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.

Follow by Email

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Literature of Oscar Marion

The incident in the life of Gen. Francis Marion (shown here, courtesy of NNDB.com) that John Blake White depicted in his “General [Francis] Marion Inviting a British Officer to Share His Meal” was first reported in Mason Weems’s Life of General Francis Marion, published in 1805. Weems is best known for his biography of Gen. George Washington, which included such enduring but completely unconfirmable legends as Washington chopping at a cherry tree and praying in the snow at Valley Forge.

In the eighteenth chapter of his Marion biography, Weems included a long anecdote about a young British officer visiting Marion in his camp for a conference. The American general invites the officer to share his dinner, which turns out to be roasted sweet potatoes on platters of tree bark. Impressed by the partisans’ dedication to the cause of independence, the officer returns to his commander, Col. Watson; praises the enemy; and eventually resigns from the army. You can read the text in an 1852 edition through Google Books.

That anecdote did not name the British officer or explain how the author came by his information. Weems did not mention an enslaved man named Oscar accompanying Marion. Instead, as he described the scene, a soldier named Tom was roasting the potatoes.

The figure of Oscar Marion entered the literary record in A Sketch of the Life of Brig. Gen. Francis Marion, published in 1821 by William Dobein James (1764-1830). This book described a different dinner in Marion’s camp, not with a British officer but with the author himself:

At this place, the author had, (in the absence of his father,) the honour to be invited to dine with the general. The dinner was set before the company by the General’s servant, Oscar, partly on a pine log and partly on the ground; it was lean beef, without salt, and sweet potatoes. The author had left a small pot of boiled homminy in his camp, and requested leave of his host to send for it; and the proposal was gladly acquiesced in, gladly. The hominy had salt in it, and proved, although eaten out of the pot, a most acceptable repast. The general said but little, and that was chiefly what a son would be most likely to be gratified by, in the praise of his father. They had nothing to drink but bad water; and all the company appeared to be rather grave.
White produced his painting of Marion’s camp about the same time that James wrote his book. The artist may have combined the two published descriptions of Marion’s camp dinners to show Oscar making sweet potatoes for the British officer. He may have relied on his own unknown sources of information about Oscar. Or he may never have read about or met Oscar, and simply depicted a generic black servant for the general.

James mentioned Oscar one other time in his book, while describing Marion’s retirement to his slave-labor plantation at the end of the war: “His faithful servant Oscar, who had accompanied him through all his difficulties, always received high marks of his favour.” What marks those are James didn’t say. Unlike Washington’s bodyservant, William Lee, Oscar was never formally freed. By applying the term “faithful” to Oscar in one of two mentions, James’s book scores what I’ll call a “faithful quotient” (F.Q.) of 50%.

William Gilmore Simms’s The Life of Francis Marion (1844) also mentions Oscar twice. The first is an imperfect but basically accurate quotation of James’s anecdote. The second passage describes how Marion dealt with the property he had used during the war:
He had preserved carefully, as memorials of an eventful history, his marquee, camp bed, and cooking utensils, just as he had done while in the Brigade, during the last twelve months of his military life. These were carefully taken with him; and, with his faithful servant Oscar, and his two sumpter mules, were still the companions of his wanderings.
Like James, Simms had an F.Q. of 50%.

Subsequent biographies of Francis Marion drew heavily on those first three. In 1959, for example, Prof. Robert Duncan Bass published Swamp Fox: The Life and Campaigns of General Francis Marion. Bass was a literary scholar, not a historian, and his book had no footnotes. Reviewing a newer biography of Marion in The History Teacher in 1975, historian George Athan Billias criticized Bass and his predecessors for having “relied on dubious secondary sources, legends, and traditions.”

Nevertheless, Bass’s book found a large audience and became the principal source of Walt Disney’s Swamp Fox adventures, televised from 1959 to 1961. (I’ll discuss that adaptation tomorrow.) In the midst of America’s civil-rights movement, Bass mentioned Marion’s servant Oscar on five pages. Three describe the man as “faithful,” for an F.Q. of 60%.

No comments: