South Carolina's Brigadier General Francis Marion in his swamp encampment, inviting British General Tarleton to share his dinner of sweet potatoes and cold water. Engraving by Curier and Ives, 1876. South Carolina Library, University of South Carolina  — based on the painting by John Blake White, 1836.

After being anonymous for 230 years, the African-American kneeling behind the small table and roasting the sweet potatoes for this famous dinner, has been identified. This man had a life. He now has a name. Read "Oscar Marion — African-American Patriot" to learn what his contribution was, how the Whitehouse honored him and to view the painting that has hung in the Senate since 1899.

GENERAL MARION’S SWEET POTATO DINNER
(Revolutionary War Hero, Father of U.S. Army Special Forces)

General Francis Marion was born at Goatfield Plantation in 1732 in St. John’s Parish in Berkeley County, South Carolina — the same year as George Washington, the first President of the United States. Marion’s grandparents, Gabriel and Louisa Marion, were Huguenot or French Protestant emigrants who lived on a small farm near Rochelle during the reign of King Louis XIV (1643-1715). They left France around 1685 to escape cruel religious persecution (he was Protestant and she was Catholic) and like faithful Abraham, wandered in exile into land unknown. They were guided by an angel to South Carolina where great deeds and honors awaited their future grandson, Francis Marion.

Francis Marion’s father, Gabriel Marion, Jr., married a Miss Esther Cordes and together they had 7 children, 5 boys and 2 girls; Esther, (girl’s name unknown), Gabriel, Isaac, Benjamin, Job and our hero, Francis who was the last one born. It’s not known exactly what became of the girls except that Judge James (1) describes them as “grandmothers of the families of the Mitchells, of Georgetown and of the Dwights, formerly of the same place, but now of St. Stephen's parish.”  The boys became amiable citizens; bought farms, married and had children.

As a baby, Marion was extremely puny. It was said that he was no larger than a New England lobster and might have easily fit into a one-quart pot. As a child, he was very frail and sickly, probably due to the swampy area in which he grew up. The frailty stayed with him until age 12 (1744) when the employments of country life, invigorated his build and greatly increased his energy level. As Marion grew he enjoyed playing in the swamps and learned from the local Indians how to fight and survive there. He knew the area well and never got lost. Little did he realize, how much this would benefit him in the future.

The Marion family’s financial resources were considered modest. It is believed that the highest level of education achieved by Francis, was comparable to modern-day grammar school. By the age of 15 (1747), Marion wanted to become a seaman. It is said that this was also the early passion of George Washington, which is uncommon in the history of southern farm boys. Washington’s mother, through her solicitation, was able to overcome this passion. Marion’s mother though was unsuccessful in her attempt at same. Against his family’s wishes he sailed for the West Indies on what was his first and last voyage. Whether the vessel was going or returning is unknown. The ship foundered at sea when a whale, possibly of the Thornback species, fiercely struck the small schooner with its tail, sinking it to the bottom of the sea.

The ship sank so quickly that the crewmen barely had enough time to tumble into the lifeboat and without so much as a biscuit or a pint of water. After 3 days of feverish hunger, they decided to kill a small dog that swam up to them after the boat sank. According to Weems (2), two men who laid on the bottom of the boat, died crying to the last, “WATER! WATER! God of his mercy forgive me, who have so often drank of that sweet beverage without grateful acknowledgments!” On the seventh day, a passing ship rescued the survivors who were gently nourished. By the time Marion returned home, his health was better than ever. What began as a great misfortune, proved to be a blessing in the end.

Francis Marion survived the intense suffering under which most strong men perished. So intense that it seemed as though the boy’s life was spared for some future usefulness. It is said that he escaped a hazardous and narrow death four other times. After he returned home, Marion returned to his humble calling as a “cultivator of the earth” and continued in this capacity for nearly ten years. During this time his health continued to improve. He grew stronger and taller and his complexion changed from a pale-suet to a bright and healthy olive color.

