British soldier. Few other figures in South Carolina history have been labeled as villainous as Banastre Tarleton has. He was born in Liverpool, England, on August 21, 1754, the third child of John Tarleton and Jane Parker. John Tarleton, who served as mayor of Liverpool, wished for the popular and athletic Banastre to study law and enrolled him at Oxford. When his father died in 1773, Banastre first used the legacy he received to further his study of the law, but on April 20, 1775, he purchased a cornet’s commission in the First Dragoon Guards.
Tarleton sailed for America in February 1776 and was part of the British force that attacked Charleston in June 1776, although he played no major role in operations against the fort on Sullivan’s Island. In the northern theater, Tarleton served with Lieutenant Colonel William Harcourt of the Sixteenth Regiment of Light Dragoons and played a key role in the capture of General Charles Lee in December 1776. Impressing his superior officers, Tarleton rose steadily through the ranks, and on August 1, 1778, he was appointed lieutenant colonel of Lord Cathcart’s Legion, a mixed unit of cavalry and infantry comprised primarily of Loyalists. Tarleton led this unit, which was usually referred to as the British Legion or simply the Legion, when it sailed from New York southward in December 1779. Most of the British cavalry horses perished in the long and stormy voyage from New York to Georgia, so General Sir Henry Clinton sent Tarleton and his dragoons to the Beaufort area to collect new mounts. Tarleton shined in the ensuing Charleston campaign. His dragoons completely overwhelmed the American cavalry at Biggin’s Bridge near Moncks Corner on April 14, 1780, and then surprised and beat them again at Lenud’s Ferry on the Santee River on May 6.
Tarleton gained his greatest notoriety in the aftermath of Charleston’s surrender. Lord Cornwallis dispatched his Legion to overtake Colonel Abraham Buford and the last remaining detachment of Continental troops in South Carolina after Charleston’s fall. Aware of the British pursuit, Buford retreated toward North Carolina. Covering 105 miles in fifty-four hours, Tarleton’s force caught up with the Americans on May 29, 1780, at the Waxhaws (near the North Carolina / South Carolina border in modern-day Lancaster County). Tarleton’s cavalry smashed through Buford’s infantry, and slaughter then ensued. In the charge, Tarleton’s horse was shot out from under him. According to Tarleton, his men, believing they had lost their commander, were “stimulated . . . to a vindictive asperity not easily restrained.” His dragoons cut down men with their sabers as those soldiers tried to surrender or run away. Tarleton reported that 113 American soldiers “were killed on the spot” while 150 others were so badly wounded that Tarleton had to leave them behind on parole. The British had only 5 killed and 14 wounded. Word of the massacre spread quickly. The action at the Waxhaws established Tarleton as a ruthless and bloodthirsty villain in the minds of South Carolina patriots, and the phrase “Tarleton’s quarter” came to mean “no quarter.”
Following the American defeat at Camden, Tarleton’s dragoons again chased down fleeing soldiers. On August 18, 1780, he surprised and routed a detachment under General Thomas Sumter at Fishing Creek. At Blackstock’s plantation on November 20, 1780, Tarleton again attacked Sumter, but this time Sumter held a strong fortified position from which his men inflicted over one hundred casualties upon the British troops. Both sides claimed victory in the action. Tarleton also had troubles with Francis Marion. Ordered by Cornwallis to “get at Mr. Marion,” Tarleton pursued his force through the swamps of the Pee Dee region but was unable to catch him. At the Battle of Cowpens (January 17, 1781), Tarleton suffered one of the most critical defeats of the Revolutionary War when his troops crumbled before the ragtag army of General Daniel Morgan. It was Tarleton’s last hurrah in South Carolina. In the wake of the defeat, General Cornwallis determined to drive Nathanael Greene into North Carolina; Tarleton and the Legion went with him. In March 1781 Tarleton fought in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, where an American musket ball mangled his right hand, and he was captured with the British army at Yorktown.
After the war Tarleton returned to England and served in Parliament. He died on January 16, 1833, and was buried in the churchyard at Leintwardine, England. While portrayed by many historians as cruel and inhumane, one cannot deny Tarleton his success. He excelled at quick-strike, surprise attacks that overwhelmed his enemy. Until Blackstock’s and Cowpens, his methods were brutally effective against South Carolina patriots.
Bass, Robert D. The Green Dragoon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson. New York: Holt, 1957.
Pancake, John S. This Destructive War: The British Campaign in the Carolinas, 1780–1782. University: University of Alabama Press, 1985.
Tarleton, Banastre. A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America. 1787. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1967.