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Banastre Tarleton and his ruthless British Legion.

History loves a villain, and Banastre Tarleton wears that mantle with great élan, at least to Americans. The British, however, remember him as the darling of the Revolutionary War—daring, precocious and generally victorious. Both reputations are well deserved, if somewhat inflated. Tarleton was a soldier who fought hard and ruthlessly for the Crown. His exploits in South Carolina earned him Hollywood fame in 2000, when he was transmogrified into the vicious Colonel William Tavington in the film The Patriot. In reality, that film portrayed only one of three such episodes in the war when Tarleton leapt beyond history and into legend.

Fate gave the young Tarleton his first chance at glory in December 1776, and he seized it. Then 22, he was a newly minted cornet, or cavalry officer, in the British army and had only recently arrived in the American colonies. The revolution was also fresh, but it seemed about to end in a quick, decisive victory for the British. Over the preceding four months General George Washington’s forces had lost four battles and surrendered a fifth. Along with the battles, they had lost York Island (Manhattan) and much of the strength of the Continental Army. Making matters worse, Washington had divided the army earlier in the fall. Now a reduced force of just a few thousand Continentals under his direct command was limping across New Jersey, the British on its heels. Washington’s last hope—and probably the last hope for the Patriot cause—was reinforcement, especially from forces under Maj. Gen. Charles Lee. Positioned on the east bank of the Hudson River, Lee’s brigades had been guarding the corridor that led into New England.

Arrogant and self-assured, 44-yearold Lee was a seasoned former British military officer who had fought in the French and Indian War and Seven Years’ War and now espoused the Patriot cause. Washington had described him as “the first officer in military knowledge and expertise we have in the whole Army.” But as the war now hinged on Lee, he seemed immovable and intractable, despite Washington’s repeated requests for reinforcements. Lee was disgusted with Washington’s leadership and would not deign to respond to the general’s urgings. In a letter to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, in early December, Washington confessed, “I have not heard a word from General Lee since the 26th of last month.”

By then Lee had begun to move into New Jersey, and by mid-December he was in Morristown. British Loyalists were abundant in New Jersey, so Lee’s decision to spend the night of December 12 at White’s Tavern in Basking Ridge, miles away from his army and guarded by just a dozen men, was an inexplicable act of folly. But Lee’s mistake would forge Tarleton’s reputation.

The following morning a British scouting party of some 30 dragoons, including Tarleton, learned the location of Lee’s army from a British sympathizer. Heading in that direction, the dragoons came upon two American sentries and a light horseman, and under threat of death the men gave up Lee’s whereabouts and confessed he was poorly guarded. When the British advance party got to within 100 yards of White’s Tavern, Tarleton led the charge. He and six other dragoons rushed the enemy with a fury that had an overwhelming effect. “I went on at full speed,” Tarleton later wrote his mother in a letter full of self-admiration. “The sentries were struck with a panic, dropped their arms and fled. I ordered my men to fire into the house thro’ every window and door, and cut up as many of the guard as they could.” Stationed in an outbuilding, most of the guard scattered, though a few fired back. After the dragoons shot and slashed several guards, the widow who owned the tavern appeared at the door, begging on her knees for mercy and confirming, loudly, that Lee was indeed inside. “This assurance,” Tarleton wrote his mother, “gave me pleasure. I carried on my attack with all possible spirit…and then addressed myself to this effect: ‘I knew General Lee was in the house, that if he would surrender himself, he and his attendants should be safe, but if my summons was not complied with immediately, the house should be burnt and every person without exception should put to the sword.’”

When the dragoons first descended on the tavern, the general, still in his bedclothes, had been upstairs in his room, dealing with paperwork and writing yet another complaining letter about Washington, this one to Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates: “A certain great man is damnably deficient,” Lee lamented. “He has thrown me into a situation where I have my choice of difficulties.…Tories are in my front, rear and on my flanks.” Little did he know how true that was. He ended his letter predicting dire consequences for the cause, and with it “all chance of liberty in any part of the globe.” As he finished writing, Tarleton’s loud assault began, and within 15 minutes Lee, still in his bedclothes, had surrendered.

“This is a most miraculous event,” the young Tarleton later wrote of the raid. “It appears like a dream.…This coup de main has put an end to the campaign.” Over the next few years Tarleton would hone his impetuous and instinctive bravado into a fine edge that made him the most feared officer in the British forces in America, as commander of the audacious British Legion.