Before Francis was 25 (1757), his father died. At that time the family was together and planted near Friersons Lock on the Santee Canal. But in 1759, the family separated. Gabriel moved to Bell Isle Plantation (where Francis is buried) in St. Stephen. Francis moved to Pond Bluff Plantation in St. John’s Parish which was 15 miles upriver from Bell Isle. Pond Bluff was located within cannon shot of the battleground of Eutaw Springs — the battle that led the British to abandon South Carolina in 1781. Francis lived at Pond Bluff for the remaining days of his life. Note: Pond Bluff now lies at the bottom of  Lake Marion.

In 1759, the Cherokee Indians began massacring the Carolinians along the border. Marion volunteered under Governor Lyttleton and was assigned to a troop commanded by his brother, Gabriel. But, the war ended as soon as it began due to the quick retaliation of the Carolinians. Marion returned to farming. But, barely two years had transpired when the Indians attacked again. Marion again volunteered for duty. In 1761, the Indians struck with such furor that British Colonel James Grant and 1,200 of his men were ordered to march in the bloody battle under the command of Colonel Middleton. Chickasaw and Catawba Indians were added to the forces of Colonels Grant and Middleton for a total of 2,600 men. Marion was assigned as First Lieutenant under the command of Captain William Moultrie in what is referred to as the Battle of Etchoee.

Colonel Grant decided to push the war into their own country and through the only passage, a small opening in the mountain. A group of 30 brave soldiers were ordered to be the first to pass through this dangerous entrance with Francis Marion leading. Marion and his army charged the entrance on horseback with rifles in hand, but were met with fierce opposition. Grant’s men were divided into groups and supported the army with extended wings spreading across the woods. Although the muskets of the British kept up a powerful roar, it was the superiority of the American riflemen who maintained the action until the enemy finally surrendered.

The next day the troops were ordered by Grant to burn the Indian’s cabins. Marion referred to this time with sorrow. In a letter to a friend he wrote, “But when we came according to orders, to cut down the fields of corn, I could scarcely refrain from tears. For who could see the stalks that stood so stately with broad green leaves and gaily tasseled shocks, filled with sweet milky fluid and flour, the staff of life; who I say, without grief, would see these sacred plants sinking under our swords with all their precious load, to wither and rot untasted in their mourning fields.”

“I saw every where around the footsteps of the little Indian children, where they had lately played under the shade of their rustling corn. No doubt they had often looked up with joy to the swelling shocks, and gladdened when they thought of their abundant cakes for the coming winter. When we are gone, thought I, they will return, and peeping through the weeds with tearful eyes, will mark the ghastly ruin poured over their homes and happy fields, where they had so often played. Who did this? they will ask their mothers. The white people did it;”the mothers reply; the Christians did it!” (2). It was fortunate for the Indians survival that sweet potatoes grow underground. The army returned to Koewee, where a Cherokee Chief, or “Little Carpenter” as he was called, met Colonel Grant and concluded a peace treaty. The troops were discharged and Marion once again retired to rural life at Pond Bluff.

Washington felt that the English with all their riches hardly knew what it was like to live among the constant bloody battles between the red and white men. But Washington knew, and the thoughts of the horrors of the cruel strife bothered him. He swore that when God gave him the power as President of Independent America, he would adopt a better system which he had learned from the Bible. “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” — Isaiah 2:4. And, Washington did just that. Goods were supplied at cost, morals were taught among their tribes and the soul of humanity was rejoiced to see the red and white men meet together like brothers.

Marion came out of retirement as the Revolutionary War over unfair taxation and independence was beginning between America and England. He was elected to the first Provincial Congress of South Carolina and appointed Captain of the second regiment under Colonel William Moultrie. He collected the sum of $100.00 and recruited 100 men. Marion, a brilliant strategist, and his men were barely ready on April 19 when England sent a vast fleet to capture Charleston. Although they were outnumbered 3 to 1 and lacked adequate ammunition, they fought the Battle of Fort Sullivan (renamed Fort Moultrie) from a tiny, unfinished fort, defied 9 warships (2 of fifty guns; 5 of twenty-eight; 1 of twenty-six and a bomb-vessel) and crippled the entire British fleet. It was Marion who fired the final shot that sank the Bristol on June 28, 1776, marking this the first important victory of the American Revolution.

