Revolutionary War Historical Article

Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, the Most Hated Officer in America

by Donald N. Moran

Banastre Tarleton was born in Liverpool in 1754, the son of a wealthy merchant who became mayor of the city. He was studying law after having graduated from Oxford University when his father purchased a Cornet’s commission for him in the King's Dragoon Guards on April 20th, 1775, one day after the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

After the customary training, he volunteered to serve in America. He was shown on the December muster roll of the Regiment as "absent by King’s leave". On May 3rd, 1776 he arrived off Cape Fear with the fleet sent to join in General Sir Henry Clinton’s Charleston Expedition. Apparently Tarleton had little opportunity to advance himself during this campaign. He is never mentioned in dispatches.

The British forces returned to New York and here again, other than being mentioned on muster rolls, his name does not appear.

On January 8th, 1778 he was transferred to the 79th Regiment of Foot and reverted to his regular rank, Captain. Toward the end of 1778 he was named Lieutenant Colonel of the newly formed, "British Legion".

He led an unsuccessful raid to Poundridge, New York on July 2nd, 1779. During this operation, along with the activities around Philadelphia and then at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, he caught the eye of his military superiors. But it was not until the stocky, 26 year old was dispatched to the South that he started building his infamous reputation.

His participation in the Southern Campaign started out on a very negative note. Most of the Legion's horses and those of the 17th Dragoons were lost on the arduous voyage from New York to Savannah. Tarleton obtained permission from General Clinton to lead an expedition to Port Royal with his dismounted cavalry to find the much needed mounts. He only managed to procure a few substandard horses. He then joined the column of General Peterson as it marched northward to reinforce General Clinton around Charleston. Leading a small, poorly mounted cavalry screen, he encountered a body of local militia and American dragoons. The action resulted in 10 Americans being killed, 4 captured, and a few more desperately needed horses. Now fully mounted, although the quality and endurance capability of the horses was far less than desirable, Tarleton started full cavalry operations.

On March 26, 1780 he encountered Colonel William Washington’s (General Washington’s third cousin) cavalry. This was to become very personal between the two distinguished cavalry leaders. The first confrontation was at Rutledge’s plantation. He was driven back, with British Colonel Hamilton, Commander of the North Carolina Royalist forces, being captured, and Colonel Washington almost captured Sir Henry Clinton himself!

After these questionable encounters, Tarleton scored several victories; his first at Monck’s Corner on April 14th, Lenud’s Ferry on May 6th, and the Waxhaws on May 29th, 1780. As a result of his ruthless conduct at these engagements and others, the nicknames "Bloody Tarleton" and "Tarleton’s Quarter" (meaning no quarter) entered the American lexicon.

At the Battle of Camden, on August 16th, Tarleton exploited General Lord Charles Cornwallis’ victory by pursuing the fleeing Americans. At Fishing Creek, on August 16th, he caught up with General Thomas Sumter, the "Carolina Gamecock" and annihilated his force of militia and regulars and again, did not give "quarter" to those trying to surrender.

Shortly after Fishing Creek, Tarleton became very ill. His Legion performed very poorly under his subordinates. With the major defeat of the British Forces at Kings Mountain, General Francis Marion, "The Swamp Fox" was causing so much mischief that Lord Cornwallis ordered Tarleton to eliminate that guerrilla force. The movie, "The Patriot" was based on this operation - Mel Gibson portraying Benjamin Martin (Francis Marion) and Isaac Jacobs portraying Tovington (Banastre Tarleton). Aside from avoiding using actual names, many of the events depicted in the movie were based on fact. Tarleton, in a report to Cornwallis wrote after trailing Marion for seven hours and through 26 miles of miserable swamp, "But as for this damned old fox, the devil himself could not catch him!" Since the Swamp Fox had drawn Cornwallis cavalry screen into the back country, Sumter, recovered from his defeat at the hands of Tarleton, rallied his forces and started terrorizing Cornwallis' lines of communications, supply routes and outlining posts. Cornwallis sent an urgent message to Tarleton: "Come, my boy, let us go back, and we will find the Gamecock." It is now well known that Cornwallis found himself between a 'hard place' (Marion) and a 'rock' (Sumter).