That highly mobile force of Loyalist dragoons and light infantry was particularly well suited to the fight in America, a “country…wholly unsuited to the art of war as conceived and practiced in Europe,” according to one British major general. And Tarleton was well suited to command it. While most newly formed Loyalist regiments wore red, as a token of their integration into the British force, Tarleton’s legion wore green. Sometimes called the Green Dragoons, they gained a reputation for lightning-fast raids in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the early years of the war, before moving south with Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis for the 1780 attack on Charleston.

Tarleton chronicled this final stage of the war in his History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America. His prose is spare, lacking the youthful braggadocio of his glowing letter home after Lee’s capture. Four years of war had hardened him, and he refers to himself throughout in dispassionate third person as Lt. Col. Tarleton.

In South Carolina, Tarleton’s legion, swelled with Southern Loyalists, was charged with cutting off supply lines to the city. When Charleston finally fell on May 12, 1780, Tarleton’s fight went on. Cornwallis had learned that the largest contingent of Continental troops in the South was in South Carolina. The group of roughly 400 Virginians under Colonel Abraham Buford had been marching to Charleston’s defense when the city fell. A superior officer soon ordered Buford north to Hillsborough, N.C., 40 miles shy of the Virginia border. Cornwallis wanted them stopped and also sought the capture of South Carolina Governor John Rutledge, who was traveling with the Patriots. Tarleton was the obvious choice to give chase. As Cornwallis well knew, the British Legion commander was “indefatigably laborious and active, cool and intrepid in action, discerns as by intuition, seizes with rapidity, and improves with skill the short but favorable and often decisive moments of battle.”

The Continentals had a 10-day lead on Tarleton’s force of 270 when the latter moved out on May 27. To catch up, Tarleton pressed his men relentlessly, covering 105 miles in 54 hours. In his own History he reports only that his legion “followed the Americans without anything material happening on the route, except the loss of a number of horses, in consequence of the rapidity of the march and the heat of the climate.”

Two days into the march, still in South Carolina, Tarleton learned the Continentals were 20 miles ahead of him, and he attempted a subterfuge. As he explained it, “Captain [David] Kinlock, of the legion, was employed to carry a summons to the American commander, which, by magnifying the number of the British, might intimidate him into submission, or at least delay him whilst he deliberated on an answer.” Carrying a white flag of truce, Kinlock delivered the letter.

“You are now almost encompassed by a corps of 700 light troops on horseback,” Tarleton had written, “Earl Cornwallis is likewise within a short march with nine British battalions.… If you are rash enough to reject [the terms], the blood be upon your head.” In a terse reply, Buford fired back, “Sir, I reject your proposals and shall defend myself to the last extremity.”

“By this time many of the British cavalry and mounted infantry were totally worn out,” Tarleton admitted, but finding himself “not far distant from the enemy, and though not in a suitable condition for action, he determined as soon as possible to attack, there being no other expedient to stop their progress and prevent their being reinforced the next morning.” Prudently, Buford had already sent Rutledge ahead with a small guard, thus placing him out of harm’s way.

The two forces met just south of the North Carolina border at a spot called Waxhaws after a namesake creek. Buford had deployed his infantry in a single line in an open wood, with a small reserve contingent in the rear. He sent his cannon and wagons ahead. Then, as Tarleton and his cavalry thundered down on the Patriots, Buford ordered his men to hold their fire until the British were “within 10 yards.” It was a fatal mistake. The British were upon the Americans before they could deliver a second volley, though the first volley apparently shot Tarleton’s horse out from under him. The Continental battalion, “was totally broken,” Tarleton reported, “and slaughter was commenced before Lt. Col. Tarleton could remount another horse.”

Exactly what happened next in the melee of battle may never be fully known, but Dr. Robert Brownfield, a Continental surgeon who survived the attack and wrote of it in a letter, said that Buford, knowing his cause was lost, “ordered a flag to be hoisted and the arms to be grounded, expecting the usual treatment sanctioned by civilized warfare.” But that didn’t happen. “[Tarleton’s] ostensible pretext for the relentless barbarity that ensued was that his horse was killed under him just as the flag was raised.” Tarleton’s own explanation for the slaughter went this way: “The loss of officers and men was great on the part of the Americans, owing to the dragoons so effectually breaking the infantry and to a report amongst the cavalry that they had lost their commanding officer [Tarleton himself], which stimulated the soldiers to a vindictive asperity not easily restrained.”

