Every war has its groups of famous armed men; military units which gained notoriety above others. During the American Revolutionary War one such unit was the British Legion; a crack collection of British and predominately American loyalist Dragoons and light infantry commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Banastre Tarleton first came to fame as a coronet in the 16th Light Dragoons commanded by the Hon. William Harcourt. Coronet Tarleton was in command of a detachment which captured the revolutionary General Charles Lee at Basking Ridge in 1776. He was the son of a merchant from Liverpool and had went to Oxford before joining the army in 1775 and volunteering for service in America. Once there he served in the 79th Foot as well as the 16th Light Dragoons before taking command of the British Legion, which he led at the battle of Monmouth. Described as having a boyish appearance with almost feminine features, Tarleton nonetheless was a talented soldier with all of the attitude one usually associates with a cavalry commander. He was flamboyant, vain, self-assured, had a devil may care attitude and was a young man who liked to joke, have fun, chase women and advance his reputation and fame.
For the war in the southern colonies, the Crown forces needed troops who could move fast and strike hard to deal with the numerous rebel guerilla groups operating in the area. One of these, and certainly one of the best, was the British Legion. Fast moving, well trained and due to the predominance of loyalists they were highly motivated, these men were ideally suited to their task. The British Legion was first formed in August, 1778, in New York. It was formed by consolidating unattached units such as the Philadelphia Light Dragoons, the Caledonian Volunteers and Kinloch's Light Dragoons. Members of the Royal American Reformees, the Bucks County Light Dragoons and the West Jersey Volunteers joined the Legion later. It was listed on the American Establishment as the 5th American Regiment in 1781. On December 25, 1782 the cavalry of the Legion was upgraded to the status of a regular regiment in the British Army. The Legion in 1779 consisted of six troops of light dragoons. Later, in 1780, four companies of light infantry were added, but these were eventually lost at the battle of Cowpens. And, in command of these crack, green-coated cavalrymen was now Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton.
British operations in the southern colonies began again with the attack on Charleston, South Carolina. The British commander-in-chief in America, Sir Henry Clinton, directed the operation as an earlier attack of his on the city had failed and he was anxious to redeem himself. In order to isolate the city he had to cut the rebel supply lines which were guarded by a cavalry brigade under General Isaac Huger at Biggins Bridge. To neutralize Huger, Clinton dispatched two of his best units, both of them loyalist, the Queen's Rangers under Major Patrick Ferguson and the British Legion. Tarleton and Ferguson charged in during the night, surprised the rebels and totally crushed them, defeating Huger and capturing large amounts of men and material.
Along with the contribution of Tarleton and his men, the British captured Charleston and its entire rebel garrison; in one stunning blow totally eliminating the revolutionary forces in the south. Clinton returned to New York and left the campaign in the hands of Lieutenant General Charles Earl Cornwallis. Dispatching troops to secure Ninety Six and Augusta, Lord Cornwallis headed toward Camden. When word came that a rebel regiment from Virginia under Colonel Abraham Buford was retreating before him, Cornwallis ordered Tarleton and his cavalry along with some men of the 17th Light Dragoons, to pursue and overtake Buford. Taking to his assignment with his usual dash and zeal, Tarleton rode north and rode hard, wearing out men and horses in single-minded pursuit of his goal. Tarleton overtook Buford at Waxhaw Creek on the border between the two Carolinas on May 29, 1780. The rebels formed up and Tarleton charged into them with such force that nothing could stop him, even having his horse shot out from under him. Clutched by panic, the rebels tried to surrender, but as Tarleton went down many of his men thought he had been killed and loosed their vengeance on the Virginians. The incident became known as the Waxhaw Massacre and cemented the image of Tarleton as chief bogey man in the eyes of the rebel army. Tarleton was nicknamed "Bloody Ban", "Ban the Butcher" and the "Butcher of the Carolinas" and from then on the revolutionaries referred to the act of taking no prisoners as "Tarleton's Quarter".
Reports from the time are contradictory but it is quite easy to see that Tarleton has been treated quite unfairly on this issue, an issue blown entirely out of proportion in order to portray him as being cruel and bloodthirsty. Unfortunately, many history books, especially in the US, play along and make no mention of the fact that Tarleton offered Buford the chance to surrender that morning and had been refused. Most do not mention that most of the rebel casualties came as a result of the battle and the incompetence of their own commander or of the fact that many of the rebel troops survived even though it would have been well within the power of Tarleton to have pursued them and wiped them out completely. There is simply no evidence to suggest anything malicious in the conduct of Tarleton at Waxhaws and no evidence that there was anything like an actual massacre. At most, there was some killing in the confused minutes after Tarleton was unhorsed and his men were not under his direction. Nonetheless, the rebel propaganda seems to have worked fantastically as Colonel Tarleton still to this day is forced to bear a ruthless reputation because of the incident he certainly does not deserve.
