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"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." ~ Benjamin Franklin

Monday, January 12, 2015

Dispelling Colonial Myths: "Bloody Ban" or, Why does it matter?


The infamous Ban Tarleton
Was Banastre Tarleton really the monster he's portrayed to be?

Sometimes, deconstructing myth can be hard and cruel. I've found often that people would rather hold onto their suppositions and prejudices than look at the other side of an issue--or accept evidence for another view. And it's astonished me how fact can get embellished into legend, and either romanticized or demonized, not very long after the fact.

The more I read, the more I realize that some myths will never be completely dispelled. People's opinions are sometimes literally set in stone, and so many will continue believing the idea that the patriot cause was completely righteous, and the British one completely corrupt.

I suppose that starting at the outset from a British/loyalist point of view skews one’s perspective at the outset. But I found it interesting, at the least, to find all the evidence that calls into question popular accounts of various historical events.

Enter Oatmeal for the Foxhounds.** Oh, the things one finds online! And warning, if you’re staunchly anti-British when it comes to RevWar history, you may not appreciate what amounts to a Ban Tarleton fansite, but I found it an amazingly rich resource for many of the events and important figures of the time (see in particular the “Friends, Enemies and Comrades” page). The full text of Tarleton’s own “Campaigns” is found here, as well.

The very name of Banastre Tarleton evokes some of the RevWar's wildest stories. He’s accused of everything from the immoral (a supposed claim to ravishing more women than anyone) to the macabre (digging up the corpse of an enemy for the purpose of gloating over him). The accusations of cruelty were just the beginning. But the site’s own intro says it very well:

It is human nature to want to fit the past into tidy storybook patterns, to reduce it to tales with clear-cut morals populated by heroes and villains. But if we search into the history behind the idealized heroes of myth, legend and folklore, more often than not we find only flawed and ordinary individuals, struggling to survive the sweep of events....

Years ago, in the pages of a novel set during the American Revolution, I stumbled across a less famous victim of the power of folklore: Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, Commandant of the British Legion. Nicknamed "the Green Dragoon" by his twentieth-century biographer1, Tarleton served under Lord Cornwallis during the Revolution's Southern Campaign, where his aggressive fighting style and gift for fluid, hit-and-run warfare earned him a dark place in local legend. Predictably, he was presented as the novel's "villain," but I found him so entertaining that I was drawn to investigate the history behind the myths of "Bloody Ban."

The young man who waited, buried and often forgotten in the pages of historical research, had little in common with the black-hearted villain immortalized in Revolutionary War myths as "the Butcher of the Carolinas." A devil-may-care charmer, the real Ban Tarleton quickly became one of my favorite historical figures, and so he remains. He was a fearless and ferocious cavalry leader, capable of showing his enemies both chivalry and ruthlessness. Away from the battlefield, he was a witty, hyper-sociable little rogue who made friends by the carriageload. (After the war, that list of friends grew to include many of his former enemies such as the Duc de Lauzun, Lafayette, Thaddeus Kosciusko and possibly even Thomas Jefferson.)

While Tarleton was far from a saint, he was just as far from being a monster, and he deserves a better accounting than he is normally given by popular "history." I was inspired to start work on this website when his reputation has been tarred-and-feathered yet again by the movie The Patriot, whose producers cite him as the template for their elegant but antisocial villain, Colonel William Tavington. ... There are vague similarities between their names, they each show plenty of panache when leading a cavalry column, and they share a fondness for fluffy black hats. Beyond that, the resemblance between them is nothing more than a figment of the Hollywood imagination. [Historian Dr. M. M. Gilchrist, AKA Doc M, has more to say on this subject.]

It’s understandable, on one hand, how one side would need all the proof they could get to show that their side was the righteous one ... even if their proof was unsubstantiated. But it’s so true that history is written by the victors ... and skewed by the victors. It’s my opinion, as writers, even or maybe especially as novelists, we owe it to our readers to understand as much as humanly possible of the motivations of all sides of a particular conflict, and of the nuances in how a particular event is reported.

But I digress. :-)

The first question to answer, possibly, is that of Tarleton’s supposed cruelty and brutality. The practice of looting and burning of local wealth is a well-documented military strategy, practiced widely by both sides during the American War for Independence. (Don’t you just love that term? I heard it just recently for the first time.)

Consider this footnote on the page addressing the Colonel Richardson story on Oatmeal For The Foxhounds:

It is all too common for authors to personify the British in the Carolinas as a gang of mindless pyromaniacs who ran around trampling crops and burning buildings for the sheer, bloody heck of it. Needless to say, this is ridiculous. In fact a) they did a lot less of it than legend claims and b) when they did it, there were solid reasons for it. (I would never say "good solid reasons" because in the long run it worked very heavily against them -- but they weren't blessed with the 20/20 hindsight we bring to the situation when we look back on its results from 200 years later.)
It is a basic military goal to keep supplies away from your enemies. In this situation, that meant that the crops and goods of people known to be in open rebellion against the Crown were subject to forfeiture. (Proclamations to this effect had been circulated.) Whenever possible, this "punishment" took the form of confiscation, because the British army desperately needed the supplies themselves. It was Cornwallis's policy to leave a portion of the property and goods for the use of the wife and children of the rebel involved, so they would not be made to suffer. (The Wickwires present a lengthy discussion of how the system was designed to work, as well as why and how it generally failed.)

In other cases -- normally when confiscation was impractical -- forfeiture took the form of destruction. There was a war on, after all, and from the British perspective the rebels were armed terrorists.

The destruction or confiscation of property was a form of punishment used by both sides. For instance, Lawrence E. Babits, A Devil of a Whipping, The Battle of Cowpens (Chapel Hill, N.C. & London: University of North Carolina Press; 1998), p48, has this comment to make on Daniel Morgan's army shortly before the battle of Cowpens: "Morgan's men plundered [Alexander] Chesney's property of everything usable, including grain, trees, clothing, and blankets. ... By camping on a Loyalist's property, Morgan punished Chesney, intimidated other Tories, and lessened his army's impact on local patriots."

One of the points The Patriot actually got right was Ben Martin's speech about the consequences of starting a war that would be fought in your own back yard. The cost can be heavy.

In addition to serving as a punishment, the destruction of rebel property had another aspect which many writers overlook. It robbed the enemy of building materials such as finished lumber and also of strong points which could be fortified. We tend to underestimate the value of finished materials nowadays, but especially in remote locations, they were rare and hard to replace. (Yes, they had plenty of trees, but they needed time and sawmills to turn raw wood into lumber.) There are cases recorded of buildings (including a church) being disassembled and their raw materials used to construct fortifications. And areas were sometimes accepted or rejected for military purposes based on the presence or absence of defensible buildings. (http://home.golden.net/~marg/bansite/banecdotes/85richardson.html#n2)

So was Tarleton worse than anyone else at the time, or was he just extraordinarily efficient in carrying out his assigned mission in the field? Other accounts speak of his quickness to condemn the misbehavior of his dragoons, and of his deference when dealing with the property of Thomas Jefferson.

If you’re interested in reading more about the various legends that have grown up around Tarleton, I would refer you to the Banecdotes page.

Did Tarleton consider his hounds to be military equipment? :-)
**Why "Oatmeal for the Foxhounds"? The phrase comes from a requisition written by Tarleton requesting feed for the hounds brought along on campaign. Apparently fox hunting was considered a good sport to keep officers and their horses conditioned during periods of inactivity in wartime ...

2 comments:

  1. The cyber world keeps eating my comment! What a great reminder to always dig deeper with historical info. I loved this!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for persevering! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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