Context and Precedence

Sir Banastre Tarleton, 1st Baronet, GCB (21 August 1754 – 15 January 1833) was a British general and politician. A lieutenant colonel at the end of the American Revolutionary War, Tarleton did not lead troops into battle again.

Tarleton’s cavalrymen were called “Tarleton’s Raiders”. His green uniform was the standard uniform of the British Legion, a provincial unit organized in New York, in 1778.

After returning to Great Britain in 1781 at the age of 27, Tarleton was elected a Member of Parliament for Liverpool and returned to office in the early 19th century. As such, Tarleton became a prominent Whig politician despite his young man’s reputation as a roué. Tarleton came from a family of slavers and reflected that during his political career, where he was a prominent opponent of British abolitionists.

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Courtesy of the Boston Garrison Facebook page:

Thanks to Will C (Member of the Carolinas Militia Company, former Park Guide at Cowpens National Battlefield, and current Park Ranger at the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail) for today’s post.

Q1. Banastre Tarleton joined the British Dragoons at a very young age and was able to rise through the ranks with rapid speed. What would you attribute his ability to gain such quick promotion to? It clearly was more than just knowing the right people.

A1. Banastre Tarleton was really just THAT good at being a cavalryman. He was young, athletic, aggressive, and what we would describe as an adrenaline junkie. He was also obsessed with the competition; anything where he could defeat an opponent. This applied to sports such as horse racing and cricket, as well as womanizing and trying to seduce the mistresses of fellow officers. Some historians have even speculated that Tarleton had a gambling addiction that he referred to in some family letters as “my cursed itch for play.” This gambling behavior is further evidenced by his high gaming tabs at clubs back in London that required payment even while he was serving in North America. I believe Tarleton saw combat victories as a way to show he was better than the enemy and saw merit-based promotions as a way to show he was better than his fellow officers. It’s this ability on the battlefield and dogged pursuit of victory that brought him success on most battlefields and the attention of army leaders.

Q2. Can you give some brief details on the formation of the British Legion? Was it a creation that Tarleton himself came up with?

A2. The British Army was a major supporter of the idea of using Loyalists as soldiers in “Provincial” regiments during the American War. The British Legion was not Tarleton’s idea, but he was selected to be the commander of the cavalry. A “legion” is a regiment that is both cavalry and infantry, so a separate commander was needed for each part while being under the command of the regiment’s commander, Sir William Erskine.

The British Legion was the attempt of the British Army to streamline the Provincial system and band together with several already existing Loyalist units in the summer of 1778: The 1st Troop of Philadelphia Light Dragoons, the King’s Provincial Troops, the Bucks County Light Dragoons, the Caledonian Volunteers, two companies of The English Volunteers, and the American Volunteers.

These regiments had been recruited by local leading community Loyalists or British officers with permission from the army and were recruited mostly from around New York City and Philadelphia where the British had wintered and maintained a strong presence. Tarleton would command the cavalry portion of the Legion, often in cooperation with other Provincial regiments led by friends of his: The Queen’s Rangers under John Simcoe, and the Volunteers of Ireland under Lord Rawdon. Tarleton trained and practiced the cavalry of the Legion so extensively that they were soon nicknamed “Tarleton’s Green Horse” for their leader and their green Provincial jackets. His continual promotions soon brought him to command the infantry of the Legion as well.

Q3. How significantly did the capture of Maj. General Charles Lee played in Tarleton’s reputation within the British Army?

A3. The capture of Continental Major General Charles Lee was a big propaganda victory for the British, and a morale blow for the Americans, but I don’t know how much this event alone boosted Tarleton in the eye of the British leadership or the newspaper readers back home. Charles Lee was one of the few Continental leaders who had previous experience as an officer in the British Army. This made many Americans, including Lee, feel he should be in command of the army instead of George Washington, who had only served as a “Provincial” officer in the French & Indian War. Lee had retired from the British Army and become a planter in Virginia, so he wasn’t turning-coat during the war, but the fact that he turned his back on his former army and joined the rebellion was a well-known and much-hated fact in London. Before Tarleton sailed for America in February 1776, he was reported to have jumped on a chair in a club, drawn his sword, and promised to bring back the head of Lee “the traitor.” Now here is Tarleton as a young officer just 10 months later, part of a raid into New Jersey to White’s Tavern where they find an unguarded, unaware, and undressed General Charles Lee. By itself, the capture of this American general possibly brought some attention to Tarleton but would have fizzled out if not followed up by Tarleton’s aggressive training and constant raiding on American positions.

Q4. In your opinion, did Tarleton earn the devilish reputation he gained after the Battle of Waxhaws?

A4. In my opinion, no, Tarleton did not earn this reputation at all. First, what is reputation? Banastre “Bloody Ban” Tarleton was a blood-thirsty butcher who denied American soldiers the chance to surrender and would cut them to pieces while they waved a white flag, most notably against Colonel Buford’s Virginians at the Battle of Waxhaws in South Carolina. This gave rise to American battle cries of “Remember the Waxhaws,” “Tarleton’s Quarter,” and “Give them Buford’s Play.”  (note: Will C, who wrote this response is a Tarleton apologist)

Second, what really happened at the Waxhaws? On May 29, 1780, Tarleton’s Legion was blazing through hot South Carolina roads and choking dust chasing Colonel Abraham Buford and a small force of Continental soldiers who were trying to get away from the large British victory at Charleston, SC. Tarleton is burning out his horses all along the road, and his men are exhausted trying to catch up to Buford. When they finally close in on the Americans in the area known as the Waxhaws, Tarleton sends a messenger to deliver Buford a chance to surrender, bluffs how big the British force is (only 150 cavalry and mounted infantry are still able to keep up), and buy time for his men to catch the Americans.

