We return to the courtroom of the American Revolution for another debate between Journal of the American Revolution contributors Jim Piecuch and Wayne Lynch. This time the subject is the 1780 Battle of Waxhaws. The debate process is similar to last, but reversed: Piecuch first used 800 words to present his opinion on the matter and shared it with Lynch, who took 800 words to offer his counter perspective. Lynch shared that with Piecuch, who used 200 words for a rebuttal. The finished debate will hopefully give readers enough information to further investigate the topic or form their own opinions, which they are welcome to share in the comments below.
Following a hard march over 48 hour period, Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his British Legion caught up with Colonel Abraham Buford’s Virginia regiment along the Waxhaws road in South Carolina. Fighting only with bayonets the British left 113 dead Patriots and another 203 badly wounded, at least 150 so badly hurt they could not be moved and were left to the mercy of the local residents. Tarleton had 5 dead and 14 wounded. Stories of a massacre surfaced quickly but, what actually happened at the Waxhaws? Did Tarleton’s troops really massacre dozens of American soldiers as they tried to surrender, or after they had lain down their arms? Or was the battle just a one-sided defeat for Buford’s force? And together with those primary questions, which sources are reliable and provide an accurate or verifiable picture of the battle?
Position 1: Jim Piecuch – No Massacre
The story of how Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion massacred American soldiers as they tried to surrender or after they had been taken prisoner at the Waxhaws, South Carolina, on May 29, 1780, has become a standard part of the history of the American Revolution. However, the Waxhaws “Massacre” never happened.
The massacre story is based on two “firsthand” accounts. Three decades after the battle, Henry Bowyer, an aide to American commander Colonel Abraham Buford, described a bloody slaughter; he also claimed to have been ordered by Buford to carry a surrender flag to Tarleton. According to Bowyer, he protested that his mission was too dangerous because of the heavy exchange of gunfire. Nonetheless, he claimed to have carried the flag but said he was unable to deliver his message and had to flee for his life.[i]
The second massacre account was written forty years after the battle by Dr. Robert Brownfield. The doctor related a hearsay story attributed to Ensign John Cruit, who claimed that it was he who carried the surrender flag but was “cut down” and the flag ignored.[ii]
Neither of these tales matches the known historical record. In his report dated June , Buford wrote that he sent out a single white flag, and that the bearer returned after the British rejected his surrender offer. Since both Bowyer and Cruit stated that they did not return to Buford, their stories of carrying the flag are clearly inaccurate. Buford clearly stated that he only sent one flag, although both Cruit and Bowyer claimed to have carried a flag. Obviously, their memories were in error. Cruit’s account of heavy fire between the lines was equally incorrect. Sources from both sides make clear that the Americans only fired a single volley, while Tarleton’s cavalry employed their sabers and the light infantry on the British right under Major Charles Cochrane attacked with bayonets and never fired a shot. Nothing in Bowyer’s or Cruit’s accounts conforms to the verifiable facts.[iii]
The only American participant in the battle who made a contemporary accusation of massacre was Buford, but he was not on the field to witness the concluding phase of the battle or its aftermath. Eyewitnesses saw him flee the field as soon as his surrender offer was rejected and the American line was broken. Of those who remained and survived, not a single American claimed that a massacre occurred. The pension applications of some fifty American veterans do not contain a single accusation of improper behavior by the British Legion.[iv]
Other Americans also made no mention of a massacre. South Carolina governor John Rutledge and Continental officers who learned of the battle shortly afterward described it only as a one-sided defeat. General William Moultrie, a prisoner of war in Charleston who encountered many Waxhaws survivors who were imprisoned after the battle, likewise said nothing about a massacre. Instead, in his memoirs he devoted most of his account of the Waxhaws battle to a denunciation of Buford’s ineptitude. He also compared the battle to a similar engagement in eastern Europe where cavalry annihilated opposing infantry.[v]
The only solid evidence of improper British behavior at the Waxhaws comes from Tarleton himself, who wrote in his memoirs that when his horse was shot and he was trapped under it, some of his troops thought that he was dead and reacted with “vindictive asperity.” It can be inferred from this that a few Legion soldiers executed a handful of surrendering Americans. This was cruel and unnecessary, but it was a minor incident and nothing close to the systematic slaughter that has been portrayed.[vi]
Position 2: Wayne Lynch – Yes Massacre
Yes, “the virtue of humanity was totally forgot”[vii] and the massacre at the Waxhaws did take place. The historical evidence is clear and unambiguous, soldiers were denied the ability to surrender as Tarleton’s legion hacked at them with sword and bayonet. For me at least, in the context of the American Revolution, massacre is the proper term for such behavior.
The historical record begins with the official reports of the two commanders, Abraham Buford and Banastre Tarleton. Buford’s official report to the Virginia Assembly just 4 days after the battle indicated that many of the casualties occurred “after they had lain down their arms”. He described a refusal to allow surrender that caused 2/3 of his men death or serious wounds.[viii] Tarleton’s initial report to Cornwallis only indicated total victory with “few of the enemy escaping” other than Buford.[ix]
Next came the post-war memoirs and histories. Historian David Ramsay released his first book in 1785 clearly reporting a massacre where “unresisting Americans, praying for quarter, were chopped to pieces.” He also indicated that the term “Tarleton’s quarters became proverbial” for an indication that no quarter would be given.[x]
Two years later Tarleton weighed in with his self-serving and sometimes inaccurate book on the Southern Campaigns. Aware that the existence of the massacre could hardly be denied, Tarleton told that his men loved him so much they lost their heads when a rumor of his death circulated and acted with “a vindictive asperity not easily restrained.”[xi] While this statement and much of his entire account is dedicated to deflecting blame away from himself and onto either of Buford or his own men, it still seems very much like a confession that a massacre did, in fact, take place after time had elapsed sufficient to spread a report that Tarleton may have been killed.
