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.”
As my favourite historical figure, it’s always nice seeing Ban get some limelight. Even better when it’s a good ol’ mythbust!
Side note on Tarleton: Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who was severely wounded then taken prisoner during the Polish Uprising against the Catherine the Great in 1795, was offered his freedom by the Tsarina’s successor her son Tsar Paul I. His release and that of approximately 20,000 Polish prisoners was contingent on his leaving Poland and never to return. Sailing from Sweden he arrived in England in May 1797 to a mixed reception, being he was probably the leading engineering officer in the Continental Army, having played a major role in the American victory at Saratoga, then taking part in the fighting in the Southern Theater. One of those who were on hand to honor Kosciuszko was Banastre Tarelton. At this point Tarelton was a Member of Parliament and a leader of the Whig Club. The Club feted Kosciuszko at a dinner where Tarleton proposed the following motion that passed unanimously: “That the Polish General Kosciuszko be requested by this club to accept a sword as a public testimony of their sense of his exalted virtues, and of his gallant, generous and exemplary efforts to defend and save his country.” The club commissioned a gold encrusted saber with the inscription, “The Whig Club of England to General Kosciuszko” the sword cost two hundred guineas. If Tarelton was the callous, hardhearted villain as portrayed in American history, it is doubtful that he would have shown so much compassion for a former enemy.
According to the Moravians in Salem, NC, the Waxhaws “Massacre” was the fault of the Rebels…
Three of the wounded related that some of the men surrendered, then started fighting again, that one man shot at Tarleton.
It was hardly the result of poor discipline.
Fries, Adelaide L. (ed.). Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, Vol IV 1780-1783. Raleigh : Edwards & Broughton Print. Co. 1930. P1544.
Thanks for the article spotlighting Banastre Tarleton myths. It is always interesting to look into these old chestnuts and see what the past historians have said, and what they may have wrong in light of modern historical methodology. In fact, I’m sure the southern campaigns would be a far less interesting topic without a few Tarleton myths. However, that observation noted, I do feel compelled to make an attempt at defending a few of those myths. If for no other reason than to simply keep open the light of discussion and debate.
Concerning the Waxhaws
In 1787 Banastre Tarleton published his history of the Southern Campaigns. He drew quick criticism for using the book as a way of white-washing his own reputation and passing blame for his shortcomings on others. Most famously, his work was given a thumbs down by Roderick Mackenzie of the 71st Highlanders who took the brunt of the damage from Tarleton’s lack of sophistication at the Cowpens. Mackenzie points out how Tarleton repeatedly changes facts not flattering to himself. [see Strictures on Lt. Col. Tarleton’s history. Roderick Mackenzie, 1787] Tarleton’s book is not only historically inaccurate, much of the bias relates to those acts which tend to reflect poorly on Banastre Tarleton and the British Legion.
In spite of these known problems a number of modern historians have denied that Tarleton is a villain and sought to revise his reputation away from the vision of brutality often found in older texts. They do so on very thin evidence. As both lawyer and forensic accountant, I am taught to analyze the strength of evidence. Among the primary rules would be to give low priority to self-serving statements by the accused that cannot be corroborated. The article above appears to ignore other evidence of what happened at the Waxhaws in favor of taking Tarleton’s own account as 100% factual. Even to the extent of suggesting there is “not the slightest shred of evidence that he condoned, much less ordered any such behavior himself.”
A few years back I wrote a short paper on Tarleton and the Waxhaws. I presented and analyzed a number of eyewitness accounts (one of which purports to actually see Tarleton participating in the slaughter) and also considered other factors. Rather than try to summarize that analysis, here is a link to a blog with the paper posted.
