He was arguably the greatest “anti-Hero” produced by either side during the Revolutionary War. From Washington Irving to Mel Gibson, so much has been written about the career of Banastre Tarleton that it is difficult, even today, to separate man from myth. Yet many of the most persistent and damning indictments of him are also those most easily refuted as historically exaggerated, or even quite simply, untrue. Here we look at ten of the most damaging or obstinate myths about the British Cavalry leader absolutely no contemporary called “Bloody Ban!”
1 // He made his living before and after the war as a slave trader
Tarleton’s father John certainly made his fortune from the slave trade. His three brothers were also heavily involved in both the West Indies sugar trade and the Atlantic slave trade. Banastre, however, was the only son of four to never join the family business, and being a notorious spendthrift showed little inclination for the disciplines of commerce. He was nonetheless a vociferous opponent of those who aimed at ending the slave trade in the British Empire, particularly William Wilberforce MP, whose policies he referred to as a “mistaken philanthropy.” After the war, Tarleton was elected as MP for Liverpool and unfailingly argued that the city’s prosperity had been built on commerce, and that the slave trade in particular had been instrumental in propelling the town from struggling provincial port to Britain’s second city. His opposition to the Abolition movement never wavered throughout his long Parliamentary career.
2 // He was an arrogant, detached, brutal martinet
This has been the “default” portrayal of Tarleton in American history for over two hundred years. His reputation as a ruthless thug has been almost universally accepted, and unquestioned, through popular folk tale and sober history alike. “We look in vain for any redeeming trait in his character” the nineteenth century historian C.L Hunter concluded, a judgement enduring into the twentieth century with the influential historian Christopher Ward emotively describing him as “cold hearted, vindictive and utterly ruthless.” As late as 1976 the author Charles Bracelen Flood felt able to go further still with a piece of doggerel psycho-analysis that concluded Tarleton was “the sort of man who needs a war to legitimise his violent and cruel impulses.” Mel Gibson’s cinematic portrayal of a fictionalized Tarleton as a sardonic, brutal, sociopath is based largely on these and similarly unflattering histories.
Yet no contemporary who actually met Tarleton described him in such terms. That he was vain, there is no doubt, but haughty he certainly wasn’t. Indeed The Times noted rather condescendingly that “his frankness and bonhomie make him popular among the “lower orders” of his constituents.” The Comte de Revel on meeting Tarleton after his surrender at Gloucester Point described him as a young, pleasant man: “He had a most gentle and genteel face as well as elegance, a certain air of ease, and French manners.”(7) That Tarleton drilled his Legion relentlessly in quiet times, and drove it hard in battle is not doubted, but he was no martinet, and it is accepted that his men greatly respected and even loved him; the Waxhaw’s massacre, often blamed on Tarleton, was largely instigated by their distress on mistakenly hearing he had been killed.
An intelligent, complex, but contradictory man, perhaps the most pithy summary of Tarleton’s personality came from his erstwhile lover, Mary Robinson, who in her novel “The False Friend” portrays her barely disguised hero Treville as being “too polite to be religious, too witty to be learned and too handsome to be discreet.”
3 // Tarleton ordered the Waxhaws Massacre
Tarleton’s black reputation rests predominantly on his supposed actions at the Battle of Waxhaws, with “Tarleton’s Quarter” becoming a rallying cry, inspiration to recruitment, and propaganda indictment against the supposed brutality of Loyalist and British forces for the rest of the war. However, much modern study has been undertaken on the battle and many previously accepted “facts” about its course have now been challenged. That the British Legion continued to attack Patriot soldiers after most had sought to surrender is not disputed. However, that this butchery took place under the eyes, indeed with the complicit approval, of their commander is now widely disputed. Tarleton’s horse was shot from under him, pinning him to the ground during the battle, and it is this single act that appears to have led to the subsequent confused, rudderless massacre of over one hundred Patriot soldiers, or a quarter of Colonel Buford’s entire force. Tarleton himself wrote of the battle that the high American casualties were attributed to the Legion being “stimulated to a vindictive asperity not easily restrained” after Legion cavalry heard a rumour that their leader had been killed. However, there is not the slightest shred of evidence that he condoned, much less ordered any such behaviour himself. Of course it could be argued that the Legion’s ill-discipline, following on from similar episodes at the battle of Monck’s Corner and smaller engagements, was ultimately the responsibility of its commanding officer.