In 1794 the Loyalist Charles Stedman wrote a very reliable book on the American Revolution for a British market. He served as quartermaster to Cornwallis and was with the British army at the time. Stedman praised the soldiers for winning the battle but also provided the opening remark, “the virtue of humanity was totally forgot.”[xii]
Later the nation’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall weighed in on the Waxhaws battle in 1806 with the first edition of his book on George Washington. He interviewed the surviving line officers for his book. Marshall concluded that while a few Americans fired, most believed surrender negotiations were under way and stacked their arms. “In this state of dismay and confusion, some threw down their arms and begged for quarter, while others fired on the assailants. No quarter was given.” When considering the huge disparity between dead and wounded Patriots vs dead and wounded Loyalists (316 – 19), Marshall said “An attempt was made to justify this carnage, by alleging that the Americans, after affecting to yield, had again taken up their arms” but the facts simply didn’t conform to that explanation.[xiii]
In later years, two more eyewitness accounts surfaced. One from Lt. Bowyer and the other from Doctor Brownfield. Both men were very clear that a massacre took place. Bowyer indicated the British soldiers were motivated by scattered fire from some Americans after surrender was offered and were impelled “to acts of vengeance that knew no limits.” More explicit, Brownfield indicated that British soldiers “went over the ground plunging their bayonets into every one that exhibited any signs of life.”[xiv]
Recent searches of pension statements identified some 19 veterans of the Waxhaws. There are 42 serious wounds noted among 14 of the veterans while 5 others failed to indicate if they were wounded or not.[xv] The number of wounds per man supports Ramsay’s claim of men being chopped to pieces.
In analyzing the historical record, all the Patriot accounts agree that a massacre took place at the Waxhaws. Tarleton doesn’t bother to deny the charge but only seeks to exonerate himself from personal blame. Yes, a massacre took place in May 1780.
Rebuttal: Jim Piecuch
None of those who claimed a massacre occurred are credible eyewitnesses. Every verifiable event mentioned in the Bowyer and Cruit/Brownfield accounts is demonstrably false, so why should the massacre accusations be credible? Buford did not witness anything because he fled at “the first or second fire.”[xvi] Stedman was not at the battle. Marshall never named the officers he interviewed, and no evidence supports his story about how the British tried to justify the massacre. Ramsay was not at the battle, and his tale seems as truthful as his claim that South Carolina’s slaves were so happy in bondage that almost none fled to the British, when actually thousands did so.
Buford refused Tarleton’s surrender offer before the battle and when he changed his mind fighting had begun and his surrender flag miscarried – the bearer probably encountered a subordinate officer who was not authorized to accept it. Americans couldn’t afford another military disaster after Charleston’s surrender, so they created a mythical massacre that successfully inspired people to continue resistance. A final point: after the battle, Tarleton sent for doctors from as far away as Charlotte to treat the American wounded, strange behavior for someone charged with wanting to kill them all.[xvii]
[i] Frederick Johnston, “Sketch of Colonel Henry Bowyer,” Memorials of Old Virginia Clerks (Lynchburg, VA: J. P. Bell Co., 1888), 92-93.
[ii] “Recollection of Dr. Robert Brownfield,” in William Dobein James, A Sketch of the Life of Brig. Gen. Francis Marion and a History of his Brigade from its Rise in June 1780 until Disbanded in December, 1782 (Charleston, SC: Gould and Riley, 1821), Appendix, 2-5.
[iii] Abraham Buford to the Virginia Assembly, June 2, 1780, Thomas Addis Emmet Collection, New York Public Library; “Report of Captain Charles Cochrane, Nov. 30, 1780, Jeffery Amherst Papers, War Office Series 34/128, No. 37.
[iv] Buford to Virginia Assembly, June 2, 1780; twenty survivors’ pension applications are excerpted in Jim Piecuch, The Blood Be Upon Your Head: Tarleton and the Myth of Buford’s Massacre (Lugoff, SC: Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution Press, 2010), 73-81. Since publication, Will Graves and C. Leon Harris have made a special effort to identify pension applications, both federal and to the state of Virginia and discovered approximately thirty more, none of which mention a massacre, the execution of prisoners, or any other atrocities.
[v] Piecuch, Blood Be Upon Your Head, 33-34; William Moultrie, Memoirs of the American Revolution, So Far As it Related to the States of North and South Carolina, and Georgia, Vol. 2 (New York: David Longworth, 1802), 205-208.
[vi] Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America (London: T. Cadell, 1787), 31.
[vii] Stedman, Charles, The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War, Volume 2, London (1794) p. 193
[viii] Buford to Virginia Assembly, June 2, 1780, printed in Piecuch, Jim, Blood be Upon Your Head, Lugoff, SC (2010) p. 61-63
[ix] Tarleton to Cornwallis, 30 May 1780, printed in Tarleton, Banastre, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, London (1787) p. 85
[x] Ramsay, David, The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina, Trenton (1785), p. 109
[xi] Tarleton, Banastre, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, London (1787), p. 29-33
[xii] Stedman, Charles, The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War, Volume 2, London (1794), p. 193
[xiii] Marshall, John, Life of George Washington, Vol 4, Philadelphia (1804-1807) p. 159
[xiv] Both accounts can be found in the Piecuch work referenced above
[xv] Ibid 73-81
[xvi] Charles Harmon, Pension Application W7645, Feb. 8, 1834.
[xvii] Piecuch, Blood Be Upon Your Head, 32.