War at Saber Point: Banastre Tarleton and the British Legion by John Knight (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2020)
The American Revolution produced numerous well-known corps of light troops on both sides, some cavalry, some infantry, and some including both. While many are familiar with tales of Patriot riflemen under Daniel Morgan and dashing legion commanders like Henry Lee, Jr. and Casimir Pulaski, less well-known are those troops who served King George the Third.
The British utilized their own light infantry and light dragoons from the regular army in addition to Hessian riflemen known as Jägers, but a large percentage of the light troops serving in America were actually composed of men recruited in America who were loyal to the king. From Butler’s Rangers operating out of Fort Niagara to Thomas Brown’s King’s (Carolina) Rangers in Georgia, a number of loyalist light corps played a prominent role in British strategy and campaigns.
Perhaps the two most famous were commanded not by loyalists but by British regular army officers, both of whom subsequently wrote books on the conflict and their role in it. John Graves Simcoe was a British infantry captain who went from being a company commander to a Provincial lieutenant colonel commanding sixteen companies and troops that comprised the Queen’s Rangers. Simcoe’s book would take the form of a journal detailing the history of the corps during the time in America that Simcoe commanded it, 1777 through 1781. To be sure, the author was not shy in extolling his own virtues, services, and opinions throughout the narrative. It is nonetheless an authoritative history of one of the most active and successful corps fielded by the British during the war, a regiment that was almost unique in nature. The second book, although written by an officer very similar to Simcoe commanding a very similar Provincial legion of cavalry and infantry, differs markedly from Simcoe’s narrative. It was written by a son of Liverpool, England by the name of Banastre Tarleton.
Tarleton was not what you might call a professional soldier, bred to arms with a penchant for service to king and country. Born to a successful middle-class merchant family, the young Tarleton went off to school, where studies quickly bored him and luck in games of chance consistently failed him. When money and interest rapidly waning, Tarleton left school to join the military, purchasing a cornet’s commission in the 1st Regiment of Dragoon Guards, an elite British cavalry regiment. His timing in joining the army seemed to foreshadow a career of activity—his commission was dated April 20, 1775, the day after hostilities commenced in America.
Tarleton’s natural longing for adventure led him to volunteer for service in America, a request which was granted. As his regiment was not to be a part of the army in America, the twenty-one-year-old officer arrived in South Carolina in the spring of 1776 as an ambitious adventurer in need of a home, serving with a part of the army under General Charles, Lord Cornwallis seeking to take Charleston, South Carolina. That attempt failed, but Tarleton and Cornwallis would be there again four years later. In 1780 they were successful in capturing the city. Much had changed in four years, however. Tarleton had found his home as commander of the British Legion.
John Knight’s new book, War at Saber Point: Banastre Tarleton and the British Legion, is a fresh look at not just one of the war’s most dashing (and controversial) figures, but also the corps he commanded. Tarleton’s own book, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America, differed greatly from Simcoe’s in that it had minimal information on the author’s regiment. While a reader of Simcoe’s book, A Journal of the Operations of the Queen’s Rangers, from the end of the year 1777, to the conclusion of the late American War, would have a good understanding of the composition and history of the corps, a reader of Tarleton’s could not make the same claim.What author John Knight has attempted to do is take the history of Tarleton himself, and combine it with both the history of the corps he raised and the campaigns they fought. For a corps as convoluted as the British Legion, with a figure as enigmatic as its commander, it is no easy task.
The British Legion is most closely associated with Tarleton, but it was raised in 1778 by fellow British regular cavalry officer Lord William Cathcart. Cathcart, a young captain in the 17th Light Dragoons, was part of a young generation like Simcoe and Tarleton that strove to command but were handicapped by the slow promotion system in the regular army. In July 1778, Cathcart proposed to British commander in chief Sir Henry Clinton that he be allowed to raise a Provincial (Loyalist) corps of infantry and cavalry, otherwise known as a legion, “to be ready at all Times to be Enfants Perdus, like Fireships to expose themselves for the rest of the Army.” For the commander of his proposed cavalry he nominated his young friend, the officer still in need of a home two years after his arrival in America, Banastre Tarleton.