4 // Tarleton and his superior, Lord Cornwallis, hated each other
We have Mel Gibson’s The Patriot to thank for one of the more recent myths surrounding Tarleton. In the film, Tarleton (or Tavington) is constantly rebuked by his superior Cornwallis. “Damn him! Damn that man!” his exasperated Lordship cries when Tavington disobeys yet another battle order. The entire film goes to great lengths to portray Cornwallis as regarding Tarleton with both a patrician disdain and barely concealed contempt.
In fact Cornwallis was a mentor to Tarleton during the war, giving him his full support and an unprecedented free hand throughout the Carolinas campaign. This favoured position induced much jealousy among fellow officers, who felt themselves continually overlooked for promotion. Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe, commanding officer of the Queens Rangers, an elite Loyalist regiment, made constant complaints to Sir Henry Clinton about Cornwallis’s preferences for Tarleton despite his own seniority. Cornwallis’s official and private dispatches were littered with compliments showered on his Cavalry chief, many of which unquestionably strayed from military protocol. He ended one dispatch to Tarleton with the almost plaintive “I wish you could get three Legions and divide yourself into three parts. We can do no good without you.” His official report after the victory of Camden included the briefest of praise to his infantry commanders Lord Rawdon and Lt. Col. James Webster before devoting an entire paragraph to Tarleton’s operations, ending with, “this action was too brilliant …. and will highly recommend Col.Tarleton to his majesty’s favour.”
It is true that Tarleton and Cornwallis had a severe falling out after the war when Tarleton’s vainglorious military recollections attempted to shift blame onto Cornwallis for the defeats at Cowpens and Yorktown, but during the war itself they had a harmonious, constructive relationship that was akin to that of father and son.
5 // Tarleton returned to England in shame and ignominy
Most British senior officers returned to England after the war to severe criticism from their compatriots. Sir William Howe, Sir Henry Clinton, John Burgoyne and Charles Earl Cornwallis all received varying degrees of blame and censure for the loss of the American colonies. But Tarleton was almost unique in attracting no such rebuke. Lacking any real war heroes, he was received home with universal acclaim, being feted at court and becoming an intimate friend to two future kings, George Prince of Wales and William Duke of Clarence, even sharing a mistress with the former. He was famously painted by the two greatest portrait painters of the age, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough.
6 // He designed the “Tarleton” Helmet
Perhaps the most iconic headgear of the entire war, this leather helmet with a sturdy tapered peak was adorned by a fur crest and dyed feather plume. The British cavalry certainly came to refer to this dragoon headdress as a “Tarleton” Helmet. But it was in use in various forms on the European continent well before the war and was in fact introduced to the British by Lt. Gen. William Keppel in 1771. There is doubt too that Ban even introduced it to the British Legion, with Lord Cathcart (the regiment’s original commander and later Quartermaster General of the entire army) being it’s more likely sponsor. Regarded as the best looking headgear of the war, its attractiveness was such that it was worn by both British and American forces and long survived the conflict, being in common usage in the British army until 1812 when it was replaced by the more robust French-influenced shako.
7 // Tarleton raped and abused women during the war
That Tarleton was what we would now refer to as a “womaniser” there is no conjecture. He had many mistresses, infamously bedding both the Regency courtesan Mary Robinson and then allegedly her own daughter Maria. He seems to have adopted a sporting attitude to his conquest of women, rakishly seducing them for a wager on more than one occasion. This certainly makes the oft reported, though second-hand quote, that he “ravished more women in America than any other man” plausible. However, portraits show Tarleton as a handsome man, with a fine physical figure who was both charming and dashing. Most contemporary accounts by females who crossed his path attain to his gentlemanly manners and good grace, and Tarleton appears to have been more a professional wooer of women than a dissolute brute. He also saw members of his own British Legion hanged and flogged when they raped and abused women, and there is absolutely no evidence that he ever behaved with anything other than a reserved gallantry towards Patriot women in their person, though of course he was not quite so liberal in his treatment of their property!
8 // Tarleton slashed the forehead of the young Andrew Jackson
This hoary old chestnut still turns up occasionally even in academic studies and one can only put its longevity down to it making such a great story! Jackson, forthright and brave, a representative of the New World and new social order, encounters Tarleton his abuser, an Imperial despot, pitiless and haughty. Historical circumstances also meant that it could have happened. Certainly the future President, at the time already a battle-hardened thirteen year old boy, was slashed over the head by a British officer for having the temerity to refuse the demand to clean his boots. It also happened at the Waxhaws, scene of Tarleton’s most vicious battle, and Ban was known to be in the vicinity at the time. Unfortunately for historical conspiracy theorists, Jackson himself never named Tarleton as his tormenter, something he would surely have done, having admitted that he once saw him riding by less than one hundred yards away “and could have shot him.”
