Tarleton: Before He Became “Bloody Ban”

Banastre Tarleton, painted in 1782
Banastre Tarleton, painted in 1782

Before he became “Bloody Ban,” Banastre Tarleton fought in New York and learned the difficulties of cornering seasoned Continental cavalry.

“Surrender you damned rebel, or I’ll blow your brains out!” shouted a British cavalryman who galloped close behind American militia horseman Private John Buckhout, who was certainly having a rough morning on July 2nd, 1779.  After spending the previous night along with the Second Continental Dragoons awake and equipped for an expected attack on their post at Pound Ridge, New York, he was now riding as fast as he could away from the charging British.   Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton was attacking the Rebels with his trademark ferocity, but his quarry was elusive.

The summer campaign of 1779 began in May, when British Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton launched an offensive to control the Hudson River and lure General George Washington’s Continental Army into a decisive battle.  Washington responded by immediately marching three divisions to New York.  But instead of counterattacking, as Clinton had hoped, the Continentals moved into the rugged, defensible Highlands region around West Point which offered the British little opportunity for battle.  To draw the Americans into the open, Clinton’s units pushed into Westchester County in southeastern New York and raided towns on the Connecticut coast.

Ordered by Washington to block the British advances toward Connecticut, the Second Continental Dragoons moved to the southeastern New York town of Pound Ridge, two miles from the border with Connecticut, on June 28th.  Wearing dark blue coats with buff facings, buff breeches, high black boots, and brass riding helmets with horsehair plumes, the cavalrymen cut dashing figures as they clopped in amongst Pound Ridge’s farmhouses.  Under the command of Colonel Elisha Sheldon, the Second Dragoons had performed admirably during the Philadelphia campaign and camped in western Connecticut over the previous winter of 1778 – 79.  Sheldon was temporarily away, so Major Benjamin Tallmadge, one of the Continental Army’s rising, yet enigmatic stars, was in charge of the Second Dragoons.  Tallmadge was a diminutive former schoolmaster who had, in the words of historian Alexander Rose, “a disconcerting habit of cocking his head like a quizzical beagle.”[1]  Underneath this unassuming appearance was an aggressive cavalryman.  Tallmadge was also Washington’s intelligence chief and clandestinely controlled several spies behind British lines in New York City.  Under these two officers “Sheldon’s Light Horse,” as they were known, was a thoroughly-drilled, disciplined, and experienced unit.

To bolster Tallmadge’s cavalry, Washington ordered Col. Stephen Moylan’s Fourth Light Dragoons Regiment and an infantry detachment from the Sixth Connecticut Regiment under Maj. Eli Leavenworth to Pound Ridge.  Moylan’s troops were camped at least two days’ march away on the east side of the Hudson, so on July 1st the American forces at Pound Ridge consisted of the Second Light Dragoons with 90 soldiers, 100 disciplined Connecticut infantrymen under Maj. Leavenworth, and about 100 local militia.  Tallmadge considered the Pound Ridge area as “pretty strong ground,” but he also knew that enemy infantry and cavalry were within a few hours march of his position.  He frequently shifted his camps among the local farms to avoid entrapment.[2]

Fifteen miles to the southwest at his camp at Mile Square, New York, Banastre Tarleton gathered a British raiding force intended for Pound Ridge.  Described by a fellow officer as “below the middle size, stout, strong, heavily made,” Tarleton was 24 years old and was known as a courageous and ambitious officer, daring in action, and eager for fame.[3]  By 1778 he had attained the rank of lieutenant-colonel and command of the “British Legion,” a unit of combined cavalry and infantry.  Clad in short green jackets, they were known as “Tarleton’s Green Horse.” It was a year before he would earn the name “Bloody Ban” for his actions in the Southern campaign.

In late June, 1779, the Legion was part of the British push into southeastern New York’s Westchester County when Gen. Clinton gained intelligence that Continental units were converging at Pound Ridge, where, coincidentally, there lived one Maj. Ebenezer Lockwood, who was wanted by British authorities for active opposition to Crown rule and command of the local Patriot militia. Clinton decided to assemble a force of his most capable units to eliminate the Rebel concentration and capture Lockwood.  Tarleton had performed well in previous actions as a subordinate, and Clinton decided that the young officer was ready to command the raid as his first independent expedition.  Sir Henry assembled a raiding force of the British Legion, 70 troopers of Seventeenth Light Dragoons, and detachments from the Queen’s Rangers, the Hussars, and mounted Hessian Jagers to give Tarleton a force of about 200 soldiers.  They planned to strike Pound Ridge at dawn on July 2nd.

