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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Monday, May 30, 2011

Digging for Marion’s Sweet Potatoes

As quoted back here, in his biography of Gen. Francis Marion, the Rev. Mason Weems described the general treating a British officer to a dinner of roasted sweet potatoes during the Revolutionary War. Weems presented that tale as coming from Marion’s subordinate officer Peter Horry, but Horry repudiated the first edition of the book, and never saw later editions that contained the tale.

So is there any solid basis for this story?

In fact, at least two men stated that they had witnessed or participated in such an event. In Anecdotes of the Revolutionary War in America, published in Charleston in 1822, Alexander Garden introduced the story like this:
An anecdote is related of him, of the authenticity of which, many of his followers can still give testimony. I name one of them, Lieut. J[ervais]. H[enry]. Stevens, of [Hezekiah] Mayham’s regiment, who was an eye witness of the occurrence.

A British officer was sent from the garrison at Georgetown, to negotiate a business interesting to both armies; when this was concluded, and the officer about to return, the general said, “If it suits your convenience sir, to remain for a short period, I shall be glad of your company to dinner.” The mild and dignified simplicity of Marion’s manners, had already produced their effect; and, to prolong so interesting an interview, the invitation was accepted.

The entertainment was served upon pieces of bark, and consisted entirely of roasted potatoes, of which the general eat heartily, requesting his guest to profit by his example, repeating the old adage, that “hunger was an excellent sauce.”

“But surely general,” said the officer, “this cannot be your ordinary fare.”

“Indeed it is sir,” he replied, “and we are fortunate on this occasion, entertaining
company, to have more than than our usual allowance.”

It is said, that on his return to Georgetown, this officer immediately declared his conviction, that men who could without a murmur endure the difficulties and dangers of the field, and contentedly relish such simple and scanty fare, were not to be subdued; and, resigning his commission, immediately retired from the service.
In addition, a veteran named Samuel Weaver (1755-1852), applying for a pension in 1836, swore under oath:
During the time he was with Gen’l Marion, a British Officer as he was told, came to Camp but for what reason he does not know & he was roasting and baking sweet potatoes on the coles—

Gen’l Marion steped up with the British Officer and remarked he believed he would take Breakfast; he felt proud of the request, puled out his potatoes, wiped the ashes off with a dirty handkerchief, placed them on a pine log (which was all the provision they had) and Gen’l Marion and the Brittish Officer partook of them.

He had been told by some that this had been recorded in the log of the Gen’l as dinner but this was breakfast.
There’s a transcription of Weaver’s pension application memoir here.

TOMORROW: Slicing open the evidence.

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