Tarleton, Banastre

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Tarleton, Banastre

TARLETON, BANASTRE. (1754–1833). Baronet, British army officer and politician. Tarleton, born in Liverpool on 21 August 1754, was the son of a merchant and ship owner in the sugar and slave trades who became mayor of the city in 1764. Banastre entered the Middle Temple, a leading London law school, in April 1770 and matriculated at University College, Oxford, in November 1771. It seems likely that he was destined for a legal career in conjunction with the family business. When his father died in 1773, however, he inherited £5,000 and proceeded to gamble it away. On 20 April 1775, to evade ruin he bought, with his mother's assistance, a cornetcy in the First Dragoon Guards. After training he volunteered for service in America, reaching Cape Fear with Charles Cornwallis's troops on 3 May 1776.

Tarleton took part in the unsuccessful Charleston Expedition before serving in New York. Attached to the Sixteenth Light Dragoons when they arrived from Britain, he took part in the surprise attack that captured rebel general Charles Lee at Basking Ridge, New Jersey, on 13 December 1776. He was promoted captain in January 1777 and served in the Pennsylvania campaign. On 8 January 1778 he was made captain in the Seventy-ninth Foot but continued to make his mark as a daring and energetic cavalry commander. He also acquired a reputation for ruthlessness toward suspected civilian rebels, an attitude apparently sharpened by the acute supply difficulties faced by the British army in America. As he wrote to John André on 19 February 1779, "Coolness Apathy & Civil Law will never supply Hussars with Horses." To what extent he acted on his words is another matter.

Later in the year he became the lieutenant colonel commandant of Cathcart's Legion, soon renamed the British Legion, a Loyalist cavalry and mounted infantry formation which often operated with the Seventeenth Dragoons. On 2 July 1779 he led 360 cavalry against Poundridge, New York, where he failed to capture Major Ebenezer Lockwood. Sent south with Clinton's Charleston expedition in 1780, on 23 March his Legion routed a body of rebel militia and dragoons and captured some badly needed horses. Three days later he was worsted in a skirmish around Rutledge's Plantation, which almost led to Clinton's capture; but his greatest triumphs were yet to come. On 14 April Tarleton took Monck's Corner on the Cooper River, thus completing the isolation of Benjamin Lincoln's army in Charleston. Charleston surrendered on 12 May and with it Lincoln's entire force. On 6 May he surprised a rebel force at Lenud's Ferry on the Santee River, and on 29 May he annihilated a rebel force twice the size of his own at Waxhaws.

Here there occurred an incident that seemed to confirm Tarleton's reputation as a ruthless commander. In the final charge, Tarleton cut down an American officer as he struggled to raise a white flag. At that moment Tarleton's horse was shot from under him and he went down. Seeing their commander fall, his soldiers went berserk, killing every rebel they could reach until they were brought back under control. Although it better illustrated the Legion's brittle discipline than any personal vindictiveness by Tarleton, rebel propaganda quickly branded him "Bloody Tarleton" and coined the term "Tarleton's quarter." Though no more justified than the opprobrium flung under similar circumstances at Charles "No-flint" Grey, the story may have blackened the British cause in the eyes of southern civilians, and was certainly used to justify American outrages later on.

At Camden, South Carolina, on 16 August he was loosed to drive Thomas Gage's broken army from the battlefield, after which Cornwallis sent him in pursuit of Thomas Sumter. Two days later, Tarleton surprised and destroyed his quarry at Fishing Creek, North Carolina. Although Sumter himself escaped, 150 Americans were killed, 300 taken, and numerous British prisoners and supply wagons recaptured.

It is a measure of Tarleton's leadership that the Legion was far less successful when, as at Williamson's Plantation on 12 July, he was not in direct command. Soon after Fishing Creek he fell seriously ill with a fever and in subsequent actions at Wahab's Plantation (21 September) and Charlotte (26 September), the Legion did badly. Tarleton's illness was also partly responsible for Cornwallis's failure to send help to Patrick Ferguson in time to prevent the disaster at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, on 7 October. Tarleton rose from his sickbed to track Francis Marion through the lower Peedee swamps; but before he could catch him, Cornwallis recalled him to deal with Sumter, who was threatening Ninety Six, South Carolina. At Blackstocks on 20 November 1780 Tarleton, with only 270 men engaged, fought 1,000 rebels to a standstill, badly wounded Sumter, and deflected the threat to Ninety Six. Despite his heavy losses, it was a striking success.