Tarleton’s expedition encountered problems even before it began.  On the night of June 30th a Rebel spy named Luther Kinnicutt went to Pound Ridge and warned the Americans of an imminent British attack.  Unaware that his quarry was forewarned, Tarleton’s force departed their camp at 11:30 PM on July 1st, but heavy rain and wind lashed Westchester County and slowed the column’s progress.  Just before dawn Tarleton was on a road a few miles north of his target.  Seeing a civilian standing in the dripping doorway of his home, Tarleton asked the man for directions to Pound Ridge.  The civilian, named John Crawford, was one of the few Loyalists in the area and willingly told the group to head south.  But Tarleton misunderstood Crawford’s instructions and led his troops north on the wrong road.  The rain had stopped, and just as dawn was breaking the Green Horse trotted through the sodden countryside toward what they thought was the Rebel camp, but were unaware they were going the wrong way.  They went a half mile on the wrong road before someone realized the mistake and Tarleton turned the column around.

The Second Continental Dragoons were on the south side of Pound Ridge, quartered at the farm owned by the wanted-man Maj. Ebenezer Lockwood.  Regimental commander Col. Elisha Sheldon had rejoined his soldiers on July 1st, and in response to the spy Kinnicutt’s warning, he posted vedettes – mounted sentries – on the roads north of the town and put Lockwood’s militia on alert.  Maj. Leavenworth’s Connecticut infantrymen took position on the road to the west.  Sheldon kept his men armed and horses saddled in a picket line waiting for an attack.

By dawn no British attack materialized so Sheldon allowed his men to unsaddle and graze their horses.  Just as the soldiers relaxed, the vedette from the Stone Ridge Road to the northwest galloped into camp and reported, probably in panting, excited breaths after his ride, that he had spotted a cavalry column headed toward Pound Ridge.  Sheldon quickly prepared his men for action.  But since Moylan’s Fourth Dragoons were also expected to arrive in the area, he sent Tallmadge out with a detachment to find out if the approaching column was British or American.

As the British rode south into Pound Ridge, Tallmadge and his detachment were riding north on the same road.  The two columns rounded a bend and ran headlong into each other about half a mile from the Continental camp.  The Seventeenth Dragoons led Tarleton’s force as the advance guard, and one of the regiment’s officers ordered a charge as he shouted for the Americans to surrender.  Heavily outnumbered, Tallmadge turned his detachment around and galloped for his camp.  An eyewitness wrote that the Redcoats charged close behind the Americans, “standing in their stirrups and shouting and whirling their swords over the heads.”[4]

The charging, galloping, and shouting American and British horsemen hurtled toward the Lockwood farm where the rest of Sheldon’s Dragoons were mounted and ready in battle formation.  The narrow village lane restricted Tarleton’s column to only seven or eight horses in width but the British still charged into the Yankee camp with unstoppable momentum.  Tallmadge recalled, “The onset was violent,” and the discipline and skill of both sides became evident as the soldiers fought in close-quarters with clanging sabers.[5]  Col. Sheldon later estimated that the British attacked with “about 360” men.[6]  The Americans held their ground at first but the 90 Yankee cavalrymen were outnumbered by Tarleton’s 200 and about to be surrounded.  Sheldon ordered a withdrawal to the south while Maj. Lockwood and his militia scattered into the countryside.

Tarleton’s troops were fueled by the adrenaline of the charge and probably intent on capturing the Rebel cavalry.  Col. Sheldon wrote, “The enemy pushed hard on our rear for more than two miles.  In the course of which a scattering fire was kept up between their advance and our rear, and a constant charge with the sword.”[7]  It was during this time that a British dragoon closed on American Private John Buckhout and shouted “Surrender you damned rebel, or I’ll blow your brains out.”  His pistol shot grazed Buckhout’s scalp and knocked off his cap.  “There you dammed rebel, a little more and I should have blown your brains out,” he yelled again.  Buckhout replied “Yes damn you, and a little more and you wouldn’t have touched me,” and sped away.[8]  Another fleeing Yankee, Jared Hoyt, received a saber cut to the head, swung his own sword, and slashed his attacker in the face.  Sheldon reported that he was “certain some [of the enemy] were badly wounded.”[9]  Tarleton attempted to encircle the Rebels as they retreated but the rough, rocky ground made the pursuit difficult and the British only captured a few Americans whose horses had stumbled on the rocks.  Tarleton ordered his men to return to Pound Ridge after the chase became futile.