Tarleton had served the previous two campaigns either attached as a volunteer to the 16th Light Dragoons or as major-of-brigade the British regular cavalry at Philadelphia. No doubt he and Cathcart envisioned themselves as something other than mere subordinates. Raising a new corps would be time-consuming and often fruitless, as within the constricted confines of the British lines would-be recruits by that point had already enlisted in previously-raised Provincial units. Sir Henry Clinton eased this process by forming the cadre of the corps from already-raised but understrength Provincial units. Cathcart’s infantry came mostly from such units as the Caledonian Volunteers, Royal American Reformees and Roman Catholic Volunteers while Tarleton’s cavalry were the two troops of Philadelphia Light Dragoons and an independent troop raised at New York by David Kinloch. Thus constituted, the Legion went on to engage in numerous raids and skirmishes, primarily in Westchester County, New York. With the war in the north at a stalemate, in December 1779 the Legion and its commanders sailed with a British expedition led by Sir Henry Clinton himself, landing in Georgia by the beginning of February. By the end of the year, the Legion would consisted of six troops of cavalry and six companies of infantry, with Tarleton in sole command.
Tarleton made his name as the fiery commander of his Legion in the south. The unit took part in the 1780 Siege of Charleston, where they surprised and routed the Continental Cavalry at Moncks Corner, then soon after destroyed Abraham Buford’s Virginians at the Battle of Waxhaws, the battle which has often been described as a massacre, “a poisoned chalice” in John Knight’s words. On the heels of these victories, the Legion took part in the rout of Horatio Gates’ army at Camden, South Carolina, then just days later surprised and defeated the partisan Thomas Sumter’s force at Fishing Creek. Tarleton was eventually defeated by Daniel Morgan’s army at Cowpens in January 1781, although Tarleton escaped with most of his cavalry. At the Battle of Guilford Court House, North Carolina, two months later, Tarleton shared in Cornwallis’s costly victory, although with the loss of two fingers on his right hand. Continuing on into Virginia, Tarleton and his men even raided Monticello, barely missing Gov. Thomas Jefferson at his home. Tarleton, like John Graves Simcoe, surrendered with Cornwallis at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. And like Simcoe, he quickly returned home to England on parole, where he became the toast of Liverpool. The cavalry of the Legion, like the Queen’s American Rangers, became a regular regiment of the British Army on December 25, 1782.
The American Revolution was the pinnacle of Tarleton’s career. As John Knight writes: “In later life, Tarleton became the quintessential country squire, hunting, shooting, and fishing in the beautiful but obscure village of Leintwardine in Herefordshire.” Tarleton’s post-war life revolved around his intermittent romance with the actress Mary Robinson, politics—he was elected to Parliament in 1790—and writing his book on the southern campaigns of the American Revolution, published in 1787, in which he naturally figured prominently. The book, which appeared to be critical of his immediate superior, Lieutenant General Cornwallis, and dismissive of others, raised a firestorm of controversy. The disputes took the form of published rebuttals (in the form of “strictures”) and replies. It all served to keep Tarleton in the public eye well through the end of the century, and even led to his marriage to Susan Priscilla Bertie (his romance with Mary Robinson having ended long before) and a return to the military, serving in Portugal in 1798. Tarleton finished his career as a major general, although he saw no active service in the Napoleonic Wars. Despite the lack of new laurels, he was made a baronet in 1816, and was thereafter officially Sir Banastre Tarleton. The aggressive former cavalryman passed away on January 16, 1833, a day shy of the anniversary of his defeat at Cowpens.
John Knight’s focus with War at Saber Point is the period of the American Revolution, rather than an in-depth biography of Tarleton. Readers looking for more information on Tarleton’s post-war social life will be better served with Robert D. Bass’ 1957 work The Green Dragoon. Knight’s strength in particular is putting together Tarleton’s British connections and their sometimes-colorful histories, such as Maj. George Hanger, who served as Tarleton’s second in command for a period in 1780. The narrative flows well and provides for a variety of viewpoints using both period work and reminisces along with primary sources, particularly as concerns Waxhaws. Someone reading Tarleton’s 1787 Campaigns book can easily use War at Saber Point for a more balanced viewpoint and in-depth information.
