American Revolution: Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton

Banastre Tarleton during the American Revolution

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Banastre Tarleton (August 21, 1754–January 15, 1833) was a British Army officer during the American Revolution who became notorious for his actions in the southern theater of the war. He gained his reputation for brutality following the Battle of Waxhaws, where he reputedly had American prisoners killed. Tarleton later led part of Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis' army and was crushed at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781. Remaining active until the end of the war, he was captured following the British surrender at Yorktown that October.

Fast Facts: Banastre Tarleton

  • Known For: American Revolution
  • Born: August 21, 1754 in Liverpool, England
  • Parents: John Tarleton
  • Died: January 15, 1833 in Leintwardine, England
  • Education: Middle Temple in London and University College at Oxford University
  • Published WorksA History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America
  • Spouse(s): Mary Robinson (not married, long term relationship ca. 1782–1797) Susan Priscilla Bertie (m. December 17, 1798–his death in 1833)
  • Children: Illegitimate daughter with "Kolima," (1797–1801) Banina Georgiana Tarleton

Early Life

Banastre Tarleton was born August 21, 1754, in Liverpool, England, the third child of John Tarleton, a prominent merchant with extensive ties in the American colonies and the slave trade. John Tarleton served as the mayor of Liverpool in 1764 and 1765, and, holding a position of prominence in the city, Tarleton saw that his son received an upper-class education including studying the law at Middle Temple in London and University College at Oxford University.

Upon his father's death in 1773, Banastre Tarleton received 5,000 British pounds but promptly lost most of it gambling at London's notorious Cocoa Tree club. In 1775, he sought a new life in the military and purchased a commission as a coronet (second lieutenant) in the 1st King's Dragoon Guards. Taking to military life, Tarleton proved a skilled horseman and displayed strong leadership skills.

Early Career

In 1775, Tarleton obtained permission to leave the 1st King's Dragoon Guards and proceeded to North America as a volunteer with Cornwallis. As part of a force arriving from Ireland, he took part in the failed attempt to capture Charleston, South Carolina in June 1776. Following the British defeat at the Battle of Sullivan's Island, Tarleton sailed north where the expedition joined General William Howe's army on Staten Island.

During the New York Campaign that summer and fall he earned a reputation as a daring and effective officer. Serving under Colonel William Harcourt of the 16th Light Dragoons, Tarleton achieved fame on December 13, 1776. While on a scouting mission, Tarleton's patrol located and surrounded a house in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, where American Major General Charles Lee was staying. Tarleton was able to compel Lee's surrender by threatening to burn the building down. In recognition of his performance around New York, he earned a promotion to major.

Charleston & Waxhaws

After continuing to provide able service, Tarleton was given command of a newly formed mixed force of cavalry and light infantry known as the British Legion and Tarleton's Raiders in 1778. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, his new command was largely comprised of Loyalists and at its largest numbered around 450 men. In 1780, Tarleton and his men sailed south to Charleston, South Carolina, as part of General Sir Henry Clinton's army. 

Landing, they aided in the siege of the city and patrolled the surrounding area in search of American troops. In the weeks before Charleston's fall on May 12, Tarleton won victories at Monck's Corner (April 14) and Lenud's Ferry (May 6). On May 29, 1780, his men fell upon 350 Virginia Continentals led by Colonel Abraham Buford. In the ensuing Battle of Waxhaws, Tarleton's men butchered Buford's command, despite an American attempt to surrender, killing 113 and capturing 203. Of the captured men, 150 were too wounded to move and were left behind.

Known as the "Waxhaws Massacre" to the Americans, it, along with his cruel treatment of the populace, cemented Tarleton's image as a heartless commander. Through the remainder of 1780, Tarleton's men pillaged the countryside instilling fear and earning him the nicknames "Bloody Ban" and "Butcher." With Clinton's departure after the capture of Charleston, the Legion remained in South Carolina as part of Cornwallis' army.

Serving with this command, Tarleton took part in the victory over Major General Horatio Gates at Camden on August 16. In the weeks that followed, he sought to suppress the guerrilla operations of Brigadier Generals Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter, but with no success. Marion and Sumter's careful treatment of civilians earned them their trust and support, while Tarleton's behavior alienated all those he encountered.

Cowpens

Instructed by Cornwallis in January 1781 to destroy an American command led by Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, Tarleton rode west seeking the enemy. Tarleton found Morgan at an area in western South Carolina known as the Cowpens. In the battle that followed on January 17, Morgan conducted a well-orchestrated double envelopment that effectively destroyed Tarleton's command and routed him from the field. Fleeing back to Cornwallis, Tarleton fought in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and later commanded raiding forces in Virginia. During a foray to Charlottesville, he unsuccessfully attempted to capture Thomas Jefferson and several members of the Virginia legislature.

Later War

Moving east with Cornwallis' army in 1781, Tarleton was given command of the forces at Gloucester Point, across the York River from the British position at Yorktown. Following the American victory at Yorktown and Cornwallis' capitulation in October 1781, Tarleton surrendered his position. In negotiating the surrender, special arrangements had to be made to protect Tarleton due to his unsavory reputation. After the surrender, the American officers invited all of their British counterparts to dine with them but specifically forbade Tarleton from attending. He later served in Portugal and Ireland.

Politics

Returning home in 1781, Tarleton entered politics and was defeated in his first election for Parliament. In 1782, after returning to England and supposedly on a bet with her current lover, Tarleton seduced Mary Robinson, ex-mistress of the Prince of Wales and a talented actress and poet: they would have a 15-year relationship, but never married and had no surviving children.

In 1790, he won the election and went to London to serve as a member of Parliament for Liverpool. During his 21 years in the House of Commons, Tarleton largely voted with the opposition and was an ardent supporter of the slave trade. This support was largely due to his brothers' and other Liverpudlian shippers' involvement in the business. Mary Robinson wrote his speeches after he became a member of Parliament.

Later Career and Death

With Mary Robinson's assistance, in 1787 Tarleton wrote "Campaigns of 1780–1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America," an apologia for his failings in the American Revolution, on which he blamed Cornwallis. Despite Robinson's active role in his life by the late 18th century, Tarleton's growing political career forced him to abruptly end his relationship with her.

On December 17, 1798, Tarleton married Susan Priscilla Bertie, an illegitimate daughter of Robert Bertie, the 4th Duke of Lancaster. Tarleton had no surviving children in either relationship; although he did have an illegitimate daughter (Banina Georgiana Tarleston, 1797–1801) with a woman known as Kolima. Tarleton was made a general in 1812, and in 1815, he was created a Baronet and received a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in 1820. Tarleton died in London on January 25, 1833.