By that time Maj. Lockwood’s militia had reformed after their brief retreat, and Tarleton reported, “The Militia assembled again on Eminences and in Swamps, and before we quitted the Ground on which the first Charge was made they fired at Great Distances. . . . . the rest hovered almost out of Sight.”[10]  The scattered American shots probably only knocked one dragoon from his saddle.  But the firing so angered Tarleton that he ordered his men to burn Maj. Lockwood’s house, presumably because he was the militia commander.  Surgeons of both sides were treating the wounded in the Lockwood house and two British doctors protested the order.  Tarleton ordered the wounded moved and the house searched.  His men found all of the baggage and equipment for the Second Light Dragoons, including the regimental colors and Benjamin Tallmadge’s saddle bags.  They kept the colors and Tallmadge’s bags as war trophies and then set fire to the house, burning it to the ground along with most of the American equipment.  British troops also torched the Pound Ridge meeting house and were preparing to burn the home of Joseph Lockwood, Ebenezer’s brother, until militia fire drove them off.

While the British were preoccupied with burning Pound Ridge dwellings and seizing 16 of Ebenezer Lockwood’s cows, Maj. Leavenworth’s Connecticut infantrymen advanced toward the town to cut off the British retreat.  Tarleton realized that his force was about to be surrounded and decided that his raid was complete.  He ordered his men to return to their camp at Mile Square but left a doctor behind temporarily to care for the wounded.  Retracing their morning route, the soldiers passed the house of John Crawford, the Loyalist who had directed them to toward the town at dawn, and Tarleton ordered his house burned in retaliation for what he incorrectly perceived as Crawford’s intentional deception.  Citizens in the town of Bedford, three and a half miles west of Pound Ridge, fired on the British as they passed through, and Tarleton abandoned his captured cattle as an impediment and burned Bedford’s church and a Patriot-owned tavern.  Sheldon’s Dragoons and Leavenworth’s Connecticut infantry re-formed and pursued the raiders as far as the North Castle Church, another three miles west of Bedford, but were unable to overtake them.  The British finally reached their camp at Mile Square at about 10:00 PM.

Though exhausted after riding and fighting for 23 hours, Tarleton penned his report of the action to Clinton soon after arriving at his camp.  Tarleton listed his casualties as “trifling,” with one soldier killed and one wounded.  He portrayed the action as a victory, though he did not achieve his objectives to eliminate the Rebel cavalry and capture Ebenezer Lockwood.  Clinton apparently approved, as he sent the dispatch to the British War Office in London as an example of one of the summer campaign’s battle successes.[11]

The Americans suffered 10 soldiers wounded and four soldiers and civilians captured, including Maj. Lockwood’s son-in-law.  The capture of the colors of the Second Dragoons and Tallmadge’s saddlebags, which included some of the major’s correspondence with Washington about intelligence activities in New York, was an embarrassing loss.  Moylan’s Dragoons arrived at Pound Ridge (the exact date was not recorded, though it was sometime before July 4th) and the Americans continued to operate in southeastern New York throughout the rest of the campaign.  Unfortunately most of the Continentals were away defending against Clinton’s raids on the Connecticut coast on July 11th, when the British Legion returned and burned down almost the entire town of Bedford.  In mid-July Washington blunted the British advances with a daring night assault on the fortified post of Stony Point, and with another at Paulus Hook in August.  As a result Clinton’s offensive lost momentum and the 1779 campaign ended in the autumn with the Americans still in control of the Hudson River.

Elisha Sheldon and Benjamin Tallmadge continued service in the Second Dragoons until the end of the war, and Tallmadge is known today as one of the founders of the American military intelligence corps.  Eli Leavenworth also continued his service, as did Ebenezer Lockwood, who rebuilt his destroyed home.

Banastre Tarleton earned great notoriety after the War Office published his Pound Ridge report in the press, and he continued to command the British Legion.  He later became one of the war’s most famous – and infamous – cavalrymen for his actions in the Southern Campaigns.  It is probable that he always remembered the action at Pound Ridge, when he learned that cornering Continental cavalry was easier said than done.

 

 


[1] Alexander Rose, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (New York, Random House, 2006), 43.

[2] Tallmadge to Heath, June 27th 1779, in The Burning of Bedford, July 1779: As Reported in Contemporary Documents and Eyewitness Accounts, Dorothy Humphreys Hinitt and Frances Riker Duncombe, eds., (Bedford, NY, Bedford Historical Society, 1974), 10.

[3] Robert D. Bass, The Green Dragoon; The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson (Orangeburg, SC, Henry Holt Co., 1957, reprint, Sandlapper Publishing, 1973), 37.

[4] Jay Harris, God’s Country: A History of Pound Ridge, New York (Chester, CT, Pequot Press, 1971), 38.

[5] Benjamin Tallmadge, Memoir of Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, Prepared by Himself, at the Request of His Children (New York, 1858), 32.