Concerning Cornwallis’s relationship with Tarleton
It is difficult to know about Cornwallis’s personal feelings toward Tarleton. To be certain, he lavished praise on the young man a few times. However, the idea of their relationship being a bit stormy is not coming from nowhere. Immediately following the Battle [or Massacre if you prefer] at the Waxhaws, Cornwallis broke up Tarleton’s cavalry regiment and sent Tarleton to Charleston for a couple of months. Not sure if it was punishment but certainly was an act that Tarleton disapproved of and complained about. Cornwallis did not bench any of his other regimental officers during the period. It was a time in which Cornwallis was trying to win the hearts and minds of the people with leniency. Tarleton let it be known that he did not approve of leniency toward the population and considered it a mistake. “It did not reconcile the enemies, but it discouraged the friends.” [Tarleton’s history]
Cornwallis had good relationships with a number of his staff members. Balfour and Rawdon come to mind more quickly than Tarleton. Both men are known to have doubted (and criticized) Tarleton in their correspondence with Cornwallis. After the battle at Blackstock’s Plantation, Lord Rawdon expressed quick and immediate doubts concerning Tarleton’s confident report of victory. After Tarleton’s claims of killing Sumter and Clarke turned out to be nothing more than false hopes and casualty reports had come in, Rawdon suggested to Cornwallis that “Tarleton, whether he has succeeded in his blow or not, is by this time on his way towards us.” [27 Nov 1780] The casualty reports could not have helped Cornwallis’s view of Tarleton as Lt. Money died within a few days. He had been an aide to Cornwallis and, if anyone in the campaign could really be described as ‘like a son’ to Cornwallis, it would be ‘Poor Money’.
As for Balfour, he sarcastically noted Tarleton’s “dissipating and dispersing account of Marion I am sorry to say that in a few days afterwards he appeared with 500 men before George Town. . . . Marion’s movement I beg Tarleton may be remembered of – it is no joke to us.” [17 Nov 1780] Cornwallis gave a half hearted defense of Tarleton’s claim in his reply to Balfour but had no choice to acknowledge that “if the accounts I hear from that country are true, his [Tarleton] visit has not been effectual.” [23 Nov 1780] It must have been quite embarrassing for Cornwallis a few days later when he wrote Balfour that Tarleton had again overstated his own exploits. On November 25th, Cornwallis bragged to Balfour that “we have lost two great plagues in Sumpter and Clarke. I wish your friend Marion was as quiet.” It was only two days later that he was forced to admit that, once again, Tarleton had falsely reported results. “He [an unnamed informant that Cornwallis trusts] tells me that Sumpter is not dead nor likely to die but his shoulder bone is hurt.” The situation would get even worse for Cornwallis as Elijah Clarke also survived the battle. Not only was Clarke not injured but he and James McCall left the area around Blackstock’s for the Long Canes Settlement where they used the Patriot victory to convince Pickens and others of that famous regiment to forsake their paroles and join the partisan cause.
In seeing how he constantly ate his words after believing Tarleton’s reports, it is hard to imagine Tarleton not being the subject of a few temper tantrums by General Cornwallis. Even more so two months later when Tarleton got routed at the Cowpens losing his light infantry along with the Highlanders. Following the defeat, Tarleton threatened to leave Cornwallis’s army on the spot and seek a formal inquiry unless he received a letter exonerating him for the loss. Faced with the loss of the only cavalry commander in his invading force [going into NC], Cornwallis wrote the letter on January 30. Almost as if dictated by Tarleton himself “Your disposition was unexceptionable; the total misbehavior of the troops could alone have deprived you of the glory which was to justify your due.” Of course we also know that Cornwallis’s letter was not enough to soothe the “vainglorious” Tarleton and he blamed the general later in his 1787 book. I would not be bold enough to suggest the evidence is conclusive that Cornwallis had a temper tantrum or two aimed at Tarleton but plenty of circumstances suggest that The Patriot might not always be so far from reality.
Concerning the question of Brutality
Far too often modern historians dismiss Tarleton’s reputation for brutality as something coming solely from the Waxhaws. The idea being: discredit the Waxhaws massacre, discredit the reputation for brutality. The problem with this approach is that Tarleton’s brutality was only just beginning to show itself at the Waxhaws.
After Tarleton’s time in Charleston, he returned to the field with a spirit of vengeance. Tarleton showed his attitude toward the Patriots along the Santee in early August (2 months after the Waxhaws). “If warfare allows me, I shall give these disturbers of the peace no quarter. If humanity obliges me to spare their lives, I shall convey them close prisoners to Camden. Fire and confiscation must take place on their effects, etc. I must discriminate with severity.”
