There are two Banastre Tarleton’s. The first one — the real one — is part of British Army history and, of course, that of the American Revolution. The second Banastre is an invention of Hollywood writers and every historian content to evaluate history through 21st-century rose-colored lenses.
I have no inside information about what goes on inside Hollywood production studios. I simply know that whenever Mel Gibson begins a project having anything to do with British history, the British always come out looking horrible. He did that with the film about William Wallace, which was more fiction than fact — and he did it with the film The Patriot, where he painted Cornwallis as dishonorable and Banastre Tarleton as a war criminal. Placing “entertainment” aside, if that’s what fictional history is, Gibson and others are teaching their American audiences revisionist history. Given the current state of education in the United States, one may argue that Americans don’t need any help learning the wrong history.
Taking another look
Banastre Tarleton was born on 21 August 1754. I’ve read that he was either the second, third, or fourth of seven children of John Tarleton, the former lord mayor of Liverpool, a money lender, a merchant, and a slave trader. Banastre was fortunate to have a wealthy father — just not lucky enough to be his father’s first born son. Although his father paid for his education at prestigious Oxford University, his was a rather undistinguished learning experience. He seemed more interested in drinking, gambling, and consorting with loose women than studying. When his father died in 1773, Banastre inherited £5,000, which he promptly squandered. The purchase of his military commission was a gift of his mother, who promised her son that he’d seen his last monetary gift from the home front.
What kind of person was Banastre Tarleton? For a young man raised in the home of a slave trader, we might expect that he developed a cold-hearted worldview. In later life, as a member of Parliament, Tarleton rigorously defended the slave trade (upon which his family’s fortunes rested), and he was known to verbally attack abolitionist politicians.
Coronet Tarleton arrived in North America in 1776 and was assigned rather mundane duties of an administrative manner. It did not take him long to run up another £2,500 of debt. We may not have heard any more about Banastre Tarleton were it not for the stunning defeat of General John Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777.
A twenty-one-year-old Banastre Tarleton sailed from Cork in December 1775 with Lord Cornwallis. Cornwallis’s mission was to capture Charleston, South Carolina. This expedition failed, but in the following year, Tarleton joined the main British Army under General William Howe in New York. Coronet Tarleton was assigned to Colonel William Harcourt.
Coronet Tarleton was part of a scouting party ordered to gather information about the movements of General Charles Lee in New Jersey. On 13 December 1776, Tarleton surrounded a house in Basking Ridge and forced General Lee, dressed in his nightgown, to surrender by threatening to burn down the house. Lee surrendered.
Subsequently, Tarleton’s campaign service in 1776 earned him the position of brigade major; he was barely 22 years old. He was promoted to captain on 13 June 1778, having served in several combat engagements — including the Battle of Brandywine and others (1777 – 1778). One such battle was an attack on a communications outpost in Easton Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, which was guarded by Captain Henry Lee III. In this battle, the patriots repulsed the British assault. Captain Tarleton was wounded in this action.
Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga led senior British commanders to shift their efforts to the southern colonies, where they believed Loyalists would help them to win the war. To help accomplish that, General Sir Henry Clinton created a British Legion from among the communities of British loyalists. Formed in July 1778, the Legion initially consisted of several small loyalist militia units from New York, placed into a single organization of mounted infantry, cavalry, and “flying” artillery.
In 1778, Tarleton was 24 years old. His mission was to patrol, track, raid, assault, shock, and destroy enemy guerrilla forces. Between 1778 – 1782, the British Legion participated in 15 separate combat operations — but, by every account, Tarleton completed his mission enthusiastically, efficiently, and ruthlessly … giving rise to the claim that the young colonel was guilty of war crimes.
Any British notion that southern loyalists would save the day was a substantial miscalculation because what the British had to contend with in the Carolinas was the backcountry Scots-Irish who had been pushing British buttons since 1740.