[6] Sheldon to Heath, July 3rd 1779, Papers of the Continental Congress, Vol. 7.

[7] Ibid..

[8] Harris, God’s Country, 38.

[9]  Sheldon to Heath, July 3rd 1779.

[10] Tarleton to Clinton, quoted in Bass, Green Dragoon, 56.

[11] Ibid..

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15 Comments

    • I’m glad you asked about John Buckhout – your interest led me to research him further. Buckhout’s formal name was Jacob. Though he was mixed in with the melee at Pound Ridge and the retreat of the Second Continental Dragoons, he was officially a member of the Westchester County militia. He reached the rank of corporal, possibly sergeant, before the end of the war. Buckhout lived until 1810. His widow, Jane, was granted his pension for his service.

  • Very interesting article Mr. Schellhammer. Only sorry that I only now discovered it; I had a 3rd Great Uncle ( one ” Steven Ambler”, a dragoon) killed outside of Bedford in that fight. Here is info on that, much from the Bedford Historical society:
    “The Salem Church record. states: “Stephen Ambler murdered at Bedford 11 July 1779”. He served in Capt. Seely’s Co. of Col. Drake’s Van Cortlandt Regt. and in Col. James Holmes 4th Regt. of N.Y Line. He was a dragoon in Capt. Samuel Delavan’s Troop of Westchester Horse at the time of Col. Banastre Tarleton’s march on Bedford, 2 July 1779. In 1832 John Amlber (No. 82) made affidavit that he “had a brother killed at Bedford.” On 31 Oct 1846 Capt. David Miller of Bedford, aged 80 made affidavit regarding the burning of Bedford by Tarleton.: “Stephen Ambler on this occasion was too late in escaping from the enemy; trusting too much to the fleetness of his horse he was overtaken and killed.” He was bur. in the Indian Cem. 2 miles west of South Salem village.”
    Another version ( see McDonald Papers citation) states: “When Bedord was burnt, Col. Thomas, the day before, sent word that the enemy were out and several militia companies were ordered out. I was in my father’s company and we lay at Samuel Lyon’s, near Canfield Hill. Two volunteer horsemen were with us. Stephen Ambler was posted along with one Van Schot on the hill west of Holley’s tavern with orders if they saw the enemy or any body of men coming on either road to give the alarm, one to us, the other to Pound Ridge. Both the west and east roads were in their sight from the hill. Ambler, bewildered, thought they [ the British. Ed] were a party of Moylan’s and endeavored too late to retreat. He was cut down by the British refugees who advanced on the west road. He was cut to pieces and fell off, and the horse escaped. The British were discovered near Raymond’s Hill about a mile off but Ambler thought they were Moylan’s.” The next day, Tarleton’s men burned Bedford, NY. (DK).
    Btw, I was in the 24th Inf. Div. ( 1967-68); did you ever run into those guys in Iraq? tks again. DK.

    • One postscript, Mr. Shellhammer: I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but a couple of years ago, the battle standard that was taken from Sheldon’s troops during that fight and found its way into the Tarleton family estate, was auctioned off back in the U.S ( for a pretty price!); I thought it was a typical, disgusting situation that the Fed Govt (which pisses away a fortune of the people’s money every year on idiotic crap)couldn’t pick it up and put it into the Smithsonian where it belonged. Better not get started on that, however, my blood pressure it too high already.

      • All fascinating information Mr. Kaplinski! Would that I had your ancestor’s story when I was writing my book on the 1779 Hudson River campaign, from which this piece is drawn. And I came across the “Victory Division” many times as a young officer – a lifetime ago. Thanks!

  • Well, Steven Ambler was only 21 years old that day he was killed (my age when I left the 24th Div). I’ve often wondered what I would have done with that gang of miserable pricks charging up behind me, ready to turn me into chopped liver.
    btw, I’m going to try and get your book for my library. tks much. regards; DK.

  • Mike,

    Can I contact you via email about some sources you used for you book on the Hudson Campaign? I’m trying to track down some information on the Connecticut Continentals stationed in Westchester County during the summer of 1779?

    Thanks!

  • Matt, hope you don’t mind me butting in but I just thought to mention a couple of good secondary sources specific to Westchester County.

    Otto Hufeland, Westchester County during the American Revolution, (Westchester County Historical Society, White Plains, NY 1926) or (Harbor Hill Books, Harrison, NY 1982)

    Also, Jacob Judd, Westchester County, Joseph S. Tiedemann and Eugene R. Fingerhut, The Other New York, The American Revolution beyond New York City, 1763 – 1787, (SUNY Press, Albany, 2005)

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