Lord Cornwallis' intelligence was telling him that the American forces were massing all over the Carolinas and possibly reinforcements were coming from the North. Tarleton per his orders, rode hard to Cornwallis' headquarters near Winnsboro.

He was immediately dispatched to find and destroy Sumter. On November 20th, 1780 he caught up with the feisty American at Blackstocks, South Carolina. A general engagement ensued and Sumter fought Tarleton to a standstill. In the action General Sumter was badly wounded and out of action for two and one half months, and then took to the field again. He lived to be 98! Although Blackstocks cost Tarleton more than 50 of his finest troopers, he had succeeded in temporarily knocking out Sumter’s force. Before he could return to Cornwallis he received orders that another major threat had been discovered. General Daniel Morgan with a sizable force of Continentals and Militia was coming up from another quarter. Tarleton, reinforced, was ordered to engage.

On January 17th, 1781 Tarleton confronted what was to be his undoing, The Battle of Cowpens. Daniel Morgan chose his ground with great care. His tactic was to turn Tarleton's strength and reputation against him. He deployed his small army in three ranks, with cavalry concealed in the surrounding woods. His militia in front, with orders to fire two rounds then "run", The next line was his famed rifle corps, and then the two regiments of the Continental Line. Tarleton, apparently banking on his fierce reputation, put his forces in the line of battle and launched a full scale attack. After inflicting some damage, the Militia broke as ordered and ran. Tarleton thinking he had routed the Americans then launched a full fledged charge - - they were decimated! Morgan then counter charged, and Colonel William Washington charged from the flank. Tarleton tried to rally his reserves, but failed, then turned and retreated as fast as he could. Washington in hot pursuit.

Col. Washington caught up to Tarleton, who turned with two officers and charged Washington. Washington slashed at the officer on Tarleton’s right, only to have his sabre snap at the hand guard. The British officer was about to strike down Washington, when his 14 year old Negro servant, Gillie fired his pistol, striking the Officer in the shoulder. Sergeant Major Perry then rushed in and saved Washington by deflecting the saber of the other officer and wounding him. Tarleton then fired his pistol, hitting Washington’s horse, turned and fled.

Tarleton’s once feared Legion had been smashed. Approximately 100 killed, 229 wounded, and 600 captured. Among the dead, wounded and captured were sixty-six officers, thirty-nine of whom were dead. The Americans lost twelve killed and sixty wounded. The battle of Cowpens raised the morale of the Americans, with hundreds of militiamen volunteering, and was the deathblow to Cornwallis' offensive plans in the South. Such a defeat should have destroyed the reputation of any officer, but it appears to have not been the case for Tarleton. This writer believes that Cornwallis was so short of officers that he could not afford to lose any. Tarleton tendered his resignation, but it was refused in spite of the constant problems Cornwallis had with the ruthless tactics employed by Tarleton.

On March 15th, Tarleton was again to lead Cornwallis' cavalry, this time in the battle of Guilford Court House. Early in the battle he was wounded, losing two fingers, and at the end of the battle he was wounded again. Guilford Court House was considered a British victory, but the casualties were so high that Cornwallis had to retreat to the sea and seek either reinforcements or evacuation.

After being trapped at Yorktown, Cornwallis ordered Tarleton across the York River to Gloucester Point, apparently looking for an escape route. There Tarleton tangled with French cavalryman Duc de Lauzun and was almost captured.

Banastre Tarleton surrendered the British forces on Gloucester Point under the terms of Cornwallis' surrender. However, fearing that his reputation might cause him to be attacked, in spite of the surrender terms,  he stayed behind in Gloucester while the troops under his command surrendered. The Comte de Revel (Joachim du Perron), a sub-lieutenant in the French infantry who was a part of the force brought from the Caribbean by Admiral Comte de Grasse, provided an eyewitness account. Perron reported the British "were vexed to deliver" their weapons "to the Americans, for whom they showed great scorn; they called our soldiers and presented them with their guns."