The next couple of weeks were high times for Tarleton and Cornwallis. Not only did they defeat Gates at Camden but Tarleton scored his greatest victory, the defeat of Sumter at Fishing Creek. Once again there were reports of Tarleton not giving quarter to men trying to surrender. But this time Cornwallis reacted a bit differently. He believed that South Carolina should be secure but, instead, Patriot victories quickly followed. In late August Elijah Clarke frustrated the British with a victory at Musgrove’s Mill and Francis Marion embarrassed the British by freeing many of the prisoners taken at Camden. All that news turned Cornwallis cold and he allowed his officers freedom to go after the Patriots.
After a period of illness and failure in North Carolina (not to mention King’s Mountain), Tarleton got orders to chase Francis Marion in the low country. After a couple of days on the chase, Tarleton gave up on Marion and went after the civilian population. This was his chance at “fire and confiscation”. He burned out some 30 plantations along the Santee River, reports included a hanging or two and total destruction of food supplies along with the homes. It would also start something of a pattern for Tarleton. Beginning with the unsuccessful chase against Marion, Tarleton would lie about his results and then hang the next unfortunate Patriot who fell into his hands, regardless of participation in the field. First against Marion, second at Blackstock’s, and then again at the Cowpens. In fact, Tarleton’s frustration didn’t really get satisfied until a few days after Cowpens when he broke the Legion’s losing streak with a charge into a mass of refugees at Tarrant’s Tavern in North Carolina, plundering the pitiful of their few remaining possessions.
Indeed, one need only look at the totality of Tarleton evidence to find Brutality. Regardless of the Waxhaws which we might consider something like, icing on the cake. Perhaps out on a limb here but I think that particular myth can also remain alive and well.
Thank you for your fulsome critique of the above article. I think it would be facile, impertinent, and would do no justice to the arguments you make for me to attempt to counter them here in a “comments” section, as your commentary is both sophisticated and article length. In light of the current Olympics in which our two nations sit proudly aloft the medals table, perhaps the editors of this journal should arrange for us to have a “penalty shootout” in a future issue over the counter arguments you raise and let the readers decide on the weight of evidence!
I feel it only constructive to add two things at this juncture. Firstly I am in no way trying to produce a “hagiography” of Tarleton. Having studied his life both during and after the war (which is actually more interesting and controversial) for some years now, I am the first to accept the man had many failings. Vanity, pride, narcissism, were all part of his make up and he was at times a dissolute “toad eater”(Regency slang for a fawner or sycophant) who went through not only his own fortune but a sizable portion of the his mothers and brothers too. But I refuse to accept his was brutal, still less a war criminal for his actions during the revolution. In fact he was a very advanced officer with ideas akin to those followed later, and successfully by the Confederate cavalry officer Nathan Bedford Forrest. His tactics for subjugating the Patriot Civil and military opposition in the Carolinas may have been controversial but ultimately he did no more in these Colonies than Sherman did eighty years later – and he ended up on a stamp!
With regard to Tarletons narrative, you are correct to highlight the, at times, questionable accuracy and the vainglorious and affected style which always portrays Ban at the forefront and in a good light. But he is hardly the only military officer in history to portray himself in such a way in print, and if we as Historians are to dismiss his book as biased then I feel we must, in fairness, do the same with Roderick MacKenzies strictures against him. These are just as jaundiced and should be read in the light of them being written after the war by a junior officer who felt bitterly betrayed by Tarleton that his regiment had been decimated at the Waxhaws. The dedication of his book to Lord Rawdon (one of Tarletons greatest pre and post war political enemies) gives us an indication that this is not going to be an altogether neutral appraisal.
Both books are valuable tools in my view (as is Major George Hangers response to Mackenzie), but I am not sure you can repudiate one as biased and set great store by the other without necessarily weakening your arguments.
One thing I think we can both agree on Wayne is that vain as he was I am sure that Tarleton is looking down (or up depending on your viewpoint!) chuckling as Brit and American slug it out over him once again, two hundred years after his death.
I enjoy reading your articles and perhaps we can face off on this another time!
John, sorry to have gotten so wordy on you. Turned out to be a subject I have debated before and held a strong position on. I would love to face off with you over a cup of coffee or pint of draught sometime. We obviously have much in common. Having read some of my prior articles, I hope you noticed that I am not hesitant to point out a few villains among the Patriots. In fact, over recent months I have been bouncing back and forth between Loyalist villains and Patriot villains. In fact, unless I misunderstood the dates, I am expecting what I hope is an interesting item to show up on Tuesday. Fellow named Daniel McGirth.