In the larger campaign though, outside of the propaganda war, things continued to go bad for the revolutionaries. In August, Lord Cornwallis met the rebel General Horatio Gates in battle at Camden. The rebel militia scattered when hit by the British attack but the Maryland and Delaware regulars under the Bavarian Baron DeKalb put up stiffer resistance, holding for about an hour before Tarleton and his cavalry slipped around and attacked them from the rear. Tarleton finished them off and the battle of Camden went down in history as perhaps the most complete victory ever by Crown forces during the war. General Gates himself abandoned his army and fled with his men retreating in a panic soon dubbed "the Camden races". Rebel troops under General Thomas Sumter who had planned to join Gates were also nearby and Tarleton and his men were sent racing after them, finally catching them at Rocky Mountain Ferry. Once again, Tarleton totally defeated the rebels, forcing Sumter to flee and capturing a great deal of men, supplies, weapons and freeing a hundred British prisoners.
After the victory at Camden the British advance continued north, though at a slow pace due to widespread illness. In fact, when the British Legion next saw action Tarleton was down with fever and the troops were led by Major George Hanger, a fun-loving party boy and companion in the escapades of the Prince of Wales. The reconnaissance into Charlotte without Tarleton was less than successful though Cornwallis easily occupied the town when he arrived with his main body. The British had more bad luck when the heroic Major Patrick Ferguson and his loyalists were wiped out at King's Mountain on October 6, 1780. After this battle a real massacre ensued when the rebels slaughtered loyalists who had surrendered as well as those who were wounded. They even mutilated the dead body of Major Ferguson and as the rebels carried out their brutality they shouted, "Tarleton's Quarter!" In the face of this rampage and with disease still running rampant, Cornwallis fell back to Winnsboro for the winter. In November, Tarleton fought a bloody battle at Blacktock's Plantation but throughout the south rebel guerillas under Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion plagued the loyalist militia and terrorized loyalist citizens.
In January of 1781 Lord Cornwallis resumed his march north from Winnsboro. Upon learning that the rebel army had split in two, Cornwallis hoped to catch and destroy the column under General Daniel Morgan. In command of the troops sent after Morgan was Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. The two forces met on January 17, 1781 at Hannah's Cowpens. Morgan placed his men with their backs to the Broad River so that retreat would not be an option. The Crown forces were exhausted, but as was his style, Tarleton decided on an immediate attack at which he had always been successful. As Tarleton attacked, the rebel militia fired two volleys and then fell back as Morgan had planned. Thinking that, as usual, the rebels had broken and retreated, Tarleton sent in the 17th Light Dragoons in pursuit, but they were intercepted by the cavalry of Colonel William Washington who, with twice as many men, charged up from behind a hill and smashed the British dragoons. The rebel militia rallied and the British advance began to slow. Seeing the danger, Colonel Tarleton sent his cavalry reserve charging in and though the rebel line began to waver under the onslaught the Crown forces were rapidly losing cohesion. When Morgan rallied his men and loosed another volley into the British ranks their attack fell apart. As the Crown forces began to surrender and retreat Tarleton led a last minute Hail Mary charge of his own, but it was to no avail. Tarleton had been defeated at the battle of Cowpens, losing a hundred men killed or wounded and 800 taken prisoner.
Cowpens shook the famous reputation of Tarleton and encouraged more colonials in the south to join the rebels. Cornwallis was deeply disturbed by the loss, complaining that with the loss of Tarleton's cavalry he had lost his eyes and ears. Still, he continued on, harassed every step of the way by Greene and Morgan. When he stopped and the two sides met for battle at Guilford Court House on March 15, 1781 the Crown forces numbered less than 2,000 men compared to 4,500 rebel troops under General Greene.
Lord Cornwallis arranged his men with Major General Alexander Leslie on the right and Brigadier General Charles O'Hara on the left with Colonel Tarleton in reserve. After exchanging artillery fire, the British marched forward against three lines of rebel troops. The rebel front line of North Carolina militia broke and retreated fairly quickly. The second line of Virginia militia held longer but also finally gave way. The outnumbered British had broken through two lines of rebel defense, but the third line of Maryland and Virginia regulars proved too much. The British were halted and driven back by a bayonet charge. Cornwallis sent in his reserves and the rebel cavalry charged in as well with both sides locking in fierce close combat. When the redcoats began to waver, Cornwallis ordered his artillery to fire into the mass of men, killing friend and foe alike but keeping the rebels at bay. Cornwallis reformed his men and Colonel Tarleton charged in, crushing the rebel flanks. When the British began moving in again the rebels finally gave it up and retreated, leaving their artillery and ammunition behind. It was yet another victory for the Crown forces, but one that had been very costly with 143 men killed and 389 wounded. The small British army was now smaller and had to secure a port to be supported and re-supplied.
