Banastre Tarleton

Notorious British Cavalry Commander


Painting of Banastre TarletonNo figure in the Revolutionary South is more reviled than Banastre Tarleton. Son of a middle-class merchant who was mayor of Liverpool, England, Tarleton studied law at Oxford University but was more noted for his athletics. He blew most of his money on the good life by age 20. He or his mother purchased an officer’s position in the cavalry in April 1775. However, he left that unit to join another sent to fight the American rebels. Part of the British defeat in the first attack on Charleston, Tarleton’s aggressive style in northern battles helped him capture Continental Maj. Gen. Charles Lee and brought repeated promotions. As a lieutenant colonel, he was placed in command of the British Legion, a combined cavalry and infantry force made up mostly of Loyalists. The Legion went south with Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis in 1780 for the second, successful attack on Charleston. Tarleton’s tactics helped win British victories, but his use of “total war” against Patriot property led to several dark myths about him.[1] One claimed he ordered his men to kill surrendering Patriot soldiers at the Battle of the Waxhaws (S.C.). Eyewitness accounts suggest he was pinned under his horse, and his men acted on their own in vengeance for his rumored death. Regardless, the practice gained the name “Tarleton’s quarter,” which became a propaganda tool for the Patriots. They yelled it at the Battle of Cowpens (S.C.) in 1781, when Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan exploited Tarleton’s aggressiveness to rout him. Sabre-to-sabre combat ensued between Tarleton and a Continental commander before Tarleton escaped with a few dozen troopers. That battle tarnished his reputation amongst the British and triggered the Race to the Dan. For six weeks Tarleton’s Legion dueled with the Continental “light corps” of Col. Otho Williams before and during the Battle of Guilford Court House. It then protected Cornwallis’ army during its retreat to Wilmington and march to Virginia, only to surrender when Cornwallis did. American officers refused to dine with Tarleton afterward. He returned to Liverpool a hero, however, becoming a member of Parliament and a general, though he never again saw battle. An accurate reputation as a womanizer damaged his public stature. Tarleton died married but childless at 78.

More Information

[1] He was not referred to as “Bloody Ban” in his day, though some called him “The Butcher”; he was not hated by Cornwallis; and he was not the British officer who slashed later-President Andrew Jackson as a youth (Knight 2016).

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