Tarleton’s actions (many quite exaggerated) are far less brutal than the actions of Rebel Militia and Committies of Safety in almost every colony. Look at what happened to Thomas Brown for simply wishing to stay neutral. Look at the fate of the Loyalists of the Mohawk and Hudson Vallets. Look at the murders of Loyalists and those wishing neutrality throughout NC. The Moravians, who were providing material support to the American cause were terrorized on an almost monthly basis by the Rowan County Militia. They were thrown out of thier homes, property destroyed and looted, men and women were beaten and threatened with hanging. NC militia conducting Tory “hunting tours” in which countless victims were murdered for the suspicion that they might be Tories.
We should weigh his actions against standards set long before Tarleton stepped for in the South.
I am most happy to see this discussion going on addressing the issues of Whig atrocities in the pursuit of an uncompromising ideology. I broached this point a year or so ago and the blowback was quite strong in opposition that such a thing could happen. It would make a great book and to much to correct the erroneous historiography portraying them in glowing terms.
My current PhD thesis is specifically examining massacres and atrocities in the Revolution committed by both sides – a few more years and hopefully I’ll be able to publish my findings!
That is terrific news, I’d love to read it! Think about finding a publisher and getting it out – it would be path-breaking work, for sure. Best of luck to you.
It is always good to dispel myths, but I wonder if the following statement about the Battle of Waxhaws doesn’t actually perpetuate one: “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, stated only that his horse was “overturned by the volley,” and the “slaughter” commenced before he could remount another one. I would be interested in knowing of any eyewitness report of Tarleton being pinned under his horse.
Thank you so much, Mr. Knight, for this thoroughly readable and engrossing article. I particularly like the fact that you acknowledge Tarleton’s post-Rev life as being a lot more entertaining than his war antics. It was. My question is: Why has no one made a movie about him before now?
I have studied Tarleton for about 50 years. It continues to amaze me how much vitriol is directed at this character. Yes, he had many failings and deserves some of the “rancor.” But there are so many potential villains on both sides…why is this character so often the center of interpretations that are historically arguable and sometimes ridiculous? What is it about him that riles so many people?
Keep up the good work, Sir. I look forward to reading more of your publications.
‘ Tarleton cap’
I have a feeling that the headgear that Lt. Gen. William Keppel suggested in 1771 was the standard cap recommended for wear by the newly introduced Light Infantry companies that were being formed in each regiment of foot. ” black leather…with 3 chains round them, and a piece of plate upon the center of the crown; in the front, G.R. a crown, and the number of the Regiment…” Not surprisingly perhaps this is referred to sometimes as the Keppel cap.
There are illustrations of helmets worn by light infantry units raised for the Seven Years War service, but these resembled more the neo-Classical helmets worn by the new Light Dragoon Regiments. The first appearance of the ‘so-called Tarleton’ is associated with one regiment, the 16th Light Dragoons. However, units of Continental cavalry also appeared wearing similar crested caps at about the same time.
It is fair to say that ‘cuir bouilli’ leather caps, despite the French term, were associated with Germany, to the extent that Colonel Bouquet, the Swiss soldier of fortune who helped raised the 60th Royal Americans during the Seven Years War, referred to leather caps he proposed for his battalion as ‘bonnets Allemands.’
It may be true that Tarelton cannot be credited with the invention of the cap/helmet named after him, but it is also fair to say that no one else fits the frame.
“However, portraits show Tarleton as a handsome man, with a fine physical figure who was both charming and dashing.”
I was just reading “The Road to Guilford Courthouse,” where John Buchanan says of Tarleton’s Reynolds portrait:
“Usually described as a stocky man with a powerful frame and coarse features, here he is portrayed as slim and boyish, which reminds us of the admonition never to accept a portrait at face value.”
A few years ago I read a book on this very topic by Anthony Scotti. It is here: https://www.amazon.com/Brutal-Virtue…Tarleton/dp/0788420992
The writer was a tad bit too “pro” Tarleton for me. However, his thesis seems well reasoned and supported by documented sources. The book is not a bad read, definitely not for the casual observer. I believe the interest group here would find it interesting.
