Banastre Tarleton was born to upper middle-class parents in Liverpool, England, on August 21, 1754. At the University College, Oxford, he studied toward a law degree but was better known for his athletic abilities, participating in cricket, boxing, riding, and tennis. He was small physically, yet strong and active.
He was soon to use these athletic skills in the military, when on April 20, 1775, after exhausting his finances through gambling and other "fashionable amusements," he purchased a rank in the First Regiment of Dragoon Guards. His military career offered him adventure and opportunities for advancement, and, more importantly, led him to America and shaped his destiny in history.
In America, he received promotions on the basis of merit. Always wanting to go beyond the routine of the soldier's life, he came to be known for his speed, daring, and surprise. At twenty-three, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the British Legion. 1
His abilities led to initial success in the Revolutionary War, in both the Northern and Southern Campaigns.2 His use of light infantry3 in combination with his cavalry4 made a powerful combat team. He set a strong pace for his men to follow, and, in effect, led by example. Militia were said to panic at the sight of his green-jacketed dragoons5 He was so effective that Cornwallis wrote: "I wish you would get three legions, and divide yourself into three parts: We can do no good without you."
Tarleton's early success included raids on upstate New York, and action in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In the Carolinas he took an active part in the battles of Monck's Corner,6 Charleston,7 the Waxhaws,8 Camden,9 Fishing Creek,10 Blackstocks,11 and Cowpens12.
It was in the Waxhaws that Tarleton came to symbolize British cruelty in the Revolutionary War. There were numerous versions, however, of what actually happened in the Waxhaws. Traditionally, Tarleton was seen as a "butcher" when , it was said, America forces under Buford laid down their arms in an attempt to surrender yet the British continued their assault. From then on, his reputation grew and "Tarleton's quarter"13, in effect, came to mean "no quarter."
"Tarleton's quarter" was to become a rallying cry at the Battle of Cowpens. Tarleton, then only twenty-six, had been charged with covering the Carolina upcountry against Patriot guerillas. Specifically, he was to seek out and destroy a threat to his rear, a wing of the American Southern Army, commanded by General Daniel Morgan. By January 12, 1781, he was closing in on Morgan, pushing his men on, fording the rain-swollen Enoree, Tyger, and Pacolet Rivers. Morgan, on the other hand, suddenly halted a desperate retreat, was joined by more militia, and parlayed the fear and hatred of Tarleton into victory at Cowpens in the South Carolina Upcountry.
At Cowpens, January 17, 1781, Morgan appeared to take into account Tarleton's tendency to rush the attack. His collapsing lines (skirmishers, militia, and Continentals14) brought the tired (having marched since two in the morning) but confident British in prematurely, in effect, exposing them to heavy fire. As the Continentals pinned the British down, militia cavalry would crush them in a flank attack. A mistaken command to retreat drew the British in even more, and, when the retreat was stopped, the Continental line turned and fired with devastating results. In the ensuing panic, the American cavalry, already engaged in battle, flanked the British left, leading to double envelopment and victory and a turning point in the war in the South.
At battle's end, American cavalry leader William Washington, in mad pursuit of the defiant Tarleton along the Green River Road, engaged the British commander in a dramatic hand-to-hand encounter, in which Washington barely escaped with his life. With the approach of American riflemen, Tarleton, with fifty-four of his supporters, abandoned the battle and fled east toward the British camp, never to be caught up with.
Tarleton would draw criticism from older officers who believed he lacked "military maturity." Held by some to be personally responsible for the death of some fine officers and veteran troops, Tarleton subsequently submitted his resignation but it was not accepted. He continued to fight on in later battles even with some amount of success, but the relationship with Cornwallis was strained after the British defeat at Cowpens. Posted across the river from Yorktown,15 he surrendered his forces about the same time as Cornwallis.
In the tradition of the day, American officers hosted the defeated Cornwallis and other British officers at their respective tables. But no American invited Tarleton nor would any eat with him. Tarleton asked if the omission was accidental, and he was told that, indeed it was not, because of his past atrocities.
