J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Rediscovering Oscar Marion?

A posting at A Student of History, by John Maass, alerted me to a recent ceremony in Washington, D.C., respecting Oscar Marion, enslaved servant of Revolutionary War general Francis Marion (1732-1795).

As the Washington Post reported, many nineteenth-century images of Gen. Marion include a black servant in the background. The best known of these is "General Marion Inviting a British Officer to Share His Meal," now hanging on the Senate's side of the U.S. Capitol. The black man is never identified in those paintings, but genealogist Tina Jones recovered the knowledge that Marion was served throughout the war by an enslaved man named Oscar.

The Post quotes Jones as saying of Oscar Marion, "He is not just some obscure figure in the background. This person had a name. He had a life and a separate contribution." Which is true, but it's very hard to tell what his individual life and thoughts were since (a) he was trapped within the American slavery system, and (b) our sources seem to be all generated by his master's family. Presiding over the recent ceremony, George W. Bush praised Oscar Marion's "devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country," but of course the man didn't have a free choice. He was "selfless" first because American law assigned his self to another man.

John Blake White (1781-1859) created the painting at the Senate in the 1820s, after Francis Marion's death. The artist said he had met the general when he was a boy, and painted the man's face from memory. But White made no such claim of accuracy about the other men in the painting. There thus seems to be no evidence that White tried to paint the individual Oscar Marion, or met the enslaved man at the same time he met the general.

Instead, I think the painting shows little more than a symbol of a helpful enslaved servant. The black man's features aren't distinctive, and even his pose reflects the notion of servitude: kneeling to prepare food for the white men who stand above him. The individual whom Gen. Marion called Oscar is still probably faceless.

Similarly, a black servant stands in the background of a couple of paintings of George Washington: John Trumbull's 1780 portrait and Edward Savage's 1796 picture of the Washington family. In recent years people have rushed to identify those figures as William Lee, the enslaved bodyservant who accompanied the Washington throughout the Revolutionary War.

Both Trumbull and Savage painted from life. Trumbull probably encountered Lee many times when he served as an aide at the general's headquarters in Cambridge, so he could have indeed painted the individual Lee. But the face in Trumbull's painting looks like a caricature. As for Savage, when he described his painting, he didn't even mention the black man in the background, just as he didn't mention the table at the center. I think we might be wishful to interpret these paintings as containing portraits of individual black men.

(We have more evidence about Will Lee as an individual and his relationship to George Washington; see the Boston 1775 posting on Margaret Thomas.)

8 comments:

J. L. Bell said...

In another comment section, Polytx wrote: Oscar probably lived much better than his peers, even as a slave. We tend to concentrate upon U.S. slavery, but young Americans have no idea, and are not told, that the history of mankind is repelete with slavery, that white Europeans were also enslaved and served the Romans, the victors in wars, as, for example, the Huns, Genghis Khan, the Roman Empire, Egyptians,and many other factions.

I doubt Oscar Marion lived better than, or as well as, Francis Marion. I am, as you see, treating those two men of about the same age and living in the same society as peers.

I also doubt that American children aren't told about slavery in other societies. Yes, for obvious reasons, U.S. history lessons in U.S. schools focus on U.S. history. But there are whole lesson plans about slavery in other cultures.

John Maass said...

There is also a famous portrait of Lafayette with his black (probably free) servant/batman, during the American revolution. I will try to track it down and provide a web page for an image if I can.

J. L. Bell said...

That would be interesting. It's possible that the artistic convention of including a black servant in the background of a portrait actually came out of Europe at this time.

The page about Edward Savage's image of the Washington family that I linked to above says, "When American painter Edward Savage sketched a prototype for a print of George Washington and his family in 1789, it included Martha Custis Washington, the wealthy widow whom Washington had married 30 years earlier, and her two Custis grandchildren. In the life-size painting that Savage completed in 1796, a black servant stands in the shadows behind Martha.