Any study of a unit as complex as the British Legion will be difficult unless fully versed in the Provincial Forces, and it is here where some errors creep in. There is some confusion in describing the initial composition of the infantry, which was clearly set fourth in a 1778 British Legion orderly book as the “1st English, 2nd English, Scotch and American” companies. After incorrectly showing only three companies, he describes one as being primarily drawn from drafts of the West Jersey Volunteers, which only provided seven recruits, rather than the Royal American Reformees, which provided nearly the entire company. There are also some glitches concerning when additions to the unit were made from the Bucks County Light Dragoons and Emmerick’s Chasseurs (both on or about December 25, 1779). Knight also places the bulk of the British Legion infantry at the Siege of Savannah in 1779, when there was only a local recruiting party of less than thirty officers and men; the infantry of the Legion actually were in a different region, with the cavalry, at that time. Keeping track of any Provincial corps and their personnel with existing records is challenging at best. These miscues, and others of a similar nature, do not take away from the overall quality and usefulness of the book.
War at Saber Point provides a welcome addition to studies of regimental histories, Loyalists, campaigns and British leadership.
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I am in the preliminary stages of researching and writing a “cradle to grave” biography on Banastre Tarleton. When I stumbled across Knight’s book I was THRILLED. I was not the only person who believed Tarleton’s reputation was a bit “off” to say the very least. Not only that, but Knight’s book was thoroughly researched with ample citations.
After reading Bass’ biography on Tarleton I realized that, despite it being thorough, there are many things lacking here. Knight corrects many of these in his book in a narrative format with a healthy dash of wit and humor that kept me engaged. So engaged in fact that I’m on my fifth re-read as I continue learning more about Tarleton.
I credit Knight’s work on Tarleton for sparking the idea to begin working on a biography. While I was fascinated by Tarleton prior to reading Knight’s book, his analysis pushed that fascination into overdrive. Any historian who can accomplish this should be given substantial credit. Fostering passion for historical study is an aspect lacking in many works– but not in Knight’s.
Highly recommend this book, especially for anyone wanting to take a second look at a man long-demonized, a deeper-dive into the British Legion, and the Revolutionary War in the south.
Here is an interesting dilemma: Knight’s book (chapter 3, note 10) cites Banastre Tarleton’s letter describing the capture of General Charles Lee as Tarleton to his mother, December 18, 1776, in Tarleton Family Papers, Liverpool Record Office NRA 7189; Christian McBurney’s recent book on the capture of Charles Lee cites Robert Bass’s The Green Dragoon, a book also cited by John Knight, which also says December 18. Yet the New York Historical Society has a letter of Tarleton describing the capture, and dated December 17, 1776. I saw the NYHS document several years ago, in person, and I believe it was to his mother. Could he have written two letters a day apart? Now i want to go to Liverpool to see the other one.
I believe that it was common, in the days before photocopiers, to keep written copies of correspondence. Could it be that Tarleton drafted a letter to his mother on 17th December, but actually dispatched the letter on 18th, dating the sent version accordingly? This might explain why one copy is in New York, but the later dated copy in the UK. Obviously a comparison of the two copies is the only way to determine whether or not the contents are the same.
Mr. Braisted’s is an excellent write-up … Engaging without becoming pedantic.
Isn’t it true that Tarleton’s “Legion” had, besides cavalry & infantry components, also a small detachment of artillery … Usually a slight battery of 2 guns or so … light cannon, 3-pounders approximately, on “galloper” carriages??
And, let us not forget that the Continental Army had, in addition to its Light Horse Reg’ts. units like the British, “Legions” too, the most famous perhaps being Polish Count Casimir Pulaski’s.
The “Legion” concept was an experiment in a combined arms force capable of standing on its own in a smaller battle similar to the composition of a larger whole army. In this sense a “Legion” was intended to be able to operate on its own, detached from an army proper, to serve both a scouting mission as well as the small battle mission noted hereinabove.
While sometimes overshadowed by the reputation, both deserved & undeserved, of Banastre Tarleton, “Tarleton’s Legion” served mostly very well for Cornwallis’ Southern British Army in the multiple mission role as described above.
French Republican armies also experimented with the idea, but this experiment appears to have disappeared under the reforms & systemization of French arms undertaken by Napoleon.