The battle of Fort Moultrie was of great importance, not only to the Carolinians, but to all the confederate colonies. It gave North Carolina a reprieve from invasion for three years and preceded the declaration of Independence. During this time though, Marion’s services weren't without requisition. There were wars against the Cherokee Indians and the Tories in Florida and Georgia. The British were also busy making military preparations for the south at Charleston or Savannah. William Moultrie, now a Brigadier General, who was expecting a surprise attack on Fort Moultrie, always kept a constant watch there under Francis Marion.

In December, 1778 it was obvious as to the destination for this attack when 10,000 British troops under the command of Sir Henry Clinton and 37 ships heavily stocked with artillery, suddenly appeared in Savannah. Due to a smallpox epidemic, the combined forces of American and French troops of only 800 men were surprised, beaten and taken into captivity with little difficulty. One officer who was held prisoner was General William Moultrie. The rest of the American troops left South Carolina and headed straight for North Carolina.

The British not only took possession of Savannah, but the entire State of Georgia and were looking to facilitate the invasion of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida with the eventual possibility of all of the southern states. The prisoners were crowded into prison ships and forced to enlist in British regiments or serve in foreign countries. They used every possible means for exhausting the city’s resources such as breaking down the spirit of the country and seizing the wealth of distinctive citizens and private families. Anyone in opposition were torn from their homes and incarcerated in their gloomy, floating dungeons.

It was fortunate for Francis Marion that he was not among those in the fall of Charleston. Before the event in Charleston was completed, he had a painful accident and his services, though temporarily detained, were subsequently secured for the future benefit of the country. He had been sent to Dorchester and while he was there he attended a dinner party with some friends. The host had locked the guests in until each person was engorged with wine. Not wanting to join the festivities or cause any commotion, Francis Marion nonchalantly jumped out onto the street from a second-story window. Unfortunately he broke his ankle in the process. Meanwhile, since he couldn’t escape, he took refuge in the swamp and forest until his safety could be secured with the help of his many friends. While Marion slept, his friends watched and when danger lurked, he was hustled from house to house, from tree to thicket, from thicket to the swamp, often times narrowly escaping his captors.

The slow and deficient military command of Sir Henry Clinton was succeeded by Earl Cornwallis whose career was obnoxious beyond reproach, traits by which the British were subsequently distinguished; abuse of power, wanton tyrannies, cruel murders and reckless disregard of decency and right. But, it is said that Francis Marion rose in arms, when everything appeared to be lost. He had escaped capture in the fall of Charleston and by the end of 1780, as a Brigadier General, Marion formed what became commonly known as “Marian’s Brigade.” The Brigade was comprised of about 150 black and white tattered, penniless patriots, many of whom were Irish who had inherited a distaste for the British and their authority before they arrived in America. They had poor uniforms, poor equipment and had to survive off the land.

Marion and his soldiers focused on cutting their supply camps and supply lines linking the British occupied cities. Since they desperately needed ammunition, Marion told his men to, “Procure, if possible, supplies of gunpowder, flints and bullets. Twenty-five weight of gunpowder, ball or buckshot.” (3). Scouts rode ahead to prevent ambushes and often hid in the top of tall trees, signaling with a shrill whistle taught by Marion. They also laid blankets on the wooden planks to muffle the sounds of the horses hooves before crossing a bridge near enemy posts. A campfire was never used twice and when planning a raid, Marion kept the target details completely secret until the last moment. They rested during the day and marched at night, often attacking around midnight.

Major John James, who was as bold and as skilful as Marion, marched until he learned the proximity of the British. He and his men hid in the thickets to ascertain their numbers and character. Then they burst from their hiding places with great confidence, gave a loud shout, swooped down on the startled stragglers at the rear of the Tory march and carried the prisoners off in a flash. They accomplished this without stopping to slay and without suffering any losses. Before the enemy realized what happened, they could barely hear the sound of the horses hooves as they vanished, taking refuge in the swamps. The British regulars were double their own force with about 500 men in the rear alone.

