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Tarleton portrait


by Janie B. Cheaney

Tarleton holds the distinction of being the most hated British officer to serve during the Revolution. Though he was probably not as bad as reported, "Bloody Ban" made himself a useful propaganda figure for his enemies. There was certainly enough truth in the accusations to justify their use.

He was born into a wealthy merchant family in Liverpool on August 21, 1754. His father was a sea trader who made most of his money in sugar and slaves; highly respected in his community, the elder Tarleton had served several terms as Lord Mayor of the city. Banastre was the third child in a family that extended eventually to seven; a bright, strong, energetic boy who was popular with his peers and much more fond of sports than books. At the age of 17 he accompanied his older brother to London, where he was tutored for a few months preparatory to entering Oxford. After two years at the University he enrolled in Middle Temple, England's most prestigious law school, but never developed a studious bent.

When Banastre was 19 his father died, leaving the young man a fortune of 5000 pounds. This was a big mistake; in less than a year Banastre drove through the money so fast he ran himself into debt, with nothing to show for it except memories of gaudy nights at the Cocoa Tree, one of London's most popular gambling establishments. The military offered a way out for young men in similar straits, and in April of 1775 he prevailed upon his mother to buy a commission in the King's cavalry. (Commissions sold for 100 times the daily pay for that rank; the cheapest rank one could buy in the cavalry was that of coronet, at 800 pounds.) This proved to be a fortuitous choice, for he took to cavalry life like a sailor to grog.

Early in 1776 he volunteered for service in America, crossing the Atlantic in time to participate in the unsuccessful first siege of Charleston. By the fall of '76 he was in New York, attracting the attention of superiors by his daring and enterprise. After he helped to capture the American general Charles Lee, which was considered a great coup for the British, Tarleton was promoted to Captain of the 1st Company, Liverpool Royal Volunteers. Before the year was out he was promoted again to Lieutenant Colonel and placed in charge of the newly-formed British Legion, a mixed company of cavalry and light infantry. His rise was spectacular in the stodgy, tradition-bound British army; without money or family connections he had worked his way to an independent command before the age of 24. His bearing and appearance probably boosted him up the ladder: though short, he was well-proportioned and very muscular, red-headed and dark-eyed, with fine manners and a charm that seems to have appealed greatly to women.

His command, the "British" Legion, was composed mainly of American Loyalists from New York and Pennsylvania, who wore Green jackets to distinguish them as a Tory regiment. Tarleton took his responsibilities seriously, drilling the Legion until it was one of the most effective mounted units in the army. After serving with distinction in all the major engagements in New York and Pennsylvania, he was one of the officers selected to sail down the coast with Generals Clinton and Cornwallis for another try at Charleston.

In February of 1780 the troops landed at Edisto Bay, about 30 miles south of the city, then marched overland to the point where they would begin digging siege lines. The boy Colonel found himself in command of a dismounted cavalry, for most of their horses had been so badly knocked around during the rough voyage that they had to be tossed overboard. Tarleton showed his resourcefulness--and ruthlessness--in seizing horses wherever he could find them. His job was to seal off supply routes to the city once the siege was underway, a task he performed brilliantly. His style, which the American defenders soon learned to recognize, was quick movement, relentless pacing, and head-on, slashing attacks.

At Monck's Corner in April he broke the last cavalry resistance and Charleston was doomed. When the city capitulated on May 12, Tarleton's Legion was sent up the coast to secure Georgetown as a British outpost. Then his commander, Lord Cornwallis, received word of a regiment of Virginia Continentals still at large, and sent Tarleton to catch it if he could. The Virginians, numbering about 350, were commanded by Colonel Abraham Buford. They had been marching to the defense of Charleston, but when word reached them of the city's fall, they sensibly turned around and headed north. They had a ten-day lead on the British Legion but Tarleton was a relentless driver when on the chase, and quickly closed the gap between them. On the last stretch of the pursuit, he and his vanguard covered 105 miles in 54 hours at a pace that killed horses and exhausted men. Late in the afternoon on May 29 they caught up with the Virginians near a settlement called the Waxhaws, on the border between North and South Carolina. Buford had already refused a demand for surrender, so Tarleton attacked without ceremony, or even without waiting for his stragglers to catch up. Though outnumbered more than two to one, the Legion hit Buford's regiment so hard that a flag of surrender soon went up from the Americans.

