American Revolution: Banastre Tarleton

Banastre Tarleton during the American Revolution
Banastre Tarleton. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Banastre Tarleton was a British Army officer during the American Revolution who became notorious for his actions in the southern theater of the war. The son of a prominent Liverpool merchant, he was well-educated and entered the service in 1775. Arriving in North America the following year, Tarleton initially served around New York and later took part in the campaign against Philadelphia. Ordered south in 1780, 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.


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

Upon his father's death in 1773, Banastre Tarleton received £5,000, 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.

Ranks & Titles

During his long military career Tarleton steadily moved up through the ranks often by merit rather than purchasing commissions. His promotions included major (1776), lieutenant colonel (1778), colonel (1790), major general (1794), lieutenant general (1801), and general (1812). In addition, Tarleton served as a Member of Parliament for Liverpool (1790), as well as was made a Baronet (1815) and a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (1820).

Fast Facts: Banastre Tarleton

  • Rank: General
  • Service: British Army
  • Nickname(s): Bloody Ban, the Butcher
  • Born: August 21, 1754 in Liverpool, England
  • Died: January 15, 1833 in Leintwardine, England
  • Father: John Tarleton, Mayor of Liverpool
  • Spouse: Susan Priscilla Bertie
  • Conflicts: American Revolution
  • Known For: Battle of Waxhaws (1780), Battle of Cowpens (1781)

Personal Life

Prior to his marriage, Tarleton is known to have had an ongoing affair with the famed actress and poet Mary Robinson. Their relationship lasted fifteen years before Tarleton's growing political career forced its end. On December 17, 1798, Tarleton married Susan Priscilla Bertie who was an illegitimate daughter of Robert Bertie, 4th Duke of Ancaster. The two remained married until his death on January 25, 1833. Tarleton had no children in either relationship.

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, SC 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 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, NJ 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 for 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, SC 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 the 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.


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.


Returning home in 1781, Tarleton entered politics and was defeated in his first election for Parliament. In 1790, he was more successful and went to London to represent 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.