In 1778, these hard-headed people (and their offspring) had become rebel militiamen and guerrillas. Colonel Tarleton’s attitude was that if these people were going to ruthlessly attack British formations and baggage trains, then they should be prepared for some ruthlessness in return. To his credit, Tarleton’s legion was constantly in the saddle, far afield from regular garrisons. They seized what they needed to sustain themselves — from the King’s subjects, which was only proper. These rebels were, after all, committing their treason on the King’s land.
At most, Tarleton had around 500 men in uniform. On average, it was probably closer to 300. When the Legion needed more men, Tarleton’s officers recruited them from among the loyalist communities (and rebel deserters). He motivated the men by convincing them that they were the British Army’s elite fighters. They distinguished themselves by wearing green uniforms rather than redcoats. Tarleton’s standing order to his men was to give the enemy “fire and sword.” And that’s what they did.
Charleston, South Carolina, fell to General Sir Henry Clinton’s British forces on 12 May 1780. A column of around 380 patriot reinforcements known as the Third Virginia Detachment, serving under Colonel Abraham Buford, failed to reach the city before it’s capitulation. Once they realized that the city had fallen, they withdrew. Buford’s command involved two companies of the 2nd Virginia Regiment, 40 light dragoons, and two six-pound cannons.
Having taken the city, General Clinton prepared to return to New York, appointing his deputy, Lieutenant General Cornwallis, to assume command of the southern army. Even though a week had elapsed when Cornwallis learned of Buford’s presence, he dispatched Colonel Tarleton to pursue him. At that time, Tarleton’s command consisted of around 230 Legionnaires, reinforced by 40 men from the 17th Light Dragoon and a three-pound cannon.
Colonel Tarleton aggressively moved his men 150 miles rapidly, catching up with Buford on the afternoon of 29 May. The area in which the two forces caught sight of each other lies along the border of North and South Carolina — an area known as the Waxhaws. Colonel Tarleton sent a message to Buford demanding his surrender. Initially, Buford refused and ordered his baggage and weapons train to continue moving northward in all due haste. He then formed a battle line in an open field across his route of march, placing his infantry in a single line with orders not to fire until the British approached within ten yards.
While approaching Buford’s position, Tarleton organized his force into three attacking columns. He deployed 120 British dragoons on his right flank, intending to dismount his infantry to fire upon the Americans and pin them down. His center column consisted of his elite force, regulars of the 17th Light Dragoons and Legionnaires to charge straight ahead, and a left flank column of 30 legionnaires under his personal command, intending to sweep the American right flank and drive for their baggage and reserves. Tarleton retained his only cannon in reserve.
Colonel Tarleton ordered his attack as soon as its elements were in position. Buford’s men, having been ordered to withhold their fire, were overwhelmed by the speed and aggressiveness of the British assault. Tarleton’s three columns devastated the American defenders. As quickly as it had begun, the battle was over. British casualties were slight, with five killed and 14 wounded. The American losses were 113 men killed and 203 wounded — with Colonel Buford escaping to safety. When Buford was out of danger, he reported the engagement as a massacre of surrendered men. Even now, the American Battle Trust refers to this engagement as the Buford Massacre.
Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton tells us a different story. In A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (1787), Tarleton tells us that after arriving at Camden, he obtained intelligence from local citizens that Colonel Buford had quit Rugeley’s Mills on 26th May and was marching in all haste to join a corps thought to be marching on the road between Salisbury and Charlotte town in North Carolina. With this information, Tarleton moved vigorously to prevent the union of these troops.
Tarleton’s men reached Rugeley’s Mill in daylight and learned that the Continentals were in full retreat some twenty miles down the road toward Catawba. Motivated by his enthusiasm to meet the enemy, Tarleton quickened his pace, sending Captain Kinlock ahead with a message to the American commander: surrender his force. Buford turned back to meet the British foe.
By this time, heat and humidity had defeated many of the British cavalry and dragoons, men who were so worn out that they began to drop out of the formation and fall into the rear of the column. This was the condition of Tarleton’s men as he approached the Americans — and the commander realized that his men did not have the energy for a prolonged engagement. This is why Tarleton decided to attack the enemy as soon as possible — and to prevent reinforcements from reaching the American line. At this moment, the only circumstance favorable to the British light dragoons was the known inferiority of the American cavalry.