Tarleton  had requested that General Rochambeau grant him protection and permission to remain within Gloucester.  Although Rochambeau considered Tarleton a butcher and bad officer, permission was granted.

"After the ceremony," Perron said, "they went back to their entrenchments and M. de Choisy established guards in all their redoubts. The English officers came to see our officers who were on duty there, showed them every possible courtesy, and drank to their health, while they said not a word to any American officer; several even did what they could to persuade our gentlemen to accept sabers, fowling pieces, carbines etc., adding that they would rather break them into a thousand pieces than leave them to the Americans." Perron also commented on his having met with  Tarleton, describing him as "a young man 25 years old," and found him pleasant. "He had a most gentle and genteel face as well as elegance, a certain air of ease, and French manners."

Early in 1782 Tarleton was paroled and sent back to England. One would think having lost a major battle at Cowpens, and then forced to surrender an entire army at Yorktown, his value to the British Army would have been minimal. But that was not the case. On December 25th, 1782 Tarleton was promoted to Lt. Col. of Light Dragoons.

He ran for Parliament unsuccessfully in 1784, but in 1790 he was successful, becoming the Member of Parliament for Liverpool. He served in and out until 1806. During this time he had an affair with Mary Robinson, the former mistress of the then 18 year old Prince of Wales, later King George IV.

On November 18th, 1790 he was promoted to Colonel, and then to Major General on October 3rd, 1794. In late 1798 he got himself assigned to Portugal, but found little opportunity for advancement there, and requested and was granted an assignment nearer home. He became the commander of the Cork (Ireland) Military District. On February 8th, 1808 he was appointed Governor of Berwick and Holy Island.

During the Napoleonic Wars he served under the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsula Campaign (Spain and Portugal).

He was rarely mentioned in dispatches and was obviously an opponent of Wellington. After driving French Field Marshall Andre Massena out of Portugal, Wellington was being applauded by everyone. One letter noted: "Everyone, even the opposition rejoiced, except the great General Tarleton, who I understand says - - 'It may yet turn out, that this may be a great manoeuvre of Massena’s.' "

Major General John Ormsby Vandeluer, also a General of Cavalry and this writer’s ancestor, wrote that he did not think much of General Tarleton and his ruthless tactics and stated that Tarleton was not a gentleman. To the British aristocracy, declaring that an officer was not a gentleman was the strongest negative one could say about a fellow officer without forcing a dual. In spite of the negative opinions of him held by his military peers, he was promoted to full general on January 12th, 1812.

On November 6th, 1815, he was created a Baronet and on May 20th, 1820 knighted by the King.

Sir Banastre Tarleton married Susan Pricilla, the illegitimate daughter of Robert Bertie, the Fourth Duke of Ancaster. He died on January 23rd, 1833, childless.

In 1781 Tarleton published his "History" of the War in America. According to Mark Boatner, . . . ."it is of considerable value for its details on minor actions in which he participated and for the inclusion of reports and other documents, but it is marred by the author’s vanity and attacks on Cornwallis."

Colonel Roderick MacKenzie, who was at Cowpens had a very low opinion of Tarleton and attacked his history in his "Strictures", also published in 1781. MacKenzie wrote in Strictures: " . . . many soldiers in Greene’s army or Morgan’s detachment would have given a week's ration of food and spirits to lay their hands on the young British officer of Dragoons. Even his fellow officers felt no love for Tarleton. He had been known to commandeer their horses for his legion, and many of them never got paid."

Apparently Tarleton took the criticisms seriously as he revised his history and republished it in 1787. The later publication is much less self-gratifying. Christopher Ward, the noted historian of the American Revolution wrote: "As a leader of cavalry, he was unmatched on either side for alertness and rapidity of movement, dash, daring and vigor of attack. As a man, he was cold hearted, vindictive, and utterly ruthless. He wrote his name in letters of blood all across the history of the war in the South".

Some historians believe that Tarleton’s ruthless tactics and treatment of the civilian population was a major reason for the numerous neutral Southern population to rally to the American cause.

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