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Monday, October 13, 2014

Dispelling Colonial Myths: the Waxhaws Massacre




Historical marker photo, courtesy of royalprovincial.com
Anyone who researches the Southern Campaign of the Revolution long enough will run across that rallying cry of the patriot side: “Tarleton’s Quarter!” The uninitiated might say, who was Tarleton and why are we discussing coins? Seriously, though, the phrase tracks back to a military engagement right after the breaking of the Siege of Charleston.

Reports on this battle later fueled what I can only term Revolutionary propaganda.

Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton will have his own article next month, but for now suffice it to say that he was a rising star in the British army, unremarkable during the northern part of the war, but later distinguished himself in a handful of skirmishes in the countryside around Charleston. The battle at Waxhaws was  relatively minor, all things considered.

But the British were brutal, they said. Tarleton ignored any pleas for surrender, they said.

It was a massacre, they said.

And thus the term “Tarleton’s Quarter” was born, and became the rallying cry all across the Carolinas. But what really happened?            

Banastre Tarleton, by Joshua Reynolds
Essentially, Tarleton was sent upstate with a mounted detachment of the British Legion to pursue South Carolina governor John Rutledge, who had escaped Charleston. Word was that he’d taken refuge with “rebel” leader Abraham Buford, whose forces had been mustered out of Virginia for the aid of Charleston, but turned back after the city surrendered. In the blistering heat of late May 1780 in South Carolina, Tarleton led his forces—a mix of cavalry and mounted infantry, and at least one 3-pound cannon—on an impossible dash into the South Carolina backcountry, covering more than 100 miles in 54 hours.

As they neared, Tarleton devised a plan to delay Buford. He sent an officer ahead with a flag of truce to offer terms of surrender—the same terms General Clinton had offered Charleston, as this was a fairly standard operating procedure before a battle—but greatly exaggerated his numbers (he told Buford they had 700 men). Even then, Buford refused. Some say this was his first tactical error. Surrender would not have been any more disgraceful than what just occurred at Charleston, but it’s possible Buford felt he couldn’t surrender without at least attempting a fight. With a detachment of his own men too far away to help, and knowing he was outnumbered, Buford stopped and formed up his troops in a single line. At least one of his fellow officers said this was his second tactical error.

We might be tempted to say, a battle is a battle, but I’ve learned in my research that this is not so—any more than we can say “a dress is a dress” when dealing with style and modesty and historical accuracy. Certain things went into making good decisions about whether to fight or not (are we outnumbered? does the lay of the land favor us?) and how to carry out the battle. Buford should have arranged his troops differently, for one—and then his last and possibly gravest error was to tell his forces to hold their fire. This works when you have infantry (men on foot) but not for cavalry. The single volley of fire had little effect before the line of Tarleton’s cavalry swept over the line, shattering their formation.

Some of Buford’s men started trying to surrender, and Buford himself attempted to raise a white flag, but some of his men were still fighting, with at least one shooting at Tarleton himself. In the heat and passion of battle—both sides were exhausted and doubtless half out of their heads with the intensity of the early summer sun—Tarleton’s horse was killed, trapping him underneath. The men of his detachment (he’d divided his forces into three sections and was leading the left flank), thought their leader had fallen in battle and went into a frenzy. By the time Tarleton got out from under his horse and got his men under control, enough damage had been done to create the rumor of brutality and massacre.

Military analysts later point out that the officers in charge of the center and right flanks maintained control of their men, and the fighting was soon halted in their quarter. The losses were indeed heavy—113 killed, 150 wounded, 53 captured compared to the British losses of 5 killed and 13 wounded. But later reports of “all wounded dying” or the British executing all their prisoners were rubbish. The British provided for the care of their own and enemy wounded alike, setting up a nearby church as a hospital and summoning doctors from neighboring communities. All the wounded were paroled (released to go home when they were recovered enough). Enough reports exist of civility of behavior by Tarleton and his men after things had calmed down, that it throws the hysteria that followed after into serious question.

Considering what we know today of the psychological impact of war, and the shock it must have been to the backcountry folk for this first battle to arrive on their doorsteps, it’s probably no wonder the event became the rallying cry all the way to the Overmountain settlements, or that they immediately began referring to this young British officer as “Bloody Tarleton.”

The Blood Be Upon Your Head by Jim Piecuch
After my research debunking a popular reenactment myth, I wasn’t as surprised as I might have been to find that reports about this battle differed widely, but I was dismayed ... and disappointed. It begs the question, who do you believe when reading historical accounts, even primary accounts?

For more reading on this subject, and a fascinating look into the early months of the Southern Campaign, I recommend The Blood Be Upon Your Head: Tarleton and the Myth of Buford’s Massacre by Jim Piecuch. (You can find this in many local bookstores in the Carolinas, or Google it ... almost anywhere is better than Amazon for purchasing this one, I think!) A much shorter read, covering several of the salient points, can be found at the Oatmeal for the Foxhounds site: the Waxhaws “Massacre.” (More about this site later!)
 



2 comments:

  1. Excellent!

    I knew a lot of history had been twisted to fit the story in the Mel Gibson film, "The Patriot", but this explains where the scriptwriter(s) got their villain for that story.

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    Replies
    1. I'm actually going to address that next month, Keanan! There were men on both sides of the conflict who committed unspeakable things ... but more on that later. :)

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