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Battle of Waxhaws

Date: May 29, 1780.

Region:Southern Colonies, South Carolina.


Opposing Forces: British: 270; American: 350.

Battle of Waxhaws: Perspectives

Battle of Waxhaws

British Perspective: After the victorious siege of Charleston (April 18 – May 12, 1780) General Cornwallis led a 2,500 man army inland toward Camden, South Carolina, to establish an outpost in the backwoods region between Charleston and the North Carolina border.

During the journey, Loyalists informed Cornwallis that South Carolina Governor John Rutledge was escaping into North Carolina escorted by 350 Patriots led by Col. Abraham Buford.

Rutledge and his escort were at least 10 days ahead of the British, and after a short pursuit, Cornwallis realized his infantry did not stand a chance of capturing the rebellious leader.

He assigned the task of catching Buford and Rutledge to Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, who had a well-deserved reputation as a capable and zealous officer who pushed his dragoons hard and fast. Tarleton left the main column on May 27 with about 275 dragoons, Tory cavalry, and infantry (most mounted double).

Riding night and day through punishing heat, Tarleton caught up with the enemy after covering more than 100 miles in just 54 hours. On the afternoon of May 29, he dispatched a detachment to demand surrender. The Americans refused.

American Perspective: General Lincoln’s surrender of Charleston on May 12, 1780, threw the American Southern Department into disarray. Although Continental and militia units remained in service, there was no organized plan to quickly and efficiently reassemble a force capable of meeting the British in a pitched action.

When units moving south to assist the Charleston defenders learned of Lincoln’s surrender, they turned around and marched north to regroup and escape what would surely be a large-scale inland push by Cornwallis. One of these marching units, the 11th Virginia Regiment led by Col. Abraham

Buford was ordered by Isaac Huger to retreat with the survivors of the Monck’s Corner fiasco northward to Hillsboro, North Carolina. Colonel Buford reversed direction and moved his composite force of 350 Virginia Continentals as ordered, but he did not move rapidly enough.

Governor John Rutledge was riding in the ranks (the governor was moving north under the protection of another unit).

While moving with no sense of urgency through the Waxhaws District (and drawing near the relative safety of North Carolina), Buford learned of Tarleton’s pursuit. Governor Rutledge left the column with his small escort.

A detachment of British cavalry approached the Virginians from behind on May 29 demanding surrender, an offer Buford adamantly refused. While he and his leaders discussed their options, Tarleton’s cavalry and infantry formed for an attack.

Battle of Waxhaws Begins

The Fighting: After some of Tarleton’s men attacked his rearguard, Buford turned and organized his men for battle. It was at about 3:00 p.m. He aligned his infantry and cavalry into a single line of defense with a small reserve in the rear.

Tarleton divided his command into three detachments: on his right were 60 dragoons and 50 light infantry; on the left was Tarleton himself with another 30 dragoons and additional infantry; in the center were the rest of the 17th Dragoons and infantry.

Given the flat and lightly wooded terrain upon which Buford had formed, Tarleton’s disposition was flexible enough to attack the center and both flanks simultaneously.

When the British dragoons charged, Buford ordered his men to hold their fire. He held firm until the enemy was just 10 yards from his line when his men poured a single volley into the charging enemy. Buford’s choice of tactics was unfortunate.

Although the volley killed and wounded many enemy horses and a few men, the momentum of the charge carried both beast and rider into the American lines.

The tons of galloping horseflesh trampled and crushed the defenders. Tarleton killed a Virginian trying to raise a white surrender flag before his own horse went down, perhaps from the same volley.

Once Tarleton’s cavalry closed, Buford’s Virginians had no chance against an experienced mounted foe, followed up by infantry. Exactly what happened next will forever be subject to dispute.

Some sources claim the British grew angry when they learned Tarleton had been struck down (he had not).

The dragoons went to work, cutting and slashing the Patriots with their sabers, wounded and unwounded alike. British infantry added their bayonets to the bloody chaos. The hacking and close-quarter fighting, if as extensive as described, probably lasted for fifteen minutes.

Surrender was out of the question as no quarter was offered or accepted. It should be taken into consideration that any cavalry charge followed by a determined bayonet attack—with screaming adrenalin- drenched soldiers shrouded in powder smoke fighting for their lives—would result in horrendous wounds.

Depending on one’s perspective, Waxhaws was either a well-executed tactical British victory or a bloody crime.

Outcome/Result: The Battle of Waxhaws would become a rallying cry for the patriots. Banastre Tarleton would be branded a butcher and the fighting in the South became more fierce with less civility. 

At the Battle of King’s Mountain, the patriots won a significant victory. They then returned the favor to the British by giving Patrick Ferguson and his loyalists’ similar treatment to the patriot militia at Waxhaws.

Lieutenant Colonel William Washington would meet Banastre Tarleton again at the Battle of Cowpens and get his revenge with the help of Daniel Morgan.

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