Buford refused the terms of surrender and claimed he would “defend my command to the last,” pulling 420 of his infantry into a field beside the road to cover the retreat of the rest of his Continentals. Tarleton led his men into a charge from the front and side of the Continentals, who held their fire until the Legion was at point-blank range. When the Americans fired their muskets, they didn’t have a chance to reload before the rapidly charging British Legion (cavalry and infantry) were on top of them in hand-to-hand-combat: pockets of Americans fighting, pockets trying to surrender, Colonel Buford fleeing up the road to join the rest of his force. Tarleton’s horse was shot in that close volley, and he was either thrown and knocked unconscious or trapped beneath the horse. The British Legion thought Tarleton had been killed by the “surrendering” Americans, some of whom were still fighting, and jumped back into the bloody work. Tarleton finally awoke or freed himself, remounted, and took command of his men, and stopped the fighting, allowing the surviving Continentals to surrender, even though most of them had already been wounded.

Of the 420 Continentals, 113 were killed and 203 wounded. The Legion only lost 5 men killed and 14 wounded, thanks to the single volley of musket fire from the Americans. Third, is the reputation true? There is no arguing that the Battle of Waxhaws was a short, bloody, horrible event. Survivor accounts describe wounded men being bayoneted, the dead being pushed aside to attack the wounded men lying beneath them, and wounded men with nearly a dozen horrific injuries each. But was it ordered by Tarleton?

Colonel Buford who fled the field spreads the story that yes, Tarleton ordered the surrendering Americans to be attacked. This is possibly due to an American flag of truce being sent out during the chaotic fighting and unable to find Tarleton (under his horse) and was therefore ignored. When Tarleton regained command, he stopped the fighting, left the wounded men on the battlefield in the care of the local people, and returned to the British army to report a great victory, “I have cut 170 Off’rs and Men to pieces.” Tarleton was a very energetic and aggressive officer who believed a direct attack upon your enemy with a saber and bayonet was the most effective way to defeat them. The British Legion, in the chaos of the battle, when they thought their commander had been killed, not knowing if the Continentals were surrendering or fighting, did bloody work and likely killed some surrendering men. But Tarleton did not plan, order, or allow Buford’s Massacre to happen at the Battle of Waxhaws. Do you hold a commander responsible for the independent actions of his men? Or do you only credit him for events when the reins are firmly in his grip? That decides if Tarleton deserves the “Bloody Ban” reputation.

Q5. After the Revolution, Tarleton served in Parliament but never held a military command within the British Army. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Tarleton was only in his 40’s. Do you feel the negative reputation he earned during the American Revolution hurt his ability to gain a command later on in life? 

A5. No, Banastre Tarleton came out of the American Revolution with a reputation that helped his image.

After capture at Yorktown and return to Britain, he was a 27-year old dashing military officer who had suffered an injury at Guilford Courthouse (losing two fingers to a rifle bullet), and had a grand portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1782. While he never commanded troops in battle again, he did stay in the British Army, including service in Portugal and Ireland eventually to the rank of general in 1812.

His biggest failing was when he made political enemies of former military friends. In 1784, Tarleton wrote his memoirs of the war with the assistance of long-time mistress Mary Robinson entitled “Campaigns in the Southern Provinces of North America in 1780 and 1781.” In this book, Tarleton referred to himself in the third person lavishing praise upon his own actions, blaming others for Tarleton’s defeats, and leaving out some details that didn’t fit with his narrative. This drew enough criticism from others that another British officer, Roderick Mackenzie, wrote a series of editorial letters critiquing Tarleton’s book page-by-page, known as “Strictures on Col. Tarleton’s History.” This new wave of opinions was met by another series by George Hanger, Tarleton’s friend, and former second-in-command of the British Legion, supporting Tarleton’s writings and poking holes in Mackenzie’s criticisms.

This public mud-slinging involved the names of high-ranking officers such as Lord Cornwallis and Lord Rawdon, as well as fallen British heroes like Major Patrick Ferguson. Then you had Tarleton’s political wars. In 1790, Tarleton won a seat in Parliament after a few failed campaigns and quickly chose parties and took sides. He became a vocal advocate for the pro-slavery party in the abolition debates that filled the early 19th century and firmly supported Charles James Fox. If Tarleton hadn’t drawn enough negative attention yet, there was his personal life.

The affair with Mary Robinson started allegedly on a bet when Tarleton seduced her away from the Prince of Wales, who went on to become King George IV. This affair was even more public because Mary was a famous actress and poet. The affair only ended when Tarleton married Susan Bertie, a very wealthy young socialite The only surviving child he fathered was by an anonymous third lover, who according to rumor was the grown daughter of Mary Robinson.

So did Tarleton’s wartime reputation hamstring his post-war career?

No, there were plenty of other things to do that.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Tarleton sounds like he would have done well as a Pfizer pharma rep.

    Seriously. He’d fit right into their culture. I knew those guys at least 5x in excess of requirements. One of the things about clinical medicine I do Not miss.

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