Banastre Tarleton and his cavalrymen, 'Tarleton's Raiders' are referenced at the battles of Waxhaws, Guilford Courthouse, and Green Spring in my third Revolutionary War story. One of Tarleton's Raiders has a minor but critical role. So who was Banastre Tarleton?
Tarleton was born in 1754 to a wealthy Liverpool merchant. His father purchased a Cornet’s commission for him in the King's Dragoon Guards after he graduated from Oxford University. Tarleton volunteered to serve in the colonies. In 1776, at twenty-two, he joined General Sir Henry Clinton’s Charleston Expedition. Ambitious and eager to make a name for himself, he was named Lieutenant Colonel of the newly formed, "British Legion" two years later. It was in 1780 when he was transferred to serve in the Southern Campaign, that his notorious reputation began.
His ruthless conduct during several engagements coined the phrase "Bloody Tarleton" and "Tarleton’s Quarter". To give no quarter, a military idiom means to show no mercy or clemency. Tarleton was reported to have annihilated combatants trying to surrender.
One such controversial incident was the Waxhaw massacre in May of 1780 in South Carolina, between Abraham Buford’s Continental force and a Loyalist force led by Banastre Tarleton. During the surrender of the American forces, Tarleton was shot at during the truce causing his horse to fall on him. Thinking the truce broken, Loyalists and British troops attacked the Patriot forces including men surrendering. Many were killed, badly injured, or taken prisoner. The Battle of Waxhaws became an American propaganda tool to bolster recruitment and increase hostilities toward the British. There were mixed feelings as to whether this was a massacre or a terrible miscalculation.
Cornwallis ordered Tarleton to eradicate General Francis Marion, also known as The Swamp Fox, and his guerrilla fighters. Tarleton pursued Marion for many hours and miles but was unsuccessful in that venture.
It’s been suggested by some historians, Tarleton’s ruthless tactics and treatment of the civilian population played a role in encouraging Americans with neutral attitudes toward the war to finally favor the Patriot cause.
Cornwallis sent Tarleton across the York River to Gloucester Point seeking an escape route when the British army was trapped at Yorktown. At the time of Cornwallis' surrender, Banastre Tarleton still at Gloucester Point, surrendered the British forces there but he stayed behind and asked General Rochambeau to grant him protection. He feared being personally attacked because of his infamous reputation.
Banastre Tarlton was disliked by the British as well as American forces. Many of his superiors believed he was too reckless and ruthless in battle. He was also censured by the Americans for his unmerciful treatment of Continental soldiers. After the surrender at Yorktown, when British leaders were invited to dine with Patriot leaders, Tarleton was not included.
Tarleton returned to England, continued his military career, and entered politics. In 1790, on his second attempt, he became a Member of Parliament. His military promotions continued, first to Colonel in 1790, and then, to Major general in 1794. He served under the Duke of Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars. Tarleton was awarded a baronetcy in 1815, and a knighthood by the King in 1820. He died on January 23rd, 1833.