There is some controversy about what happened next. As Tarleton explained it, his horse was shot and pinned him underneath when it fell. The Legion, thinking their commander wounded under a flag of truce, were so enraged that they attacked Buford's men again, cutting and hacking every live body they could reach, even those bodies who were kneeling on the ground with their hands up. Patriots claimed that their enemies attacked under orders from Tarleton himself, who didn't want to bother with taking prisoners. However it began, the slaughter went on for at least fifteen minutes, during which Tarleton gained the reputation he would never lose: from then on, he would be known as "Bloody Ban" or "The Butcher." "Tarleton's Quarter" became a rallying cry for patriots throughout the south, who would use it more than once to justify some of their own butchery. There is no indication that the Colonel minded his nickname, and his commander never seriously questioned his tactics. Cornwallis used the British Legion as shock troops to harry and demoralize patriot resistance; they effectively "mopped up" after the battle of Camden by chasing after and cutting down the fleeing militia units.

On August 19, Tarleton scored a brilliant victory at Fishing Creek against General Thomas Sumter, who commanded an irregular army of 1000 volunteers. Following another breakneck chase through simmering heat, he caught up with Sumter after the general had set up camp and was taking it easy. Outnumbered again, this time four to one, Tarleton charged into the encampment and broke up the army so effectively it was thought they would never assemble again. What the British failed to recognize was that terror does not necessarily crush rebellion. Tarleton's dash-and-slash tactics worked against him when, on more than one occasion, his Legion attacked and slaughtered natives who turned out to be Tories. This was no way to keep friends, but neither Tarleton nor Cornwallis seemed to grasp that some diplomacy was necessary to make the best use of the many Loyalists scattered throughout the Carolinas.

Cornwallis undoubtedly intended to make good use of the Legion when he began his invasion of North Carolina in late September, but Tarleton was suddenly struck down with malaria, or possibly yellow fever, and confined to bed for at least three weeks. The British army lingered in Charlotte until mid-October, when news of Major Patrick Ferguson's disastrous defeat at King's Mountain forced Cornwallis to reconsider his plans. He retreated back to South Carolina and put the British Legion to work keeping supply lines open. For much of November Tarleton ranged along the Santee River punishing parole-breakers, or those who had pledged loyalty to the King only to take up arms again. Houses were burned, livestock slaughtered and crops destroyed in a South Carolina preview of Sherman's March. He spent several days in a fruitless attempt to run down the guerilla leader Francis Marion, after which he was heard to exclaim in disgust that the devil himself couldn't catch "this damned old fox." Marion was known as the "Swamp Fox" forever after.

Next, Tarleton raced westward to meet Thomas Sumter, who had recruited another partisan army. The brief battle at Blackstocks' Farm was classic Tarleton: outnumbered, he tried another head-on attack but this time was repulsed. His losses would probably have been greater than they were, except that a stray shot struck Sumter in the back just as nightfall brought an end to the engagement. The Colonel claimed victory, which was also classic Tarleton, and Cornwallis concurred in his judgment, "but [I] wish it had not cost you so much." Cornwallis still held great confidence in his cavalry commander, which was not unwise considering the number of patriot guerilla bands roaming about.

But the Americans also had a regular army in the field, a rather pathetic-looking band numbering around 2000 and commanded by Nathanael Greene. In mid-December Greene stunned Cornwallis by divided his army, sending about 800 of relatively able-bodied soldiers west under command of Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, a renowned rifleman and frontier fighter. Tarleton proposed to chase Morgan down with his own British Legion plus two regiments of regular infantry, and either destroy it or pin it between his force and the main British army. It sounded good to Cornwallis, who detached a battalion each of the 71st and 7th regiments to serve under the Colonel--with the Legion, this added up to about 1100, the largest force Tarleton had ever commanded.