At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the advanced guard of the British charged a sergeant and four men of the American light dragoon and made them prisoners. Colonel Buford readied his 380 men for action, forming them in a single line with a small reserve, and ordered his baggage and wagons to continue their march.
Tarleton formed his men for an attack with haste. He assigned 120 mounted men to the right flank under Major Cochrane. He ordered Cochrane to dismount 60 dragoons to gall the Americans’ flank. He directed Captain Corbet and Captain Kinlock to charge the center, and he would lead 30 men to sweep the American right flank.
Thus far, Buford had not fired upon Tarleton. When the British arrived within fifty yards of the American line, Buford ordered the riflemen to present — but their officers ordered them to hold fire. In accordance with Buford’s intention, the Americans would only have one shot before the British were inside the line.
The American riflemen took their shot when the British were within ten yards. Colonel Tarleton’s horse was shot, and he collapsed with the animal. Tarleton quickly recovered, but his men, thinking he was shot, unleashed their rage upon the Americans, and Buford’s battalion was soon broken and “no quarter” delivered before Tarleton could regain control of this force.
When the Americans had taken their shot, Tarleton’s horse was shot, and he collapsed with his horse. Tarleton quickly recovered, but his men, thinking he was shot, unleashed their rage upon the Americans, and the battalion was soon broken with no quarter delivered before Tarleton could regain control of his men. Given the over-stimulation and vindictiveness of the legionnaires, the loss of American officers and men was significant.
The wounded (American and British) of both parties were collected with all possible dispatch and treated with equal humanity. The American officers and soldiers who were unable to travel were paroled the next morning and placed at the neighboring plantations and in a meeting house not far distant from the field of battle: Surgeons were sent from Camden and Charlotte town to assist them, and every possible convenience was provided by the British.
To dispel the idea popular among some American historians that General Cornwallis countenanced “war crimes” in his command, he actually did not seem to have much patience for misbehavior among his soldiers. In 1781, Lord Cornwallis rode to the front of Tarleton’s regimental column and ordered Colonel Tarleton to dismount his regiment and have his men and officers stand at attention by their mounts.
Tarleton, as we now know, was one of Cornwallis’ favorite officers. Was he too lax with his men? Perhaps. Although, what he may have lacked in disciplinary judgment, he made up for in his enthusiasm and battlefield courage. As his men stood at attention, Lord Cornwallis and several civilians walked down the line looking at each trooper, inspecting each face. From time to time, Cornwallis and the civilians engaged in hushed conversations. Finally, Cornwallis ordered his guards to seize two men — a private and a sergeant and pulled them out of the ranks. The two legionnaires appeared before a court martial charged with rape and robbery. Found guilty, Cornwallis had them hanged.
The British Army could be brutal. Some will argue that harshness to influence discipline is part of military virtue. Either the men are disciplined, or they are not. No doubt, Colonel Tarleton was feeling uncomfortable as he observed his men swinging from the gallows. General Cornwallis had warned his favorite officer to bring his legionnaires to heel because he believed they were playing fast and loose with proper decorum as representatives of His Majesty’s Army.
There is little doubt that Tarleton’s command was ruthless. War is a ruthless business, and there can be no doubt that rebellious colonists were traitors to the Crown. Tarleton was walking a tightrope. How much ruthlessness is acceptable? Where does one draw the line?
In South Carolina, Francis Marion (also known as the Swamp Fox) had long served as a British and later state militia officer. Marion never served in command of a field army or participated in a major engagement, but his expertise in irregular (guerilla) warfare earned him a promotion to brigadier general. Throughout the southern campaign, Colonel Tarleton did everything within his power to disrupt and, if possible, capture General Marion — without success.
Marion was a popular son of South Carolina, and he had no problem gaining the support and assistance of local citizens. Tarleton, on the other hand, unapologetically took what forage he needed to support his men. South Carolinians were less inclined to support the rash British dragoon. It was a matter of culture: Tarleton treated the people of South Carolina for what they were — the King’s subjects. In time, even the loyalists began to resent Tarleton’s haughtiness and became less inclined to offer any support.
