Last updated: August 17, 2023
Nicknamed "Bloody Ban" by Patriots, Banastre Tarleton became infamous in the southern states during the American Revolution. His conduct illustrated and exacerbated the problems the British faced in pacifying the population of the Carolinas. As the commander of a cavalry and mounted infantry unit, his unit became the eyes and ears of Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis' southern army, winning battlefield glories until a decisive day at Cowpens on January 17, 1781.
Banastre Tarleton was born into a middle class family in Liverpool, England. Tarleton attended Oxford and briefly studied law at the Middle Temple before his mother purchased him a cornet's commission in the 1st Dragoon Guards. He participated in the first British attack on Charleston in 1776 and eventually transferred to the 16th Light Dragoons. During the American army's flight from New York, Tarleton and his troop of dragoons captured Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, second in command of the Continental Army, at a tavern in New Jersey. Tarleton made his way up the ranks through merit and by the spring of 1780, at the young age of 26, had taken command of the British Legion, a unit comprised of loyalist recruits from the middle colonies.
During the Siege of Charleston, Tarleton's British Legion scored a decisive victory over patriot cavalry at Monck's Corner on April 14, 1780, granting the British control of the area north and east of Charleston. At the Waxhaws in South Carolina on May 29, Tarleton exhibited the courage and energy that were to be his hallmark while pursuing the sole remnants of the Continental Army after the fall of Charleston. Tarleton and his British Legion caught up with Col. Abraham Buford's troops at the Waxhaws, just south of the border with North Carolina. After sending a flag of truce with an offer to surrender, Tarleton's men attacked, killing 113 Americans and wounding another 150 out of a total force of 300-350 soldiers.
"Tarleton's Quarter" became a rallying cry for southern patriots after the massacre. After the British victory at Camden, Cornwallis tasked Tarleton with the intimidation of the countryside, which brought momentary gains, including defeating Thomas Sumter's partisans at Fishing Creek. Despite the humane image of Cornwallis, some of his chief subordinates like Tarleton and Lord Francis Rawdon were advocates of brutal repression. Tarleton thought Cornwallis too lenient, and claimed that his moderation "did not reconcile enemies, but...discouraged friends."
Tarleton had been charged with covering the Carolina upcountry against rebel guerillas. Specifically, he was to seek out and destroy a threat to his rear, a wing of the rebel 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.
At Cowpens, January 17, 1781, Morgan lured Tarleton's men into an elaborate trap. His collapsing lines of skirmishers, militia, and Continentals (each about 150 yards behind one another on a slope) brought the tired but confident British in prematurely, exposing them to heavy fire. As the Continentals pinned the British down, a mounted attack would assault the British flank. 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 a successful double envelopment, a decisive victory, and a turning point in the war in the South. At battle's end, patriot cavalry commander, William Washington, in mad pursuit of Tarleton, engaged Tarleton 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.
On the field at Cowpens, Tarleton left eighty-six percent of his force dead, wounded, or captured: 110 killed and 712 prisoners, of whom 200 were wounded. In his memoir, Tarleton explained his defeat, crediting American bravery while citing total misbehavior of his troops. He refused to take any of the blame for the defeat. In the aftermath of his defeat at Cowpens, Tarleton and his surviving troops fled to rejoin Cornwallis's army. An American prisoner, Samuel McJunkin, related that as Tarleton reported, Cornwallis placed the tip of his sword against the sword and leaned into the hilt, harder and harder, until the blade snapped. Tarleton, in the wake of his defeat, wrote Cornwallis, asking permission to retire and for a court martial to determine responsiblity. Cornwallis refused, and Tarleton continued in service.
In the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Tarleton's men were held in reserve. Late in the battle, Tarleton rode to the support of a Hessian regiment, routing Virginia riflemen under Col. William Campbell. The British won a Pyrrhic victory, driving Gen. Nathanael Greene's army from the field, at the cost of the effectiveness of their army. They suffered over twenty-seven percent casualties, ruining the army. Tarleton lost two fingers on his right hand, suffering a wound in the battle. After having marched across the Carolinas and chasing Greene's Continentals to little purpose, Cornwallis moved his army to Wilmington, North Carolina where he later made the momentous decision to march into Virginia.
When Cornwallis marched his army into Virginia, he loosed Tarleton and the Legion on sweeping raids into the interior. At Monticello, Tarleton nearly captured Governor Thomas Jefferson, who fled just in time. In the Siege of Yorktown, Tarleton served across the river at Gloucester. On October 4, 1781 a French Hussar regiment skirmished with Tarleton's British Legion. In this skirmish, Tarleton was unhorsed and wounded, saved by his men from a French lancer. After the British surrendered at Yorktown, there was a dinner party for military officers. The Americans invited all British officers, except for Tarleton. His past conduct could not be overlooked.
Tarleton returned to England a hero in 1782. Sir Joshua Reynolds painted his portrait. From 1790 until 1812, with the exception of one year, he represented Liverpool in the House of Commons, where he was noted for his defense of the slave trade. Tarleton received promotions, but he never again led troops in battle, despite his interest and lobbying for a command in the Peninsular War, part of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1815, he was made a baronet and in 1820 a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Bath, a British order of chivalry created by King George I.