American Revolution: Battle of Waxhaws

Banastre Tarleton
Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Public Domain

The Battle of Waxhaws was fought May 29, 1780, during the American Revolution (1775-1783) and was one of several American defeats in the South that summer. In late 1778, with the fighting in the northern colonies increasingly becoming a stalemate, the British began to expand their operations to the south. This saw troops under Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell land and capture Savannah, GA on December 29.

Reinforced, the garrison withstood a combined Franco-American attack led by Major General Benjamin Lincoln and Vice Admiral Comte d'Estaing the following year. Seeking to expand this foothold, the British commander-in-chief in North America, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton, mounted a large expedition in 1780 to capture Charleston, SC.

The Fall of Charleston

Though Charleston had defeated an earlier British attack in 1776, Clinton's forces were able to capture the city and Lincoln's garrison on May 12, 1780 after a seven-week siege. The defeat marked the largest surrender of American troops during the war and left the Continental Army without a sizable force in the South. Following the American capitulation, British forces under Clinton occupied the city.

Escaping North

Six days later, Clinton dispatched Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis with 2,500 men to subdue the South Carolina back country.

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.

Though his command included several veteran officers, the majority of Buford's men were untested recruits. Buford had originally been ordered south to aid in the Siege of Charleston, but when the city was invested by the British he received new directions from Lincoln to assume a position at Lenud's Ferry on the Santee River.

Reaching the ferry, Buford soon learned of the city's fall and commenced withdrawing from the area. Retreating back toward North Carolina, he 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 on May 27 to run down Buford's men. Departing Camden late on May 28, Tarleton continued his pursuit of the fleeing Americans.

Armies & Commanders

Americans

  • Colonel Abraham Buford
  • 420 men

British

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

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.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Waxhaws." ThoughtCo, Oct. 4, 2017, thoughtco.com/battle-of-waxhaws-2360642. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, October 4). American Revolution: Battle of Waxhaws. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-waxhaws-2360642 Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Battle of Waxhaws." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-waxhaws-2360642 (accessed November 21, 2017).