For whatever reason, the legion of American-born Loyalists was fierce in its continued attack. Even after most of the Continentals lay prostrate, the British forces, Brownfield claimed, “went over the ground, plunging their bayonets into everyone that exhibited any signs of life.” Tarleton, in his own dry account of the day, called the attack a “complete success” and said “the wounded of both parties were collected with all possible dispatch and treated with equal humanity.”

The Waxhaws Massacre, as it soon came to be known, went on for 15 minutes, but its infamy persisted through war’s end. “This bloody day only wanted the war dance and the roasting fire to have placed it first in the records of torture and of death in the West,” Lt. Col. Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee declared. For the rest of the war the Patriots went into battle shouting, “Tarleton’s quarter!” meaning, of course, no quarter. Tarleton’s reputation as “Bloody Ban” was sealed.

As the war moved north to Virginia and its conclusion, Tarleton’s daring never flagged, but his successes were no longer so complete. As an untried cornet he had managed to bag the great prize of Lee, but in Virginia his attempt to capture some of the war’s greatest Patriots failed.

In January 1781 British forces under turncoat Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold sailed up the James River and took Richmond. Thomas Jefferson, then governor, had tried in vain to organize a defense of the city. After some destruction, Arnold departed, and by late April 23-year-old American ally Maj. Gen. Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, held the state capital, but his force was a thin defense against Cornwallis’ formidable army. Though Jefferson urged the commonwealth’s legislators back to Richmond, most felt the capital was unsafe and instead chose to reconvene on May 24 in Charlottesville, Jefferson’s hometown.

By then Virginia was swarming with British forces, including Tarleton’s legion. Despite having lost many of his men —and some of his reputation—at the January 1781 Battle of Cowpens and two fingers at the March 1781 Battle of Guilford Courthouse, the lieutenant colonel remained a dreaded scourge. Maj. Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a Prussian officer in American service, reported that Tarleton’s move to Virginia “spread a universal terror.” Eastern Virginia was in a panic, as Redcoats overran the commonwealth. Tarleton himself recalled in his History, “At this period the superiority of the army and the great superiority of the light troops were such as to have enabled the British to traverse the country without apprehension or difficulty, either to destroy stores and tobacco…or to undertake important expeditions.”

In May 1781 Cornwallis dispatched Tarleton on an expedition that might recoup some of the luster he’d lost at Cowpens. The British had intercepted letters from Lafayette to Jefferson and now knew the Virginia legislature was in Charlottesville, planning to convene and, Cornwallis feared, to call up thousands of militiamen. Cornwallis’ orders to Tarleton were simple: His legion, then at Hanover Courthouse, was to move on Charlottesville, some 60 miles northwest, and “to disturb the assembly… and to destroy the stores there.” Though Lafayette anticipated the British “mean to make a stroke toward Charlottesville,” he could do nothing to prevent it, as he was outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the British. He could also do nothing to warn the legislators. Many were already in Charlottesville, where the surrounding mountains, according to one delegate, gave them “full assurance of being unmolested by the enemy.”

In early June, Tarleton’s force of 250 moved out. Missing from it were members of the 71st Highlanders, who initially had been attached to the expedition. Its officers refused the duty, as the 71st had lost a battalion at Cowpens, a loss they blamed on Tarleton’s recklessness. The Royal Welch Fusiliers were assigned instead, and by evening Tarleton’s legion had crossed 20 miles of the rolling central Virginia countryside, leaving fear in its wake. As Tarleton recorded, “The heat of the weather obliged him to refresh his men and horses in the middle of the day.” Then he “pressed forward” late into the evening. What Tarleton does not describe in his History—likely because he did not know it—was that near Cuckoo Tavern, some 40 miles east of Charlottesville in Louisa County, Virginia militia Captain Jack Jouett spied the legion and guessed they were making fast for Charlottesville.

