The Rev. Mason Weems published the first edition of his Life of Gen. Francis Marion in 1809. It followed the hortatory model of the parson’s book on George Washington, issued nine years earlier, but Weems wrote in the voice of Peter Horry, a South Carolina officer who had served under Marion (shown here, courtesy of NNDB.com) and loaned him documents as raw material.
I haven’t found an 1809 edition of Weems’s Marion online, but there are copies of the reprints from 1815-20 and later. That’s also when an incident from the book—the story of Marion and the sweet potatoes—was first reprinted in American periodicals, such as the 1817 volume of the Monthly Magazine, or British Register. That makes me suspect that Weems added the anecdote to his second edition and thus brought it into the public eye.
Weems’s text described Marion dining off sweet potatoes several times, but it highlighted a particular moment when an “Englishman” had brought “a flag from the enemy in George-town, S. C. the object of which was to make some arrangements about the exchange of prisoners.” After that gentleman had concluded that business with Marion:
The officer took up his hat to retire.Weems always liked to draw a heroic little lesson out of his anecdotes, which helped make them popular with magazine and textbook editors. As I noted above, this story began to be reprinted in the late 1810s (punctuation and other small details differing from one publication to another).
“Oh no!” said Marion, “it is now about our time of dining, and I hope, sir, you will give us the pleasure of your company to dinner.”
At the mention of the word dinner, the British officer looked around him, but to his great mortification, could see no sign of a pot, pan, or Dutch-oven, or any other cooking utensil that could raise the spirits of a hungry man.
“Well, Tom,” said the general to one of his men, “come, give us our dinner.”
The dinner to which he alluded was no other than a heap of sweet potatoes, that were very snugly roasting under the embers, and which Tom, with his pine-stick poker, soon liberated from their ashy confinement, pinching them every now and then with his fingers, especially the big ones, to see whether they were well done or not. Then, having cleansed them of the ashes, partly by blowing them with his breath, and partly by brushing them with the sleeve of his old cotton shirt, he piled some of the best on a large piece of bark, and placed them between the British officer and Marion, on the trunk of the fallen pine on which they sat.
“I fear sir,” said the general, “our dinner will not prove so palatable to you as I could wish; but it is the best we have.”
The officer, who was a well-bred man, took up one of the potatoes, and affected to feed as if he had found a great dainty; but it was very plain that he ate more from good manners than good appetite. . . .
The Englishman said, “he did not believe it would be an easy matter to reconcile his feelings to a soldier’s life on general Marion’s terms; all fighting, no pay, and no provisions but potatoes.”
“Why, sir,” answered the general, “the heart is all; and when that is once interested, a man can do any thing. Many a youth would think hard to indent himself a slave for fourteen years. But let him be over head and ears in love, and with such a beauteous sweetheart as Rachel, and he will think no more of fourteen years’ servitude than young Jacob did. Well, now this is exactly my case. I am in love; and my sweetheart is LIBERTY.” . . .
I looked at Marion as he uttered these sentiments, and fancied I felt as when I heard the last words of the brave [Baron Johann] De Kalb. The Englishman hung his honest head, and looked, I thought, as if he had seen the upbraiding ghosts of his illustrious countrymen, [Algernon] Sydney and [John] Hampden.
On his return to George-town he was asked by Colonel [John Watson Tadwell] Watson why he looked so serious? “I have cause, sir,” said he, “to look so serious.”—
“What! has General Marion refused to treat [i.e., negotiate]?”
“Well then, has old Washington defeated Sir Henry Clinton, and broke up our army?”
“No. sir, not that neither; but worse.”—
“Ah! what can be worse?”
“Why, sir, I have seen an American general and his officers, without pay, and almost without clothes, living on roots, and drinking water—and all for LIBERTY! What chance have we against such men!”
When John Blake White painted Marion inviting a red-coated officer to share a meal of sweet potatoes about 1820, he surely had this episode in mind. It was becoming widely known, and it had a moral and patriotic message for the American public. No wonder a version is now hanging in the U.S. Capitol.
In contrast, no publication before 1999 appears to have reported that Marion also shared sweet potatoes with the Loyalist officer John Brockington as he returned home after the war. In fact, why would a planter like Marion be dining on vegetables in the woods once the war was over? And what message and value would that scene have held to the American public?
Of course, that doesn’t mean the scene Weems described ever happened.
TOMORROW: Hearing from Peter Horry.