Re: Scotti’s book. It is refreshing to balance things by reading history that is not obviously swayed anti-Tarleton from the get-go. I have found most people begin histories with a bias already firmly in place. As with current politics, everyone has an agenda. I found Scotti’s book readable, and he does make a case for Tarleton as simply a soldier as opposed to a ready-made fiend from hell.
Another very good read that isn’t totally biased from the beginning is Jim Piecuch’s “May the Blood be Upon Your Head.” This came out in 2010. If this has already been mentioned upthread, forgive me. The work is solely about Waxhaws, and Piecuch does have some new things to say, at least new to me. He definitely seems more balanced in his approach.
As to the veracity of the Reynold’s portrait, I have seen it in person several times at the British Museum, and it is very impressive. It’s a very large painting. The features are neither coarse nor is Tarleton seen as particularly stocky. The portrait’s face is more “pretty” than coarse. It looks very different in person than in most prints I have seen. There was a major cleaning of the painting done around 1990 and prints made after this cleaning are startlingly more youthful and delicate-visaged than prints done before the cleaning. There was a blow-up of the portrait at the Cowpens Battlefield that was pre-cleaning that makes the 25-6 year old Tarleton look 45.
There are 3 verified portraits of Tarleton. The Reynolds, the Cosway miniature (on the front of Piecuch’s book) and a portrait in watercolor made by his wife when he was in his 50’s. No doubt that portraitists would go broke if they depicted their subjects as unattractive.
Perhaps first hand written descriptions are the best indication of someone’s appearance. Tarleton was described as “middle sized” several times by British relatives and acquaintances, (not short,) genteel, and “the handsomest man in England” by several London tabloids on numerous occasions. Even the infamous political cartoons of the post-Rev era in Britain portray Tarleton in a flattering way physically if not by behavior – not just the “Thunderer” cartoon. There are quite a few cartoons of Tarleton, actually.
I guess one sees what one wishes to see, and that includes yours truly here.
Hello Holly. Thank you for your feedback and your very generous comments. Like you I have always been astonished that Tarletons life has not been turned into a screenplay, particularly when you consider that he knew intimately so many famous Georgian and Regency icons, including Lafayette,Pitt, the Prince Regent, Wellington, Fox, Sheridan, Walter Scott, as well as practically every British Commander of the Revolutionary War. I may write to my good friend Mel Gibson and recommend him as a topic.
With regard to “what riles people about him”, I am afraid I only have my own theory. Tarleton personifies over two centuries of British Colonial rule. His class, occupation, nationality, even his military prowess all count against him for those who wish to see in him the arrogance, insensitivity, supremacy and Imperiousness of not just he British Empire, but of any subsequent Colonial power.
You have answered the question from Scott better than I ever could but I would just add the following.
Scott I have read the work you mention, and I was baffled at Buchanan’s description of Tarleton. He provided no footnotes for his depiction of a “coarse stocky man”, and as I have stated above, contemporary depictions of him contradict this in describing him as “almost feminine” in appearance. His calf and thighs were described as ” formidable” as would befit a Cavalry officer and I have come across only one extant description of him as “pudgy” and “not lovely”. Richard Cosway was the foremost miniaturist of the era and his portraits are today regarded as accurate, if romanticized , portrayals of his sitters. The portrait of him above does not show a coarse man to me, but each to his own.
Mr Harris, as I am sure you are aware, there are no contemporary accounts of Tarletons fall from his horse excepting his own, indeed there is a paucity of contemporary sources about the battle full stop. Most secondary sources quote Tarleton as being “pinned” to the ground by his horse but this is, by definition, conjecture. I base my own assumptions on the quote from Tarleton that his horse was “overturned”. This is British Cavalry shorthand for a fatal wound at speed. If we are to accept his own description as true then the most important point is that Tarleton would certainly have been incapacitated for some time during the battle wether or not he was pinned by his mount or thrown free. It is the myth that Tarleton was active in the battle sabre slashing surrendering patriots, including the white flag bearer, that I hoped to dispel, not the more prosaic issue of wether or not he was pinned by his horse. I am sorry if I have not made this clear.
Holley – I am dreadfully sorry but I have just realised I have miss spelled your name. Profound apologies. One coarse Englishman on this page is more than enough!