"In the years between the original sketch and the painting itself, Savage spent some time in England, where he was undoubtedly influenced by the contemporary European practice of depicting the aristocracy with a servant, often exotically dressed, standing in attendance."

Jarod said...

Good Point, J.L. We tend to look at these things with "2007 eyes", injecting as much meaning as we wish to.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing this out. There is no written evidence of Oscar having served in the revolution, nor of his ever using Marion as a surname. It's all conjecture - even to the connection of Ms. Jones to this particular slave. Notice none of her claims ever mention any ACTUAL research performed, documents and such that are the earmarks of earnest, solid historical or genealogical research.

J. L. Bell said...

Actually, there is written evidence of Francis Marion’s enslaved man Oscar being his bodyservant and/or cook during the Revolutionary War. He was not, of course, treated as a soldier; he was treated as Marion’s personal property.

There’s indeed no evidence of Oscar having used the Marion surname, but he of course wasn’t free to do a lot of things—a condition Francis Marion perpetuated.

Jones doesn’t claim to have been descended from the man named Oscar, only to be collaterally related to him. Given how slaveowners like Marion and his family encouraged their human property to form families (as long as that was convenient), Jones’s claim is not unlikely.

To my knowledge, Jones hasn’t published an article on her research, citing specific documents and other evidence. I hope she does. However, she has described her research in more general terms.

Anonymous said...

I disagree. What is the written evidence and where can it be found? Jones hasn't presented any proof of Oscar serving Marion, or of his serving in the war. She's made a claim that Oscar fought in the 2nd Continental Army Regiment of South Carolina, as a volunteer for more than 7 years. However, not once has she ever produced a military or other record to prove this. She claims to have spent more than 15 years worth of research. Where's the proof?

Furthermore, there is nothing to suggest that Oscar ever had a surname, nor ever used one. We don't know his age, when he was born, or when he died. Jones hasn't produced any evidence of Francis Marion's owning a slave named Oscar. Nor has she produced evidence to show that she actually descends from slaves owned by the Marion family. Having relatives with the Marion surname proves nothing. And furthermore, it fails to prove that she has any connection whatsoever with Oscar Marion except a personal interest.

Furthermore, after all of the years of researching the paintings, she's never addressed the presence of another African American male in some of them. If you look carefully at the one with the alleged Oscar kneeling before a fire, there is a fairer complected African American man standing in the background tending a horse, just behind Francis Marion. He would symbolize a faithful, trusted body servant moreso than the man kneeling on the ground. Again since it is only something rendered by an artist at a much later date, there is nothing to suggest that the other men in the paintings (beyond Francis Marion) represent actual, historical people who participated in the American Revolution.

J. L. Bell said...

I quoted the written evidence that Francis Marion had an enslaved man named Oscar serving him during the Revolutionary War here. It comes from the memoir of William Dobein James, a veteran who recalled meeting the two men during the war. James specifically said that Oscar served a meal, and that Oscar “accompanied [Marion] through all his difficulties.”

I discussed the other dark-skinned figure in the White painting here, along with other paintings of Marion from the same era.

I discussed how some enslaved people had surnames different from their owners’ here.

We agree that the figure White painted was less likely the individual man named Oscar and more likely a representation of a stereotypical black slave. That was the point of this original posting. In this follow-up post, I note that some reproductions of the White painting make that cook into a clumsy, perhaps comedic figure.

It sounds like you might be asking for “proof” of Oscar’s existence, service to Marion, and surname in the form of documents like those attached to free men who served in the Continental Army. Given the historic facts of slavery, I think that’s unrealistic.

Slave owners were responsible for the documentation or lack of it for the people they kept in bondage. To fault African-Americans for not having better written evidence of their ancestors’ lives verges on blaming the victims.

As I said before, I hope Jones publishes her research on the Marion family rather than simply summarizing her conclusions. But even without that research, we have William Dobein James offering evidence that an enslaved black man named Oscar was at Francis Marion’s side during the war.