For the first two weeks of January 1781, he lived up to his tracking reputation; on the morning of January 16, in spite of the constant rains and flooded waterways that slowed everybody down, he was so close to Morgan that the latter barely had time to flee his came with the American army. For most of the day Morgan marched northward with the enemy never more than ten miles behind, but by evening he had determined to take a stand and fight it out on a high pasture known as the Cowpens. By 4:00 a.m. on the 17th, Tarleton was on the march with his army of regulars.

Morgan had used the time to position his men, which now numbered about 1000 in all, in a unique arrangement well-suited to the terrain and the nature of his men, about half of which were untried militia. He placed these raw troops right out in front with orders to fire only two volleys, after which they could retreat. About 150 yards behind this first line were the experienced Continentals, and a small cavalry troop was held in reserve at the rear. Tarleton arrived on the scene about 7:00 a.m. and, with his usual lack of subtlety, began lining up his regiments for a head-on attack. When the first line of militia fell back as instructed, he mistook their retreat for a rout and pressed the attack on toward the Continentals in the second battle line. But Morgan's plan worked better than even he expected; after almost half an hour of heavy fighting, the militia regrouped and outflanked the British left, while the American cavalry hit them on the left. This amounted to a double envelopment, or flanking on both sides, with the resulting surrender of the 7th and 71st Regiments. Tarleton could not even rally his own Legion to make a last-ditch effort, and barely managed to escape with his own skin. Proportionally, the Battle of Cowpens was the worst defeat suffered by British regulars in a pitched battle of the entire war.

Yet Cornwallis never rebuked his cavalry commander for it; in part because he needed Tarleton too much, but possibly because he still did not grasp the young man's limitations. Historians disagree over how badly the "Butcher's" military reputation was damaged by the Cowpens diaster, but Tarleton never again commanded so large a force. He continued his raids with a reorganized British Legion, chased detachments of Greene's army all the way to the Virginia border, and took part in the ferociously-fought Guilford Courthouse battle on March 15, during which he took a bullet in his right hand and subsequently lost two fingers. In May the British army sailed from Wilmington to Virginia, where Cornwallis again used the Legion as a strike force. On one of his raids, Tarleton captured several members of the Virginia government, a bag which almost included Thomas Jefferson, but Jefferson was warned of the raiders' approach and made his escape with scarcely ten minutes to spare. It would have been an interesting confrontation.

But by and large, the fun was over. When Cornwallis withdrew to the coast to fortify Yorktown, Tarleton was put in charge of Gloucester Point, an outpost just across the river. He was on his way back from a foraging expedition when his detachment was set upon by a band of French cavalry led by the Duc de Lauzun. In the scrap, Tarleton was pinned under a falling horse and rescued by members of his Legion, who surrounded him and fought off the French until he could work himself free. Though no one knew it yet, that was the end of Tarleton's fighting days. On October 15 Cornwallis surrendered the entire British army to Washington and the war was essentially over. Tarleton found himself shut out of the round of dinner parties between British, American and French officers afterward; no one wanted his company.

But the British public, hungry for heroes after a long, exhausting, humiliating war, latched on Tarleton as one bright star. On his return to London in January of 1782, he was the toast of the city and soon counted the young Prince of Wales among his friends. But it was not to last; the Colonel squandered his brilliant reputation over the next several years through his compulsive gambling and a stormy, ultimately futile relationship with Mary "Perdita" Robinson, the actress and poet. In 1786 he was the subject of critical letters published in the London papers which excoriated his handling of the Cowpens battle. Stung, Tarleton wrote his History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1780 in the Southern Provinces of North America to salvage his military honor. In the process he savaged his former mentor's, and Cornwallis broke off all relations with him.

Tarleton's home town elected him to seven terms of Parliament, and he retained his officer's commission even in times of severe financial stress, when the temptation to sell it must have been very great. Around the age of 45 he settled down, with a fortuitous marriage and a series of appointments to insignificant army posts. He died a major general and Knight of the Bath in 1833, having outlived most of his contemporaries.


Bass, Robert D., The Green Dragoon: the Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson. New York, 1957

Agniel, Lucien, The Late Affair Has Almost Broke My Heart. Riverside, CN 1972.

1998 Janie B. Cheaney dgccmaster