Goodness John, people misspell it every day. I probably misspelled misspell.
I also made a goof…the Reynold’s portrait is NOT at the British Museum but at the National Gallery, my favorite place in the world for many, many reasons. I actually live in North Georgia, USA not far from the battle fields of the Carolinas. If you are ever in the neighborhood, let me know! I do wonder if the infamous “Buford’s Grill” is still just down the road from Waxhaws Battlefield? Shame Mr. Buford high-tailed it out of the fight before all the ruckus began. Was he court marshaled? I think not, but I could be wrong.
All of these mendacious quotes throughout. I don’t want to sound antagonistic, however portraying him as arrogant and detached appears a bit unfair.
I’m not going to argue that he became necessarily misjudged, but think about it – he was at the losing side, so perhaps he wasn’t as brutal as they assume and “violent and merciless impulses” coming from Mr. Flood shows how deluded he actually was, perhaps because he lived on a farm all of his life writing such nonsense, along side Mel Gibson.
As for supporting slavery; of course, many others did in his time. It was a significant part of the economy, which he was a elected MP in Liverpool – given that the slave trade was banned in Britain, he didn’t make very good case for it.
The attempts to “defeat marion” are hard to justify, however he wasn’t the first or last.
The Waxhaw Massacre was actually outnumbered 2-2.5:1 to be precise. Think about it, it was actually tarleton himself who truly achieved the attack and buford did not give up till they had been defeated!
I’m not saying he became a really perfect example of virtue, but it appears some of us are being thrown into a cast of “bad light” by history with such outrages nonsense.
Two things: my thanks for making the comparison (in the August 19, 2016 comment above) between Tarleton’s strategy and William Tecumseh Sherman’s similar behavior during the Civil War. I’ve been making that comparison myself for years, baffled as to why Tarleton’s use of the tactics made him a de facto brutal monster, but Sherman’s similar behavior is usually justified by American historians, who occasionally have to bend completely over backward to explain why Sherman’s war specifically directed at civilians (as opposed to Sherman’s nonexistent “pursuit of the Confederate Army of Tennessee”, which might have ended the war quicker) was admirable. Of course, this is an American Revolution site, not a Civil War site, so this isn’t the place to delve into that topic, but the answer is obvious. Tarleton was a British soldier, opposing the Revolution, so it’s okay to paint his “hard war” tactics as a pathological thuggery (he was “wrong”, you see), but Sherman was an American officer fighting for the Union, and a favorite of Abraham Lincoln (he was, therefore, “right”), so what he did is justifiable. And yet somehow, they’ve always seemed like very similar strategies, to me. And anyone who reads up on Sherman’s postwar career as he dealt with the Indian Wars (and his Himmler-esque advisories to simply exterminate the Indians) may wonder if he doesn’t come off looking rather worse than Tarleton.
Secondly, I’ve long been baffled at the lack of a really good, major biography of Tarleton. Scotti’s book seems to be about the best thing available, but for such a fascinating officer, who drew so much attention, it’s surprising that he hasn’t been the subject of more (and more balanced) writing. Why don’t you give it a go yourself?
Hello, Michael – thank you for your comments. I was nervous about comparing Tarleton with Sherman, as he is after all one of the foremost heroes of the Civil War, and as an Englishman, a justifiable response to my analysis could have been “mind your own business”! I am relieved you feel the same way. With regard to the biography, only two of any credit really exist. The Scotti which you mention and a much earlier work by Robert Bass. Both are excellent in their own way but neither really doTarleton full justice. Scottis’ book doesn’t claim to be a “biography” as such, and large portions of his life are left blank. The Bass book is now showing signs of its age and suffers from the authors’ bizarre fascination with Tarletons’ lover Mary Robinson. Half the book is taken up by her rather needy, tiresome personality and he critiques her dreadful Gothic poetry with the same kind of verve we would Keats or Byron. Annoyingly his war years are given relatively spartan coverage, and the British Legion is hardly analyzed at all. This is where I feel there is a gap. I am currently working on a book about the Legion as one of the most effective if controversial units of the entire war. As it was manned almost entirely by americans I hope by studying its composition and effectiveness we are able to better understand those Americans who stayed loyal to the crown throughout the war. I hope to have a summary of my thoughts on the Legion on JAR soon to see if there is sufficient interest to continue to book form.
