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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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Slicing Open Marion’s Sweet Potatoes

If Jervais Henry Stevens and Samuel Weaver both said they saw Gen. Francis Marion share a meal of roasted sweet potatoes with a British officer, is that enough to validate the legend?

Unfortunately, both Stevens and Weaver were first set down a few years after the Rev. Mason Weems published the story in his biography of Marion. Newspapers and magazines reprinted the tale. Around 1820, apparently, John Blake White painted a picture of it. The sweet-potato dinner became a widely known detail in the story of a regional hero, with a patriotic moral. That meant there was probably value in putting oneself into that story, and little value in casting doubt on it.

I’m impressed, however, that Weaver swore that “He has been told by some, that this [meal] has been recorded in the life of Genrl as a dinner, but this was a breakfast.” Weaver indicated that he had not read the printed accounts, and furthermore that he was willing to contradict them in one detail.

Weaver also said Marion’s guest was “a British Officer as he was told [who] came into camp, but for what he does not know.” The veteran obviously wasn’t trying to present himself as important.

I suspect that Weaver had also not seen White’s painting since that shows a servile black man dishing up the potatoes. Weaver said he served the breakfast himself, and as a white in ante-bellum South Carolina would almost certainly not have enjoyed being represented as a black man.

Therefore, even though Weaver told his story about two decades after the tale first appeared in print, it seems to ring true.

In contrast, we don’t have Stevens’s story. Instead, author Alexander Garden appears to have read the Weems version, asked around, and found some old companions of Marion who said it—or something like it—was true. Even then Garden admitted some doubt by writing “It is said” before his final paragraph.

And that paragraph is, I suspect, all Weemsian mythmaking. The preacher may have come across the sweet-potato story from Weaver, or Stevens, or somebody else, and decided to add it to his Marion biography. Since he was writing a “romance,” Weems felt no compunction about making up dramatic dialogue between the American general and the British officer.

Most important, Weems added a moral to the story, which otherwise was just a little episode about American partisans living off the land and a British officer polite enough to share one meal with them. Weems’s version went on to say that Englishman went back to the Crown forces so impressed by Marion’s dedication that he told his commander they had no chance of subduing the Americans. By the time Garden wrote, “It is said,” that officer even resigned his commission.

But how was an American author privy to a private conversation between British officers in British-occupied Georgetown? How could an American author know why a British officer resigned when he clearly doesn’t know that officer’s name or the date of the event? Weems’s ending to the story is a big part of its power, but it’s not nearly as convincing as Samuel Weaver’s simple tale of how he “wiped the ashes off with a dirty handkerchief.”

TOMORROW: Back to the Brockington claim (and away from increasingly strained metaphors about sweet potatoes).

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