After a meeting with Major James, Marion ordered the group back to North Carolina. After marching day and night, Marion finally pitched his camp when Judge James, 16 year old son of Major James, had the honor of dining with Marion for the first time. Major James was sent back to South Carolina to spy on the enemy and rouge the militia. “The dinner was set before the company by the General’s servant, Oscar, partly on a pine log and partly on the ground. It consisted of lean beef, without salt, and sweet potatoes. The author had left a small pot of boiled hominy in his camp and requested leave of his host to send for it, and the proposal was gladly acquiesced in. The hominy had salt in it, and proved, though 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. We had nothing to drink but bad water; and all the company appeared to be rather grave.” (1)

This experience was impressive to a boy of 16, who had deep respect for Francis Marion. During dinner Judge James observed and later described Marion’s characteristics. He said that his tastes were delicate, his habits gentle, his sensibilities warm and watchful and his powers of forbearance remarkable. Although Marion was cheerful and seldom depressed, he usually wore a grave expression. He was rarely excited even in triumph and seldom laughed. “At most a quiet smile lighted up his features, and he could deal in little gushes of humor, of which there was a precious fountain at the bottom of his heart.” (1) On the other hand, he was capable of sharp sarcasm and that few ever excelled him at retort. But, he was considerate and kept his temper under control.

Continuing, sometimes Francis Marion and his men snuck into an enemy camp left which was left completely unguarded and while they slept, they took their weapons and supplies and then captured the sleepy and startled Tories as prisoners. Many of the captured men joined the ranks of Marion’s men. “His name was already the rallying word throughout the country. To join Marion, to be one of Marion's men, was the duty which the grandsire imposed upon the lad, and to the performance of which, throwing aside his crutch, he led the way.” (3) Marion's Brigade chased and harassed the British leaders, most notably Lieutenent Colonel Banastre Tarleton, and intimidated the Tories while always remaining just out of the reach of the enemy. Marion’s tactics of surprise attack and sudden disappearance often completely bewildered Colonel Tarleton, who continually chased Marion into the swamps, only to loose him to an area in which he was completely unfamiliar.

Eventually, Tarleton gave Marion the name of “Swamp Fox,” and was quoted as saying, “The devil himself could not catch that damned old fox.” From then on the name stuck and the colonists thought it was funny that their hero was being compared to a fox. The British though, complained that Marion’s guerilla tactics were unfair, that they weren’t playing by the rules of “civilized warfare.” Although the British were considered stuffy and uptight, they did have a point. Marion didn’t always play fair. He and his men were known to shoot pickets, retaliate from ambush, sometimes failed to honor flags of truce and knowingly violated international law. Even Marion’s officers and men questioned his style of fighting at first, but eventually realized that this was the best way to fight such a large and strong opponent. One thing is certain, “General Marion always gave orders to his men that there should be no waste of the inhabitants property and no plundering” (4).

The British had burned most of the plantations and the people were stripped of all their possessions. The farms were also burned and any stored corn destroyed. All of the the animals were killed, especially the sheep as they provided clothes for the people. They continuously burned the Presbyterian churches. One region that was 70 miles long and 15 miles wide was completely desolated. Fortunately, they did not burn the corn fields as Grant’s men had done to the Cherokees or the devastation would have been complete. With their own homes destroyed and wives and children homeless, Marion’s men better understood the sufferings of their country. It strengthened their souls and gave them the determination they needed to continue the fight, for nothing else but for the love of their now extremely ravaged country.

