis Marion can be found on the FMU website at

# 286 / 5-31-00

Last Published: February 15, 2006 10:33 AM
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