British Legion

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British Legion

BRITISH LEGION. Before Sir Henry Clinton left Philadelphia in June 1778, he laid the foundation for "a legionary corps" of provincials, "the command of which I gave to a Scottish nobleman, Lord [William] Cathcart," then a captain in the Seventeenth Light Dragoons. Captain Richard Hovenden's troop of Philadelphia Light Dragoons was the first unit subsumed in Cathcart's Legion, also called the British Legion, followed by Captain Jacob James's troop of Chester County Light Dragoons and then by Captain Charles Stewart's Caledonian Volunteers and Captain David Kinloch's Troop of Light Dragoons, both then recruiting in New York City. Thereafter, the legion recruited to its establishment of five companies of infantry and three troops of cavalry. Cathcart remained colonel of the legion throughout its existence, but the regiment won its enduring reputation under Banastre Tarleton, its lieutenant colonel from 1 August 1778.

The British Legion was one of the units of light troops, including the Queen's Rangers and Emmerich's Chasseurs, that skirmished with the Americans around New York City from late August 1778 until late December 1779, when it embarked for Charleston, South Carolina, as part of Sir Henry Clinton's expedition. Despite having lost its horses on the passage from New York (Tarleton secured remounts on Port Royal Island), in the nine months between 12 April 1780 (at Monck's Corner) and 17 January 1781 (at Cowpens), Tarleton's Legion became the scourge of the Americans. Wearing a distinctive green uniform similar to that worn by other legions like John Graves Simcoe's Queen's Rangers and Henry (Light-Horse Harry) Lee's Legion, the legionnaires won renown for the speed of their pursuit and their alleged bloodthirstiness in battle, an undeserved reputation that nonetheless contributed to the fear they aroused in their opponents. Although the legion performed with less success when Tarleton was not personally in command, as at Williamson's Plantation (12 July), Wahab's Plantation (21 September), and Charlotte, North Carolina (26 September), Tarleton's own carelessness contributed significantly to his defeat at Cowpens. The legion was placed on the American Establishment on 7 March 1781 as the Fifth American Regiment; by that time, however, thanks to Cowpens, it consisted only of cavalry. The bulk of the legion's horsemen continued to serve with Lord Cornwallis's army in North Carolina (at Guilford Court House on 15 March 1781) and Virginia (Green Spring on 6 July 1781) before surrendering at Yorktown on 19 October. Survivors stationed at Charleston and New York were consolidated into the King's American Dragoons, but the legion cavalry, as a formation, was placed nominally on the British Establishment on Christmas Day 1782. The last vestiges of the legion evacuated New York City for Nova Scotia about 15 September 1783 and were disbanded there on 10 October 1783.

SEE ALSO Charlotte, North Carolina; Cowpens, South Carolina; Queen's Rangers; Tarleton, Banastre; Volunteers of Ireland; Wahab's Plantation, North Carolina; Williamson's Plantation, South Carolina.


Clinton, Henry. The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton's Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782. Edited by William B. Willcox. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954.

Cole, Nan, and Todd Braisted. "The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies." Available online at

Katcher, Philip R. N. Encyclopedia of British, Provincial, and German Army Units, 1775–1783. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1973.

Mills, T. F. "Land Forces of Britain, the Empire, and Commonwealth: The British Legion." Available online at

Smith, Paul H. "The American Loyalists: Notes on Their Organization and Numerical Strength." William and Mary Quarterly, third series, 25 (1968): 259-277.

                                   revised by Harold E. Selesky

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