Tarleton, who was unable to overtake Marion, no longer desired to chase him, especially in Marion's area of predominance. Marion was difficult to find and at times his own men couldn’t find him. Cornwallis wanted Tarleton to pursue General Sumpter who had defeated and was holding Colonel Wemyss prisoner. When General Sumpter realized that the entire British army was approaching, he and his 500 men waited for them at a farm on the Tyger River. The British were defeated, 90 men were slain with 100 wounded. Sumpter lost 3 men with 100 wounded, including himself. In October of 1781, the British were defeated at Kings Mountain and 1,100 of their men were killed, wounded or captured. With the team of Marion and Sumpter, it was obvious that the British could make no conquests. Cornwallis and Tarleton were both beginning to respect and acknowledge Marion’s great merits along with the fact that nearly everyone in America were against them.

Marion wanted to conquer Georgetown as he badly needed supplies and this was the enemy’s largest post. He sent out two parties, one commanded by Colonel P. Horry, the other by Captain Melton. Melton’s men were attacked by a much larger party of Tories. Melton was forced to retreat because Marion’s favorite nephew, Gabriel Marion, fell into the hands of the Tories. As soon as his name was recognized he was shot at close range and killed. He was a Lieutenant and served in most of his uncle’s campaigns. This was a tremendous loss to Marion who didn’t have any children of his own and had high expectations for Gabriel’s future. He consoled himself saying that, “I should not mourn for him. The youth was virtuous and had fallen in the cause of his country!”

Marion’s marches, which began at sunset and continued throughout the night, were made in all seasons and all weather. The men wore lightweight clothing which gave them little warmth. They slept under the stars, often without a blanket. Before an attack they often traveled as far as 70 miles, sometimes traveling day and night. During a 24 hour period their only food was cold sweet potatoes and cold water. This was the Spartan way to gain energy and one of the secrets to their bold and daring successes.

Marion found no joy in eating. He was opposed to large gluttonous feasts and seldom if ever tasted alcohol. In addition to sweet potatoes, he favored hominy. His favorite beverage was that of vinegar and water which was diversified by an occasional bowl of coffee for breakfast. Although most of their meals consisted of only sweet potatoes, occasionally they would include lean beef and salt, the latter only after a successful raid of the enemy’s kitchen supplies. Even when Marion obtained extra condiments his unselfish nature would not allow him to use them.

As the Revolutionary War raged on, attitudes were beginning to change. Tarlton was sick of chasing Marion who no doubt was still feeling the pain of loosing his nephew. Taking into consideration everything that had happened during the war, General Francis Marion invited General Tarleton to dine under a flag of truce. When Tarlton first laid eyes on Marion he was shocked and quickly turned to leave. Most of the officers and army men on both sides were tall and weighed at least 200 pounds. Marion was small in stature and thin. But his frame had an iron hardiness which came from strict discipline. It was by the power of love and not of terror that he managed his men. They loved him for himself, his rare command of temper, affectionate manner, calm superiority, confidence and his courage for the fight for the freedom of their country.

Before Tarleton could leave, Marion gently delayed him stating that dinner was already in preparation. His dignified manner and simplistic approach had its affect on Tarleton who gave thought to the interesting interview and accepted the invitation. The meal, which consisted of nothing but roasted sweet potatoes, was served on pieces of  tree bark. Marion ate heartily and requested his guest to do the same, repeating the old adage that “hunger is the best sauce.” “But surely, General, this cannot be your ordinary fare,” said Tarleton. Marion replied, “Indeed, sir, it is, and we are fortunate on this occasion, entertaining company, to have more than our usual allowance.”

The story goes that Tarleton was so impressed with the event that he retired from the service declaring his conviction that men who could be content without the comforts of life were not to be subdued. He concluded that the importance of such a warfare as was carried out by Francis Marion, even if he obtained no great victories, was never to be overcome. Note: Although it is not certain, it is believed that Tarleton was actually promoted to General after the war. The bank notes  (see link at bottom of article) depicting the sweet potato dinner, refer to Tarleton as General.

By August, 1781, the combined forces of Sumpter and Marion had separated and Marion teamed up with General Nathanael Greene. Lieutenant Colonel Stewart was now in charge of the British troops. The hot August weather temporarily halted military operations and the camps of each side was positioned such that they could plainly see the fires of the other. But, the two large rivers in between prevented any sudden attacks and activities were limited to searching for food.

