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
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 MARIONS SWEET POTATO DINNER
(Revolutionary War Hero, Father of U.S. Army Special
General Francis Marion was born at Goatfield Plantation in
1732 in St. Johns Parish in Berkeley County, South Carolina
the same year as George Washington, the first President of the United States.
Marions 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 Marions father, Gabriel Marion, Jr., married
a Miss Esther Cordes and together they had 7 children, 5 boys and 2 girls;
Esther, (girls name unknown), Gabriel, Isaac, Benjamin, Job
and our hero, Francis who was the last one born. Its 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 familys 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. Washingtons mother, through her solicitation, was able to
overcome this passion. Marions mother though was unsuccessful in her
attempt at same. Against his familys 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 boys
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. Johns 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
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
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.
Grants 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
Indians 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
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, Marions 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
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 citys 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 couldnt 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 Marians 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 Generals 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 Marions 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 Marions 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. Marions 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 Marions guerilla tactics were unfair,
that they werent playing by the rules of civilized warfare.
Although the British were considered stuffy and uptight, they did have a
point. Marion didnt 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 Marions 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
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 Grants men had done to the Cherokees or the devastation would have
been complete. With their own homes destroyed and wives and children homeless,
Marions 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
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 couldnt 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 Marions 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 enemys largest post. He sent out two parties, one
commanded by Colonel P. Horry, the other by Captain Melton. Meltons
men were attacked by a much larger party of Tories. Melton was forced to
retreat because Marions 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
uncles campaigns. This was a tremendous loss to Marion who didnt
have any children of his own and had high expectations for Gabriels
future. He consoled himself saying that, I should not mourn for
him. The youth was virtuous and had fallen in the cause of his
Marions 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
enemys 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 Greens 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 Greens position. Stewart dispatched Captain Coffin
to recall the rooting party, but encountered the Americans in
the process. Unaware of their strength, Coffin attacked the Americans
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 Greenes men. The
Americans had waylaid the swamps and passes in such a manner as to cut off
every avenue of intelligence, was Colonel Stewarts 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
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.
Marions 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 Countys 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.
MARION'S SWEET POTATO DINNER NOTES
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