Tarleton returned to England a hero and was eventually promoted to the rank of General. Back in Liverpool, he was elected to Parliament, knighted, and published his History. His pursuit of pleasure and his fifteen-year liaison with the author-actress, Mary Robinson, found him little favor with his constituents, leading to an off and on political career. Estranged from Mary Robinson and graying at age forty-three he met and married Susan Priscilla Bertie on December 17, 1798. He lived a long life, but would never admit to any fault at Cowpens, saying he was outnumbered and received inadequate assistance from Cornwallis. He wondered. "how some unforeseen event" could "throw terror into the most disciplined soldiers".
Banastre Tarleton's place in history goes beyond this defeat and his image as a "butcher". He is often not given credit for his genius in strategy. It is true he practiced total war -- burning houses, destroying crops, the end justifying the means -- when the European ideal was limited war confined to a field of battle. In effect, he was probably no more brutal then some other British officers and even some American officers. But, at the Waxhaws, his reputation for brutality stuck, as Patriot officers encouraged fear and anxiety of "butcher" Tarleton for propaganda purposes.
Banastre Tarleton, who died childless on January 16, 1833, at the age of seventy-eight, was buried in Leintwardine Churchyard. He was one of the most controversial figures in the American Revolution, possibly remembered in America more than in his native country.
1 British Legion - An eighteenth century unit composed of infantry and mounted troops.
2 Southern Campaign - Campaigns led by General Nathanael Greene against the British and Loyalists for control of the South. Victories at Kings Mountain and Cowpens helped lead to Patriot victory at Yorktown.
3 infantry – The branch of an army made up of units trained to fight on foot.
4 cavalry – Army troops trained to fight on horseback.
5 dragoon – A mounted infantryman, who often rode his horse into battle and dismounted to fight. Used synonymously with cavalrymen, both of whom could fight on horseback or dismounted.
6 Monck's Corner - A British victory on April 14, 1780, over an American force under General Isaac Huger guarding a communications route to Charleston.
7 Charleston - On May 12, 1780, British forces under Clinton forced the surrender of Charleston militia and Continentals under the command of General Benjamin Lincoln. The victory was a major setback for American forces in the South.
8 Waxhaws - On May 29, 1780, Tarleton's Legion overtook and defeated Colonel Abraham Buford and his Third Virginia Continentals as they retreated through the Waxhaws area toward North Carolina after the fall of Charleston. Known also as Buford's massacre.
9 Camden - Fought on August 16, 1780, near Camden, South Carolina, the Battle of Camden was a disastrous defeat for the Patriots. Gates, the American general, gained a reputation as a "fool and coward" for his actions and fleeing the battle site. Reports of the results made Tarleton a national hero in Britain.
11 Blackstocks – On November 20, 1780, Tarleton attacked Thomas Sumter’s forces at Blackstocks Plantation on the Tyger River. Both sides claimed victory, but Tarleton achieved the temporary disablement of Sumter, who was wounded in battle.
12 Cowpens – On January 17, 1781, Tarleton attacked forces under General Daniel Morgan at the Cowpens (frontier pasturing ground) and was soundly defeated. The battle was a turning point in the war in the South.
13 quarter – A promise not to kill an enemy soldier who surrenders. A soldier may ask for "quarter" and may be given "quarter".
14 Continentals – Regular, trained and uniformed soldiers of the American Continental Army, as distinguished from local militia in each colony.
15 Yorktown – On October 19, 1781, the British under General Lord Cornwallis surrendered to American and French troops under General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia.
Babits, Lawrence E. A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Bass, Robert D. The Green Dragoon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson. Columbia, South Carolina: Sandlapper Press, Inc., 1973.
Boatner, Mark M. III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1994.
Fleming, Thomas J. Downright Fighting: The Story of Cowpens – The Official National Park Handbook. Washington, D. C.: Division of Publications: National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior, 1988.
Morrill, Dan L. Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution. Baltimore, Maryland: The Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America, N. D.
Pearson, Michael. Those Damned Rebels: The American Revolution As Seen Through British Eyes. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972.
Scheer, George F. and Hugh F. Rankin, eds. Rebels and Redcoats. New York: World Publishing Company, 1957.
Stirling, Lawrence Linfield. "Banastre Tarleton: A Revaluation of His Career in the American Revolution". Master of Arts Thesis, Louisiana State University, 1964.
Last updated: April 14, 2015