Colonel Stewart unaware of Green’s close proximity, sent out 100 men to gather sweet potatoes. The group, which was called a “rooting party,” traveled out about 3 miles before they were warned by deserters as to Green’s position. Stewart dispatched Captain Coffin to recall the “rooting party,” but encountered the Americans in the process. Unaware of their strength, Coffin attacked the American’s with such confidence that Greene thought he was accompanied by his entire army. But the “rooting party,” alarmed by the firing, ran out of the woods and were easily taken prisoner by Greene’s men. “The Americans had waylaid the swamps and passes in such a manner as to cut off every avenue of intelligence,” was Colonel Stewart’s excuse. Greene then gathered his 2,000 men and Stewart with his 2,300 men, fought the Battle of Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781. This famous battle, which began with a taste for sweet potatoes, led the British to abandon South Carolina.

The British surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia in October of 1781 when Cornwallis was captured. In 1783, Great Britain signed a formal treaty recognizing the Independence of the colonies. None of the men who bravely fought for America ever received compensation, food or even ammunition from the army. Freedom for America was their only reward. Although Marion received a Congressional citation for wisdom and bravery, he was never accorded an honor his country owed him.

After the British evacuated Charleston, Marion and his men weren't invited to the celebration because they were too tattered. But, that tattered brigade who followed Brigadier General Francis Marion on that long, hard road to American independence, earned its rightful place in history. Though life was difficult in the new land, the Americans grew strong in the belief of their individual rights and liberties. What began as a trade war, ended as a war for complete independence and the initiation of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.

From 1781 to 1784, Marion served in the State Senate. In appreciation of his service, the state appointed him commander of Fort Johnson in Charleston at a generous salary. He was promoted to full colonel in the Continental Army on September 30, 1783. He married Mary Esther Videau in 1786. Marion went to the state-constitutional convention in 1790. He died on February 27, 1795 at age 63. He was loved by the community and is remembered as an honorable citizen and gallant soldier who often helped his fellow veterans in time of need.

Robert D. Bass, Biographer, notes that the romantic legends surrounding the “Swamp Fox” grew so large that he became, for some, one of the key figures of the Revolution, second only to George Washington. “By patient toil, by keenest vigilance, by a genius peculiarly his own, he reconciled those inequalities of fortune or circumstance, under which ordinary men sit down in despair. Beloved by his friends, and respected by his enemies, he exhibited a luminous example of the beneficial effects to be produced by an individual who, with only small means at his command, possesses a virtuous heart, a strong head and a mind directed to the common good.” — Appendix to Memoirs, vol. 1 p. 396.

Today, General Francis Marion remains a popular figure as shown by the many institutions using Marion as their namesake. After the war, thousands of parents named their sons “Francis Marion.” Marion’s story is told in many children and adult books, both fictional and non-fictional. In 1798, Marion County, South Carolina was named after him and in 1991, the Marion Fox Trot Festival began to celebrate the City and County’s heritage (5). Marion, Virginia, the seat of Smyth County, was named and established in 1835. In 1840 settlers in east Iowa named their town Marion and since 1989 have celebrated an annual Swamp Fox Festival in honor of the 150th Sesquicentennial Anniversary (6). There are currently 29 U.S. cities and 17 counties named after him.

In 1970, the Francis Marion University, a four-year liberal arts school, was founded in Florence, South Carolina. The Francis Marion National Forest, located near the South Carolina coast, offers such activities as hiking, biking, boating, fishing, birds and wildlife and horse riding. The Francis Marion Hotel, a 12-story landmark in Charleston, was built in 1924 by noted architect W.L. Stoddard and was hailed the largest and grandest hotel in the Carolinas. After the $12 million renovation was complete in 1996, it was renamed the Westin Francis Marion Hotel and once again shines as the grande dam of southern hospitality.

FRANCIS MARION'S SWEET POTATO DINNER — NOTES

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