American Revolution: Battle of Waxhaws

Banastre Tarleton
Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Public Domain

Battle of Waxhaws: Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Waxhaws was fought May 29, 1780, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Armies & Commanders


  • Colonel Abraham Buford
  • 420 men


Battle of Waxhaws: Background:

Following the surrender of Charleston, SC on May 12, 1780, British forces under Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton occupied the city. Six days later, he dispatched Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis with 2,500 men to subdue the South Carolina backcountry.

Advancing from the city, his force crossed the Santee River and moved towards Camden. En route, he learned from local Loyalists that South Carolina Governor John Rutledge was attempting to escape to North Carolina with a force of 350 men.

This contingent was led by Colonel Abraham Buford and consisted of the 7th Virginia Regiment, two companies of the 2nd Virginia, 40 light dragoons, and two 6-pdr guns. Buford had been ordered south to aid in the Siege of Charleston, but had turned back after learning of the city's fall. Retreating back toward North Carolina, Buford had a large lead on Cornwallis. Understanding that his column was too slow to catch the fleeing Americans, Cornwallis detached a mobile force under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to run down Buford's men.

The Chase:

Tarleton's command consisted of 270 men drawn from the 17th Dragoons, Loyalist British Legion, and a 3-pdr gun.

Riding hard, Tarleton's men covered over 100 miles in 54 hours. Warned of Tarleton's rapid approach, Buford sent Rutledge ahead towards Hillsborough, NC with a small escort. Reaching Rugeley's Mill mid-morning on May 29, Tarleton learned that the Americans had camped there the previous night and were around 20 miles ahead.

Pressing forward, the British column caught up with Buford around 3:00 PM at a location six miles south of the border near Waxhaws.

The Battle of Waxhaws:

Defeating the American rearguard, Tarleton sent a messenger to Buford. Inflating his numbers to scare the American commander, he demanded Buford's surrender. Buford delayed responding while his men reached a more favorable position before replying, "Sir, I reject your proposals, and shall defend myself to the last extremity." To meet Tarleton's attack, he deployed his infantry into a single line with a small reserve to the rear. Opposite, Tarleton moved directly to assault the American position without waiting for his entire command to arrive.

Forming his men on a small rise opposite the American line, he divided his men into three groups with one assigned to strike the enemy right, another the center, and the third the left. Moving forward, they began their charge approximately 300 yards from the Americans. As the British approached, Buford ordered his men to hold their fire until they were 10-30 yards away. While an appropriate tactic against infantry, it proved disastrous against cavalry. The Americans were able to fire one volley before Tarleton's men shattered their line.

With the British dragoons hacking with their sabers, the Americans began surrender while others fled the field. What happened next is a subject of controversy. One Patriot witness, Dr. Robert Brownfield, claimed that Buford waved a white flag to surrender. As he called for quarter, Tarleton's horse was shot, throwing the British commander the ground. Believing their commander to have been attacked under a flag of truce, the Loyalists renewed their attack, slaughtering the remaining Americans, including wounded. Brownfield insinuates that this continuation of hostilities was encouraged by Tarleton (Brownfield Letter).

Other Patriot sources claim that Tarleton ordered the renewed attack as he did not wish to be encumbered with prisoners. Regardless, the butchery continued with American troops, including wounded, being struck down.

In his report after the battle, Tarleton stated that his men, believing him struck down, continued the fight with "a vindictive asperity not easily restrained." After approximately fifteen minutes of fighting the battle concluded. Only around 100 Americans, including Buford, succeeded in escaping the field.

Aftermath of the Battle of Waxhaws:

The defeat at Waxhaws cost Buford 113 killed, 150 wounded, and 53 captured. British losses were a light 5 killed and 12 wounded. The action at Waxhaws quickly earned Tarleton nicknames such as "Bloody Ban" and "Ban the Butcher." In addition, the term "Tarleton's Quarter" quickly came to mean that no mercy would be given. The defeat became a rallying cry in the region and led many to flock to the Patriot cause. Among those were numerous local militias, particularly those from over the Appalachian Mountains, which would play a key role at the Battle of Kings Mountain that October.

Vilified by the Americans, Tarleton was decisively defeated by Brigadier General Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781. Remaining with Cornwallis' army, he was captured at the Battle of Yorktown. In negotiating the British 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.

Selected Sources

  • Patriot Resource: Battle of Waxhaws
  • Symonds, Craig (1986). A Battlefield Atlas of the American Revolution. Baltimore, MD: The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America.