Tarleton's reputation as a light cavalry and counter-partisan leader now stood very high. However, he turned out to be less successful as a conventional battlefield commander, leading a balanced force of cavalry, infantry, and artillery against Daniel Morgan at Cowpens on 17 January 1781. Tarleton launched a well-conceived attack which nearly succeeded. However, Morgan had chosen a position that forced his shaky militia to stand and fight, and had deployed his riflemen in depth to slow down the British advance. When the attacking troops were exhausted he counterattacked, the British force broke, and two-thirds were killed or taken. Tarleton rallied some dragoons, burned his baggage, and fought a personal duel with William Washington before escaping with about 300 men. His Legion, lacking his personal direction, had done badly, and his name for generalship was severely damaged. Although Cornwallis defended his performance, he never gave Tarleton another independent command, and their earlier free and easy relations came to an end. However, that was not the end of Tarleton's career, reputation, or successes.

At Tarrant's Tavern on 1 February 1781, he surprised and dispersed a numerically superior force so successfully that few militia turned out against Cornwallis as he marched deeper into North Carolina. He provided vigorous support for the infantry Cornwallis sent to surprise Greene's advance guard at Wetzell's Mills on 6 March. Nine days later at Guilford Courthouse, he fought a heavy advance guard action and suffered a wound that later cost him two fingers. At the end of the day he led his cavalry against the American rear guard and was wounded again. He marched into Virginia with Cornwallis and on 4 June raided on Charlottesville, capturing seven members of the legislature, narrowly missing Thomas Jefferson himself, and destroyed a thousand muskets and four hundred barrels of gunpowder. From 9 to 24 July he carried out a long-range raid against enemy stores, covering over two hundred miles, outrunning all pursuit and news of his position. It was a brilliant feat, although results were relatively insignificant compared with his losses in skirmishes and from the heat. During the final stages of the campaign, he joined Thomas Dundas at Gloucester Point across the river from Yorktown, where on 3 October he was pinned under his fallen horse and almost taken by advancing French cavalry. When Cornwallis surrendered two weeks later, Tarleton became a prisoner of war.

Returning home on parole in January 1782, Tarleton found himself a national hero. Befriended by the Prince of Wales and painted in Legion uniform by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, the foremost portrait painters of the day, he began a five-year-long affair with Perdita (Mrs. Mary Robinson), an actress, poet, and ex-mistress of the prince. He lived extravagantly and gambled heavily. In 1787, embroiled in a dispute about his conduct at Cowpens, he published his History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America (1787), a usefully detailed but self-serving account which attacked Cornwallis. It may have also been intended to further his political ambitions. In 1790, following a narrow defeat in 1784, he became the Foxite member of Parliament for Liverpool. In Parliament he spoke on military matters and, reflecting his constituents' concerns, in defense of the slave trade. He became a major general in 1794, lieutenant general in 1801, and full general in 1812, but, apart from a brief assignment in Portugal in 1798, he never held another active command. He married Priscilla Susan Bertie in 1798 and became a baronet in 1816. He died in Hertfordshire on 23 January 1833.

Tarleton was probably the finest commander of light cavalry on either side in the War of American Independence. Such success so young probably went to his head and his reputation for vanity was probably well earned. His own utterances and the criticisms of fellow officers give some colour to accusations of ruthless brutality. However, the direct evidence against him is thin and should be understood in the context of the brutalising partisan war, in which both sides committed outrages. The vilification of "Bloody Tarleton" probably owes more to his military skills than to his vices.

SEE ALSO Blackstock's, South Carolina; British Legion; Camden Campaign; Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1776; Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1780; Cowpens, South Carolina; Fishing Creek, North Carolina; Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina; Kings Mountain, South Carolina; Lee, Charles (1731–1782); Lenud's Ferry, South Carolina; Monck's Corner, South Carolina; Morgan, Daniel; Tarleton's Quarter; Tarleton's Virginia Raid of 9-24 July 1781; Tarrant's Tavern, North Carolina; Wahab's Plantation, North Carolina; Washington, William; Waxhaws, South Carolina; Wetzell's Mills, North Carolina; Williamson's Plantation, South Carolina.


Bass, R. D. The Green Dragoon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson. 2nd ed. Columbia, S.C: Sandlapper, 1973.

Mackesy, Piers. The War for America, 1775–1783. London: Longman, 1964.

Wickwire, F. B., and M. B. Wickwire. Cornwallis and the War of Independence. London: Faber and Faber, 1971.

                                revised by John Oliphant