Jouett, 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and about Tarleton’s age, was a confident local man. His father owned the Swan Tavern in Charlottesville, frequented by some of the legislators, and his family knew Jefferson. The young militiaman understood what was at stake, and by 10 o’clock that night he was riding hard toward Charlottesville, cutting cross-country on the Old Mountain Road, a narrow, little used trail, to avoid Tarleton’s men on the main road. Jouett fought his way through thick underbrush and overhanging branches, moving as fast as he could push his horse.

An hour after Jouett began his heroic ride, Tarleton finally rested his weary troops for three hours at a plantation near Louisa Courthouse before moving on. Just before dawn, Tarleton recalled, the British overtook a dozen wagons “with arms and clothing for the Continental troops in South Carolina.” Burning the wagons and stores, the dragoons moved on, stopping at Belvoir and Castle Hill plantations, at which several Virginia legislators were staying as guests. Just before sunrise one guest reported waking to find “the yard and house surrounded with soldiers, so that an attempt to get away was useless.” The delegates surrendered. “As to civility,” recalled the guest, “we all received much more of it than we expected.” Tarleton, too, recorded the scene: “Soon after daybreak some of the principal gentlemen of Virginia, who had fled to the borders of the mountains for security, were taken out of their beds. Part were paroled and left with their families, while others who were suspected to be more hostile in their sentiments were carried off.”

Tarleton’s stop at Castle Hill has over the centuries been embroidered in legend, concerning how the Walker family, the estate owners, used various ploys, most involving food and drink, to entice Tarleton to stay longer, thus enabling Patriots to spread word of the legion’s approach. True or not, Tarleton’s stops certainly gave Jouett an advantage.

By 4:30, well before daybreak, Jouett had urged his exhausted horse up Jefferson’s “little mountain,” Monticello. Jefferson, at the end of his term, had come home for a break. When Jouett clattered up to his door, neither the future president nor the members of the General Assembly staying with him seemed panicked by the news of Tarleton’s approach. Jefferson refreshed Jouett with a glass of Madeira, and as the exhausted young man rushed on to Charlottesville, Jefferson “ordered a carriage to be ready to carry off my family.” He and the legislators then “breakfasted at leisure” before packing their belongings and mounting up. Foolishly, his guests headed for Charlottesville. Jefferson went to a nearby high point to scan the town with a folding spyglass but saw nothing. Turning to leave, he dropped a small sword he was carrying. After retrieving it, he took one last look through the spyglass and this time saw Tarleton’s men swarming into Charlottesville. Still, he returned to Monticello to retrieve important papers and did not leave until warned the British had started up his mountain. He escaped Monticello within a hairbreadth of the dragoons’ arrival and soon overtook his family’s carriage.

As the Jeffersons fled, a contingent of Tarleton’s men searched Monticello. Under orders from Bloody Ban, they did no damage to the property of the man who had drafted what was to British minds the infamous Declaration of Independence. “I did not suffer by him,” Jefferson recalled. “On the contrary, he behaved very genteelly with me.”

Tarleton himself had targeted Charlottesville, expecting to seize the town and its cache of legislators by surprise. But arriving at the ford across the Rivanna River, “which runs at the foot of the hill on which the town is situated,” his men found it guarded. Tarleton ordered an attack, directing 100 cavalrymen “to charge into the town, to continue the confusion of the Americans and to apprehend, if possible, the governor and assembly.” But, Tarleton recalled, only “seven members of assembly were secured.” Warned by Jouett, most had fled over the mountains toward Staunton, in the Shenandoah Valley.

Had Tarleton been successful, the Americans could have lost Jefferson and other prominent figures to the Patriot cause, including Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison V and Thomas Nelson Jr. Among those Tarleton did secure was a young, relatively unknown legislator named Daniel Boone, who apparently had stayed behind to load public records into wagons to be carted off for safekeeping. Tarleton questioned Boone, confined him overnight in a coal house and then released him.

Tarleton reportedly suffered a different sort of ignominy later that year, at war’s end. After the British surrender at Yorktown he alone among the British officers present received no invitations from a Continental officer to dine, a custom afforded the defeated enemy in those courtly days. But Tarleton’s reputation had apparently precluded such civilities. To the Americans he remained Bloody Ban.


For further reading Karen Kostyal recommends A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America, by Banastre Tarleton; The Road to Guilford Courthouse, by John Buchanan; and Flight From Monticello, by Michael Kranish.

Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.