9 // The disastrous American war ended Tarleton’s military career
It says much about the impact Tarleton had on British military fortunes, that when the war ended he had been promoted, without purchase, from lowly cornet to lieutenant colonel in a meteoric five years. This was far from the end of his career, and he remained on active service or half pay until the end of the Napoleonic Wars, ultimately being promoted to the rank of full general in 1812. However, Ban was adept at courting influential enemies as much as he was powerful friends, and his reciprocated loathing of the Duke of Wellington may have had more than a little to do with the fact that he never commanded troops in action again after Yorktown.
10 // He was known to contemporaries as “Bloody Ban” or the “Green Dragoon,” and led “Tarleton’s Raiders”
The two personal monikers, the alternatingly violent and romantic caricatures by which Tarleton is now largely known, are sobriquets of pure fiction. There is no evidence that Tarleton was ever referred to by either name, though there is testimony that after Waxhaws he was known in Patriot circles as “The Butcher.” Both labels appear no earlier than the 1950s, originating in the Robert Bass book The Green Dragoon. This was the first serious reappraisal of Tarleton’s life since his death, and the nicknames simply seem to have been just too good not to have stuck.
The “Tarleton’s raiders” tag occurred with increasing regularity after the American Civil War. Various Confederate partisan and guerrilla cavalry units, like Mosby’s and Quantrill’s, came to be named after their commanding officers, and writers began following the same fashion with the British Legion, the corps that Tarleton commanded. But the British Legion was never an irregular partisan unit, and though it carried out many daring raids, it was a mixed force of dragoon cavalry, light Infantry and small calibre artillery. Indeed, it was taken onto the British regular establishment in 1782, conferring on it official recognition of its prowess. Vain as he was, Tarleton would have been horrified at any title like “raiders” that diminished his elite regiment to the periphery of “respectable” warfare. In this final ignominy, American historians have perhaps dealt him the lowest blow of all!
 R. G. Thorne, The History of the House of Commons (London: Boydell and Brewer 1986), 1:232, also on line at http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1790-1820/member/tarleton-banastre-1754-1833.
 The International Slavery Museum credits Liverpool as being responsible for employing over half the world’s slave ships by 1750. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/srd/liverpool.aspx
 Thorne, The History of the House of Commons), 1:232.
 Chistopher Ward, The War of the American Revolution (New York: McMillan & Co., 1952), 701.
 Charles Bracelen Flood, Fight and Rise Again. Perilous Times Along the Road to Independence (New York: Dodd Meade & Co., 1976), 259.
 Thorne, The History of the House of Commons.
 Comte de Revel, Journal particulier d’une campaign aux indies occidentals 1781-1782 (Paris: H. Charles Lavauzelle, 1898), 169. In this fascinating French language account of the war in the Indies and Chesapeake, Tarleton is referred to as “Talton.”
 Mary Robinson, The False Friend (London: Longman & Reece, 1799), 42.
 C. Leon Harris, “Massacre at Waxhaws,” Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, May 2016, http://www.southerncampaign.org/2016/05/16/massacre-at-waxhaws-the-evidence-from-wounds/ . This excellent forensic study of the wounds reported after the battle amongst patriot soldiers summarises neatly the modern conflicting arguments around the “massacre” or “myth” debate.
 Banastre Tarleton, A history of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (London: T. Cadell, 1787), 31.
 Ibid., 202.
 Charles Marquis Cornwallis, Correspondence (London: John Murray, 1859), 494.
 Robert D Bass, The Green Dragoon: the lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson (London: Alvin Redman, 1957), 197.
 Michael Pearson, Those Damned Rebels: The American Revolution as seen through British eyes (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2009), 334.
 James Patton, The Life of Andrew Jackson (New York: Mason Bros., 1869), 89.
 Andrew Burstein, The Passions of Andrew Jackson (New York: Random House, 2003), 8. Tarleton is described as “a twenty-six-year old terrorist who dressed the part of a dandy in tight breeches and tall black boots and directed his men to slash and stab and spare no one.”