To do this, Cornwallis moved into Virginia and he sent Colonel Tarleton on a raid to Charlottesville, the seat of the Virginia Assembly. On June 4, Tarleton entered the city and came within mere minutes of capturing Thomas Jefferson himself. Skirmishes continued as Cornwallis and his commander, Sir Henry Clinton, clashed over the best course of action. Considering Portsmouth as a possible base, Cornwallis moved in, meeting resistance from rebel troops under the Marquis de Lafayette and Brigadier General Anthony Wayne. At Green Spring Farm Cornwallis set a trap for the rebels and Colonel Tarleton helped lure Wayne in with his Legion cavalry. When the British sprung their trap the force under Wayne was crushed. After the rebels had retreated, Colonel Tarleton located their main force under Lafayette which had been joined by additional troops under Baron von Steuben. Tarleton wanted to charge in and finish them off, but Cornwallis would not allow it, feeling that his troops were too tired and depleted to risk another engagement.
As Cornwallis moved to Suffolk, Tarleton rode off on another raid to intercept supplies at New London meant for General Nathaniel Greene, however, by the time he arrived the supplies had already been moved out. From Portsmouth Cornwallis began moving his army to Yorktown. At the same time, rebel and French forces under General George Washington were moving south, hoping that the French navy could blockade Cornwallis from the sea and allow Washington to overwhelm him. Throughout the rest of the summer and into autumn the French and Continental armies concentrated their men in Virginia. On March 8, 1781 the French navy fought the first battle of the Capes and managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In September, however, in the second battle of the Capes, the French fleet returned and pushed the Royal Navy away from aiding Cornwallis and allowing French ships to land. Cornwallis was now isolated though ideas were considered for breaking through to him.
As Cornwallis entrenched himself at Yorktown and the French and rebels closed in, the siege was starting off what would be the beginning of the end of the American Revolution. Siege warfare has no place for cavalry, but Colonel Tarleton was not done quite yet. On October 3, Tarleton led his Legion cavalry across to the Gloucester area along with some men from the Queen's Rangers and the 17th Foot. He quickly spotted French marines, rebel militia and the French legion of Duc d'Lauzun. Tarleton fought a delaying action to buy time for the foraging wagons to escape. He charged the French hussars and was unhorsed and would have been captured if some of his fast acting British troops had not saved him. The infantry repelled Lauzun, but when Tarleton followed up with a counterattack, French infantry stopped him as well. Tarleton continued the fight until additional French and rebel troops appeared on his right flank and forced him to withdraw. Nonetheless, he had saved the supplies Cornwallis desperately needed and bought them the time to escape. These were the last additional provisions the Crown forces would receive and they would be sorely needed.
With that action, the role of Tarleton in North America had come to an end. On October 19, 1781 the Crown forces formally surrendered and laid down their arms after a well fought siege. Clinton had been in the process of sending help, but turned back when word came that Cornwallis had surrendered. Tarleton was included in this and paroled back to England. In 1790 he became a member of Parliament for Liverpool and was active in opposing the abolitionist movement in Great Britain. In 1794 he was promoted to the rank of major general and in 1798 married an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Ancaster, though the two never had any children. He wrote about his service in America and in 1812, also his last year in Parliament, he was promoted to full general and held commands in England and Ireland. He was made a baronet in 1815 and died in 1833 at Leintwardine.
Today, Banastre Tarleton continues to endure a reputation he does not deserve. In reality he certainly had plenty of traits for which most people today would criticize him. He was vain, ambitious and opposed the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. However, no one condemns him for any of this, but rather they continue to focus on unfair and unfounded accusations of cruelty. Still to this day he is remembered as "Tarleton the Butcher" and "Bloody Ban" as supposedly serious scholars simply repeat back tired pieces of propaganda from his enemies. The facts all fail to support such accusations, though they continue to be leveled by those eager to paint the British and loyalists as devils and the American revolutionaries as saints. The actual record shows Colonel Tarleton to be no monster, but rather a driven, courageous and skilled officer, probably the best cavalry commander of the war in fact. His personality may have annoyed some of his superiors, but his men adored him and his record of success speaks for itself as to his ability. Perhaps one day the story of the American Revolution will be told without partiality and the truth about Banastre Tarleton will finally become well known.