Dean, please forgive me for replying here rather than starting a new thread. I absolutely love your book on Saratoga which was a refreshing and unique look at a battle we all thought we knew. It proved to me how we should never take long held “facts” for granted. As such, I need to warn you that whilst I am delighted to contribute in amending your forthcoming edition I cannot definitely prove that Arnold never fought Balcarres, and as mentioned above there are many adherents to the duel story. Should you publish my version of events I would expect you to be challenged by the present Earl Balcarres at the very least. I am told that like all the Clan Lyndsay he is an excellent shot and unlike his predecessor is unlikely to fire into the ground. You may want to bear this in mind!
No need to have been nervous about comparing Tarleton to Sherman, at least not as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never found either Sherman (or, for that matter, Phil Sheridan) to be either very admirable or very appealing men, either during the Civil War or during their post-war western careers, where, if possible, they both became even more dislikable. But your description of Sherman as “one of the foremost heroes of the Civil War” seems to me to rather validate my point. If you fought on the side (to put it diplomatically) that victory allowed to make the historical value judgements about the respective wars, then your behavior may be generally condemned as brutal (Tarleton), or justified as military necessity (Sherman), even when it’s essentially the same behavior.
And if I had to spend an evening having dinner with either Tarleton or Sherman, I’d certainly rather dine with Ban, if only for the opportunity to meet a genuine, classic 18th century aristocratic English soldier / rake. As for Sherman, well, as Evan S. Connell wrote, his photographs “rather give him the aspect of a vulture with scrofula”.
Just a minor correction. I believe the film “The Patriot” while it starred Mel Gibson, was not a Mel Gibson made film. The Producers include Dean Devlin, and Roland and Ute Emmerich. Roland Emmerich was the director. Robert Rodat was the writer. Just fyi.
Yes! And Mel did not portray Tarleton as stated in the article, ( Mel Gibson’s cinematic portrayal of a fictionalized Tarleton as a sardonic, brutal, sociopath is based largely on these and similarly unflattering histories.) but I don’t wish to split hairs, since the rest of the information is well beyond my level. I do love all the information and realize that it comes from long hours of research. As an avid reader of history I can at least say that any losing side is going to have more “villainous” and “despicable” characters than that of the victors. We can all agree that the truth lies somewhere in the details. In the case of the American Revolution, the rebels needed to create heros on their side, and villains on the other side. While there are times when everyone can agree on a villain (pick any Nazi), there are times when things are not that cut and dry. Gen. Lee (Charles not Robert) is one of my favorite misunderstood character of the American Revolution.
I have read numerous times that the horrible scene in “that move” where the Tavington character rounded up patriot families and burned them in a church was actually a scene written for “Saving Private Ryan” which Rodat also wrote. It was cut from the SPR movie, but it was very affecting and so deliciously nasty, so they just threw it in the Revwar movie. So much for the veracity of cinematic history. But actually, the Germans actually did that horrible act…I believe in Holland. Correct me if I am wrong.
Hello Holley. Whilst “the Patriot” is a work of cinematic fiction both Gibson and his producers were at pains to emphasise its basis in historical fact. In many ways, the film is good at doing this, but unfortunately, Gibson has a long history of “anti-British” rhetoric in his films that in my opinion reduces them to crude propaganda. Both “The Patriot” and the otherwise excellent “Gallipoli” are ruined by his one-dimensional view of the morally repugnant, insidious, effete, class riddled British, (though to be fair as an effete, insidious, class-ridden Englishman I would be bound to say this.)
More damaging is his portrayal of the Loyalists who fought with Tavington, depicting them as being automatons without moral scruple and traitors who Tavington and the British themselves despise. This is patent nonsense.
In the infamous scene you refer to, Gibson depicts Tavington herding noncombatant men, women and children into a church, locking the doors, and setting it on fire. This is actually based on the notorious Nazi massacre of French villagers in Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944. Nothing like this ever happened in the American Revolution. Having said all this so desperate am I for ANY portrayal of the Revolution in film that I have overlooked all of the above and concentrated on the good bits – particularly the portrayal of the world-weary, acerbic Lord Cornwallis by Tom Wilkinson -Oh and at least he dressed the British Legion in Green not scarlet!