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, June 01, 2011

Back to Brockington

I started this series of sweet-potato postings with a descendant’s claim that the “British officer” in John Blake White’s painting of Francis Marion (shown here, courtesy of the U.S. Senate) actually showed Loyalist John Brockington, Jr., coming home after the war.

I still haven’t see the article that presents that claim, but context makes it seem very unlikely to me.

That scenario would mean that Samuel Weaver told of participating in a sweet-potato meal during the war, and the Rev. Mason Weems described such a meal, and many publications reprinted Weems’s description of the meal—yet White chose to paint a similar meal that no one else recorded for decades.

The painting shows Marion welcoming a red-coated gentleman to his table, but the descendant claimed that Brockington had invited Marion to share the food, which doesn’t fit the imagery.

Furthermore, White lived until 1859, long after engravings based on his painting appeared with captions identifying Marion’s guest as a British officer, and he didn’t correct that identification. When the painter’s son Octavius White donated the canvases to the U.S. Capitol in 1899, he described it as “the famous one representing General Marion inviting a British officer to share his meal of sweet potatoes.”

It seems more likely that Brockington’s descendants grew up in South Carolina surrounded by copies of White’s iconic image (it was even on some Confederate currency), and came to interpret it as showing their ancestor meeting Marion. I suspect that was a “Grandmother’s tale,” originally meant for the children in one family but told to the world after those children grew up.

Perhaps Brockington did meet Marion when he returned to South Carolina. But after the war there would have been no need for two gentlemen of considerable fortune (as measured by their human property) to eat sweet potatoes in the woods.

1 comment:

RFuller said...

If it was indeed supposed to be Brockington in this fanciful pic, he could be wearing a red uniform, since Loyalist military units mostly wore red by this time of the war.

Of course, the fellow in this painting is wearing a stylized sort of late 1790s/early Napoleonic uniform...

....and what would Brockington, if he did indeed come back to S. Carolina, be doing in a redcoat?

A good way to commit suicide in this era, when feelings still ran high!