Colonel Tarleton was instrumental in helping General Cornwallis win the Battle of Camden in August 1780. He also defeated Thomas Sumter at Fishing Creek (Catawba Fords) but was less successful with Sumter at Blackstock’s Farm (November 1780).
Colonel Tarleton’s forces were virtually destroyed on 17 January 1781 by General Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens. Tarleton and 200 men managed to escape the battlefield. Colonel William Washington commanded the rebel cavalry when attacked by Tarleton and two of his men. Washington stopped Tarleton by aggressively assaulting him with his sword and challenging him by saying loudly, “Where is now the boasting Tarleton?”
A young coronet of the 17th Dragoons, Thomas Patterson, rode up to strike Washington but was shot and killed by Washington’s orderly. In this encounter, Washington wounded Tarleton in his right hand, and Tarleton returned the favor by shooting Washington, wounding him in the knee, and also wounding his horse. Washington, incensed, pursued Tarleton for sixteen miles, finally losing sight of him at the Goudylock Plantation.
Banastre Tarleton was a gallant military officer — one who took his duties seriously, and perhaps, in some instances, too seriously. But he was no war criminal, and he did not die in a hand-to-hand fight with Mel Gibson. Tarleton returned to Great Britain and entered the world of politics. His combat wounds served him well as a returning hero. Not everyone agreed with General Tarleton’s account of the Southern Campaign, of course … proving that the British Army, like most other armies, are highly political.
In 1812, Tarleton was commissioned to full general. He anticipated being appointed to command British forces in the Peninsular War, but that assignment went to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke Wellington. Instead, Tarleton held military command in Ireland and England.
- Bass, R. D. The Green Dragoon, Sandlapper Publications, 2003
- Reynolds, W. R. Jr. Andrew Pickens: South Carolina Patriot in the Revolutionary War. McFarland & Company, 2012.
- Scotti, A. J. Brutal Virtue: The Myth and Reality of Banastre Tarleton. Heritage Books, 2002.
- Wilson, D. K. The southern strategy: Britain’s conquest of South Carolina and Georgia, 1775–1780. University of South Carolina Press, 2005.
- Raddall, T. H. Tarleton’s Legion. Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, 1949.
- Tarleton, B. A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the southern provinces of North America. 1787. Kindle Edition.
 Historian Michael Bryant states that the first use of the term “war criminal” occurred in 1906 in a book on international law, suggesting also that the concept existed much earlier than that.
 Coronet was the lowest commissioned grade of the British Cavalry, equivalent to modern-day second lieutenant.
 A brigade major is the chief of staff of a brigade. It is a job position, not a rank; however, such men commonly held the rank of major (but also captain), but intentionally below the rank of lieutenant colonel who generally served as officers commanding subordinate battalions. Brigades major provided detail concerning and executed the intentions of the brigade commander.
 Flying artillery was a new concept in 1778. It involved fast-moving cavalry, swift movement of artillery, and mounted infantry (dragoons) formed from Caledonian Volunteers, West Jersey Volunteers, Captain Kinloch’s independent New York Dragoons, Philadelphia Light Dragoons, the Prince of Wales’s American Volunteers, and the 16th Light Dragoons. To lead the Legion, Tarleton was advanced to lieutenant colonel and ordered to move his 250 cavalry and 200 dragoons to the Carolinas.
 A geographical region extending beyond both sides of the North and South Carolina border within Lancaster, Union, and Mecklenburg counties.
2 thoughts on “Banastre Tarleton”
I don’t now, Mustang. Tarleton and his men had free rein when they went on their raids. I expect they committed their share of war crimes. But, since no records of how he conducted his raids exist, as far as I know, there is room for doubt.
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I agree. He was too young to serve as a regimental commander, he had no formal training, and he was frequently chastised by his CG — yet, Cornwallis gave him free rein because it served his purposes to do so. I would also agree that Tarleton’s memoirs were probably more self-serving than documented history. Thank you for weighing in.