Waxhaws, South Carolina

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Waxhaws, South Carolina

WAXHAWS, SOUTH CAROLINA. 29 May 1780. Marching to reinforce Charleston during Clinton's siege of 1780, Colonel Abraham Buford's Third Virginia Continentals could get no closer than Lenud's Ferry (Santee River), since British forces under Cornwallis had already established control of the intervening forty miles. When Charleston surrendered on 12 May, Buford's regiment and a few cavalry survivors of the skirmishes at Lenud's Ferry and Monck's Corner were the only organized American military troops left in South Carolina. Huger therefore ordered Buford to withdraw to Hillsborough, and Cornwallis—with twenty-five hundred men—started in pursuit from Huger's Bridge on 18 May. Realizing that his foot troops could not overcome Buford's ten-day lead, Cornwallis turned this mission over to Tarleton, whose dragoons had been sweeping the country toward Georgetown.

On 27 May, Tarleton—with 40 men of the Seventeenth Dragoons and 130 cavalry and 100 infantry of the Legion (many of them riding double with the horsemen)—left Cornwallis's command at Nelson's Ferry and started in hot pursuit. Although the weather was oppressively hot and the men and horses were already tired from vigorous campaigning, Tarleton's Tories and British dragoons had covered the 60 miles to Camden by the next afternoon. They already knew that Governor John Rutledge was traveling with Buford's command, and at Camden they learned that on 26 May, Buford had left Rugeley's Mill, only 12 miles away. Tarleton rested his troops and mounts until 2 a.m. on the 29th, and by early afternoon his leading element had closed in on Buford's rear guard. The British had covered 105 miles in 54 hours, although they had ridden many horses to death and Tarleton's column was badly strung out.

Warned of this pursuit, Rutledge rode ahead to safety. Buford's supply train and field guns were also ahead of the column, and his 350 or so Virginia Continentals were moving on the double. Tarleton first sent an officer forward under a flag of truce to demand surrender; this, he claimed candidly, was a stratagem to deceive Buford into thinking that British numbers were greater and, therefore, to induce him to consider surrender.

About 3 p.m., the British advance guard attacked and badly chopped up the small rear guard commanded by Lieutenant Pearson, and Buford turned to face the enemy. Holding out a small reserve, he formed his available infantry and cavalry in a single line near the road in an open wood. Tarleton deployed in three elements: Major Cochrane with sixty dragoons and about fifty infantry on his right to move forward first and "gall the enemy's flank"; thirty selected dragoons and some infantry, Tarleton's left wing, which he would personally lead against Buford's right and rear; and the Seventeenth Dragoons with the rest of the available infantry to attack the American center. The British commander, with an eye not only for sound tactical deployment but also for psychological effect, selected a small hill opposite the enemy center, in plain view of it, and ordered the rest of his command to form there as they reached the battlefield.

Since the American artillery was not in position, the British formed within three hundred yards of Buford's line without drawing any fire. Tarleton then launched his attack. When his troopers had charged to within fifty paces, they were astounded to hear Continental officers order their men to hold their fire until the British were nearer! The volley they fired came too late to check the rush of horses, and within moments, the cavalry broke the Patriot line and went to work with their sabers.

"TARLETON'S QUARTER"

When Buford saw he was being surrounded, he sent a flag of truce to Tarleton. The officer carrying the flag seems never to have reached Tarleton, however, possibly because the British commander had his horse killed from under him near this point in the action. Before he could mount another, "a report amongst the cavalry that they had lost their commanding officer … stimulated the soldiers to a vindictive asperity not easily restrained" (Tarleton, pp. 30-31).

NUMBERS AND LOSSES

Patriot accounts claimed that Tarleton's men inhumanly butchered Continentals who were in the process of surrendering. Although evidence of British and Loyalist troops murdering soldiers who had thrown down their arms is sketchy, American casualties bear out the one-sided nature of the action. Their losses were 113 killed and 203 captured; 150 of the latter were too badly wounded to be moved, and most of the other 53 prisoners were wounded. Buford and a few other mounted men escaped from the battlefield. The only other survivors were 100 infantry who had been at the head of the retreat and were not in the action.

Tarleton's account indicates that about 200 of his 270 troops were on hand for the attack. He gave his casualties as 19 men and 31 horses killed or wounded.

COMMENT

The propaganda-inspired uproar about a "massacre" has obscured the brilliance of Tarleton's pursuit and attack. With professional detachment he credited his opponent with blunders that made the victory possible. Even allowing for poor discipline and low morale, Buford should have been able to fight off a tired enemy he outnumbered two to one. Although he did not have time to find good defensive terrain, he might have formed his wagons into a defensive perimeter and used his guns and infantry in a "hedgehog" the enemy would not have been able to successfully attack. Ordering his men to hold their fire was a case of applying a sound military principle at the wrong time. Tarleton suggested that a fire by platoons or battalions beginning at a greater range would have been much more effective.

As for the morality displayed by the victor, a successful cavalry charge exploited by a bayonet attack is bound to be messy, and the dividing line between military success and slaughter depends on which side one is on. While scholars have debated whether the Waxhaws was in fact a massacre, the important point is that Patriots perceived that Tarleton's men had acted viciously. Commanders at Kings Mountain, Cowpens, and other battles throughout the South would use the exaggerated accounts of Tarleton's cruelty to motivate their men.

Unknown at home prior to the action at Waxhaws, Tarleton was now a British hero. But to the American army, "Tarleton's quarter" became a synonym for the butchery of surrendered men, and "Bloody Tarleton" is a name more familiar in America today than it is in England.

SEE ALSO Carter, John Champe; Lenud's Ferry, South Carolina; Monck's Corner, South Carolina (14 April 1780); Paoli, Pennsylvania.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Tarleton, Banastre. A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America. 1787. Reprint, Ayer Company Publishers, Inc. North Stratford, N.H.: 2001.

                                      revised by Carl P. Borick