Banastre Tarleton (21 August 1754 – 15 January 1833) was the commander of the notorious Green Dragoons and fought in many battles during the American Revolutionary War. He became known as “the butcher” to the colonials due to his brutal tactics and actions taken at the Battle of Waxhaws. After the war he was an antagonist to the English abolition movement that was led by William Wilberforce.
Unfortunately Tarleton has been depicted as an egotistical racist and his accomplishments have been overshadowed by his brutality. During the American Revolutionary War his cavalry was known for their quick attacks and their effectiveness regardless of the numbers against him. His brutality fit the theatre and was common during the Southern Campaign.
Banastre Tarleton’s Military Career
Banastre was born to John Tarleton. John Tarleton was a wealthy slave trader and mayor of Liverpool, England. Young Banastre grew up as the fourth of seven children and distinguished himself throughout his early years. He had aspirations of becoming a lawyer and attended Oxford University. However, Tarleton had a vice that would haunt him and tear away at his finances. He squandered the inheritance that his father left him on gambling and woman. This squandering left him few options and resulted in Banastre Tarleton paying for a commission to become an officer in the British Army. Due to his natural ability he rose through the ranks quickly without having to purchase another commission. He was a decisive leader and skilled commander. When he learned of the rebellion across the Atlantic Ocean he volunteered for service. By that time he had already reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
American Revolutionary War
Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton arrived in the American Colonies in 1776 as part of an expedition to take Charleston, South Carolina, under General Charles Cornwallis. The expedition to capture Charleston initially failed and Tarleton was reassigned to the northern theatre. He arrived in New York after the battle for New York had been decided and joined the main British army under General William Howe. Here he served with great distinction and caught the eye of his superior officers. He was quickly promoted to brigade major of cavalry.
He served under Colonel William Harcourt and led reconnaissance missions and scouting parties. His scouting ability was unmatched in the British army, with exception to Robert Rogers, and he was able to move with lightning speed. His primary mission was to track General Charles Lee of the Continental Army. Lee was believed to be the most talented General in the Continental Army. However, he was also one of George Washington’s main detractors and opponents. He was sharing letters with members of Congress and other commanders attempted to overthrow Washington. Washington had sent for addition troops that were under Charles Lee and Lee was stalling. It was during this moment that one of the great fortunes of the war happened. Tarleton and his cavalry secretly rode up to Lee’s headquarters and surrounded the General. Tarleton then moved in for the capture and found Lee eating breakfast and still in his pajamas. The British citizens celebrated the capture and believed the war would soon be over. However, his capture allowed for the victory at Trenton and Princeton.
Tarleton knew nothing of Lee’s divisive plot and if he had he may have allowed the general to keep his army, but he followed his orders and showed a relentlessness that was necessary in fighting the colonists. He was given a British Legion and cavalry command. The men under him quickly became known as “Tarleton’s Raiders” for their quick and stealth-like attacks. He harassed enemy supply lines, burned villages that supported independence, and did everything in his power to secure victory for his king. When the northern theatre became a stalemate General Henry Clinton sent him south to once again serve under General Charles Cornwallis. It would be in the southern theatre where he would gain the reputation in which Americans remember him.
Siege of Charleston
When Tarleton arrived in America his first engagement was the capture of Charleston. That attempt failed, but in 1780 he and General Cornwallis would attempt to capture the important southern port again. He led the attack at the Battle of Monck’s Corner which would be his first of many victories during the southern campaign. The victory aided the British in capturing Charleston, but also produced a rumor that Tarleton and his men had sexually assaulted a civilian. Unfortunately, rape occurred during the American Revolutionary War, but it would be presumptuous to accuse Tarleton and his men of these offenses as the evidence is slim. Regardless, this was the first of many rumors (some true) that painted Tarleton as a brute.
Banastre Tarleton’s reputation among Americans was sealed at the Battle of Waxhaws. Tarleton led an aggressive attack on the Virginia Continentals led by Abraham Buford. He was outnumbered but it did not seem to matter as Tarleton’s men executed their aggressive tactics masterfully and inflicted heavy losses on Buford’s Continentals. What happened next is disputed, but can be pieced together by accounts from both sides of the battle. Buford had held on as long as he could, but Tarleton was relentless. Finally he raised the white flag and the British Green Dragoon’s eased their assault until a musket ball fired from the Virginia Continentals struck Tarleton’s horse and brought him to the ground. Enraged the loyalists attacked the surrendering men and massacred them.
While it is debated whether or not Tarleton gave the order to charge into a white flag it is not debated that the massacre happened. Tarleton wrote of it in his memoirs and stated that his men thought he was dead and charged with “a vindictive asperity not easily restrained.” This is also confirmed by the field surgeon who stated that Tarleton’s horse was struck and that the loyalists attacked with “indiscriminate carnage never surpassed by the most ruthless atrocities of the most barbarous savages.” The massacre did happen and all accounts point to that, but it is also probably true that Tarleton was being honest when he said he was indisposed and his men charged the field without an order from himself. Regardless, the massacre became a rallying cry and the Continentals received retribution at the Battle of King’s Mountain.
From Camden to Cowpens
The Battle of Camden marked the end of the career of Horatio Gates when he fled the field after his lines collapsed. Tarleton and his Green Dragoon’s helped drive the Continental Army from the field, but the victory was short-lived.
Nathanael Greene took command of the Southern Army and employed the innovative Daniel Morgan. Greene split his army so that he could move quicker and supply it more efficiently. Greene gave Morgan command of the divided part of his army. Cornwallis followed suit and sent Tarleton after Daniel Morgan. The two met at the Battle of Cowpens in which Morgan obliterated Tarleton’s Green Dragoons in less than an hour. News of the loss reached Cornwallis who said that he had lost his eyes and ears.
After Cowpens, Banastre Tarleton saw little success as did the rest of the British Army. Cornwallis placed him in command of Gloucester Point during the siege of Yorktown, but it was surrendered to the Americans when the French Navy arrived. He returned to England in 1781 as one of the youngest and most accomplished commanders during the war.
Political Career and Death
After completing his tour in America, Tarleton ran for election in 1784 as Member of Parliament for Liverpool and lost. He ran again in 1790 and won. He is known for his work in support for the slave trade and his opposition to those seeking abolition. He was well-known for his mocking of the abolitionists.
His military career saw continual distinction. He was promoted to Major General and then promoted to Lieutenant General and in 1812 he was given the rank of General. In 1820 he received the highest rank of knighthood when he was given the title a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath. His council was sought after during the Napoleonic wars and he sought after command of British forces during the Peninsula War. The position was given to the younger Duke of Wellington who went on to distinguish himself.
Banastre Tarleton died in 1833 at the age of 78. He was one of the unsung heroes for the British during the American Revolutionary War.