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Myth On The Map

July 2024
4min read

Scores of towns and counties all over the nation honor some heroics largely invented by Parson Weems

Wherever there’s a Newton, there’s a Jasper.”

When my father said that to me three years ago, he inaugurated a search that reveals what I believe to be a heretofore unrelated bit of American history. Casually spoken, his remark had been casually received. Soon afterward, however, my husband and I attended a fox hunt in Jasper County, Texas, and discovered that Newton County was next to it and that the towns of Jasper and Newton were their county seats. Coining home, we drove through Jasper, Arkansas, which proved to be the seat of Newton County, and from then on it seemed that no matter where we went Newton and Jasper were on the way. Sometimes they were associated as counties, sometimes as county and county seat; often a town or county of Marion was nearby. Maps showed more than sixty Newtons and Jaspers in all, half of them juxtaposed in an almost conjugal relationship. They were about as much a part of the American scene as Lincoln Avenue, Washington Street, and Courthouse Square. But why?

My father, unfortunately, had offered no reason for his original statement beyond the vague suggestion that it all stemmed, somehow, from a painting hanging somewhere in South Carolina. My own investigation of state histories reveals that they commemorate heroes of an incident that may never have happened, that they are linked together because of a dialogue that never was spoken, and that one of the men thus immortalized probably was a thief and a villain.

The tale was told by Mason Locke Weems, whose biography of George Washington created the cherry tree fable. His second book, The Life of General Francis Marion, published in 1809, dealt largely with the Second South Carolina Infantry Regiment of Revolutionary War lame, and here it was that “Parson” Weems related the exploits of two of Marion’s sergeants, Newton and Jasper. One day in the spring of 1779, the Parson related, the pair emerged from their hiding place beside a spring near Savannah and dramatically rescued a number of American prisoners, among them a woman and child, from a party of ten British captors. In the process, the two Americans disposed of one enemy sergeant, one corporal, and two privates, rapturing (he remaining six, while they themselves were not even scratched. According tu Weems, Jasper and Newton were at no loss lor rich, fruity dialogue as they embarked upon their heroic deed. Let the good Parson tell it: The brave are always tender hearted. It was so with Jasper and Newton, two of the most undaunted spirits that ever lived …

“Newton,” said [Jasper], “my days have been but few; but I believe their course is nearly done.”

“Why so, jasper?”

“Why, 1 feel,” said he, “that I must rescue these poor prisoners; or die with them; otherwise that woman and her child will haunt me to my grave.”

“Well, that’s exactly what J feel too,” replied Newton— “and here is my hand and heart to stand by you, my brave friend, to the last drop. Thank God, a man can die but once; and there is not so much in this life that a man need be alraid to leave it. especially when he is in the way of his duty.”

The two friends then embraced with great cordiality, while each read in the other’s countenance that immortal Ore which beams from die eyes of the brave, when resolved to die or conquer in some glorious cause.

Conquer they did. Nor was the liberated lady ungrateful. Weems’s narrative continues: … She exclaimed, “Where? Where are those blessed angels that God sent to save my husband?”

Directed by our looks to Jasper and Newton, where they stood like two youthful Samsons, in the full flowing of their locks, she ran and fell on her knees before them, and seizing their hands, kissed and pressed them to her bosom, crying out vehemently—“dear angels! dear angelsl God bless youl God Almighty bless you forevcrl”

The story was accepted as gospel by the literalistic people of the day, and ever since then the gallant Newton and the undaunted Jasper have been standing staunchly side by side—even though the one man who undoubtedly knew the true facts said it simply wasn’t so. That was Krigadier General Peter Horry, whose own name was on the book’s title page along with that of Weems. Horry had written and given to Weems a sketch history of Marion’s brigade, and the redoubtable Parson had promised to get it published. Horry had admonished him “not to alter the sense or meaning of my work, least when it came out I might not know it; and, perverted, it might convey a very different meaning from the truth.”

When the book appeared, Horry was horrified. He wrote to Weems, ”… You have carved and mutilated it … Most certainly ’tis not MY history, but YOUR romance.” Horry’s indignant disavowals went unnoticed by a public that would not be denied its heroes. In the years after the book was published—lor the most part between 1820 and 1850—new towns and comities springing up all over America adopted the names of one or the other of Wcems’s hold sergeants.

In William Jasper, at least, the public was not entirely deluded. He was a hona Ode hero, whom General William Moultrie called a “hrave, active, stout, strong, enterprising man, and a very great parti/an,” and “a perfect Proteus in his ability to alter his appearance.” He held a roving commission as a scout and part-time spy, but mostly he is remembered for rescuing his regimental banner during the bombardment of Fort Sullivan (later called Moultrie) in iyyO, after which new colors were presented to the regiment by a Mrs. Susanna Elliot. Jasper died defending them during the siege of Savannah.

Weems seems to have used his imagination freely in creating that “blessed angel” of the fiery eye and brave demeanor, Sergeant Newton. He said that New ton was Jasper’s “particular friend … son of an old Daptist preacher and a young fellow for strength ami courage, just about a good match for Jasper himself.” Rut Horry, uselessly of course, wrote: “Jasper was an Honest Man; but Newton was a Thief & a Villain.” Since neither Weems nor Horry gave Newton a first name, it is hard to prove just who he was. Four Newtons served with the regiment, but two were filers and another a private. 1 he only Sergeant Newton— his name was John—was discharged on April 17, 17/8, a year before the alleged exploit at Savannah.

The inscription on the Jasper Monument in Savannah doesn’t mention Sergeant Newton, but his name docs appear on a marker that now stands a few miles west of Savannah at Jasper Spring, the site of the alleged incident. All later writings seem to take Weems’s book as the ultimate source of the incident, but perhaps the basis for the entire story was this excerpt from an article in the Virginia Gazette of May 15, 1779: “The brave Sergeant Jasper, with another sergeant, crossed Savannah River, took, and brought to Major General Lincoln’s headquarters, two Captains, named Scott and Young, of the British troops in Georgia.”

It is unlikely that we will ever know the real truth of the matter, and it doesn’t seem quite fair to the memory of General Horry. Weems was applauded for his writing, Jasper and Newton were honored throughout the land, but Horry had just one little county in South Carolina named after him. And alter all, it was his notes, mightily improved upon by the Parson, that started the whole thing.

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