Ambition before Ethics: A Biography of Banastre Tarleton (1754–1833) - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

Ambition before Ethics:

A Biography of Banastre Tarleton (1754–1833)



Michael Melli
The University of Central Florida



In the history of the American Revolution,  Banastre Tarleton is a controversial figure, who was notorious for his brutality in the southern campaign against the backcountry citizens. Arguably, Banastre Tarleton had the most societally dichotomizing effect of any Englishman in the American Revolution. Understandably, people today have varied views about Tarleton. While many know him merely for being the real-life counterpart of Colonel William Tavington in The Patriot, others, particularly English and American historians, bicker about his violent tactics. Whereas Americans propagate that Tarleton was the inciter of the worst violence in the American Revolution, English historians, not ignoring his brutality, insist he was neither the first nor the vilest. Though often remembered solely for what many deem a vicious career in the Royal Military, General Banastre Tarleton 1st Baronet left a legacy carved by nearly unbound ambition and drive. The legend of Banastre Tarleton would be one handed down orally and literally, through scarred veterans and his own literature.


"Colonel Tarleton," by Sir J. Reynolds
1782, The National Gallery, UK

Descended from ancient families closely allied to the crown, Banastre Tarleton, born in Liverpool, England on August 21, 1754, felt a great deal of pride in being a royal subject.[1] The notorious skewed morals Tarleton displayed later on stemmed from his upbringing. John Tarleton, Banastre’s father reveled in the wealth of a prosperous slave trading business.[2] The senior Tarleton found a political career, and became Mayor of Liverpool when Banastre was ten. Banastre grew up observing the effects of self-achieved victory. One can begin to imagine how a young Banastre’s appetite for triumph would begin to define him. The young Tarleton went on to a shortly lived career in law before he departed to the armed forces, a call he felt honorable.


Less than a year after Tarleton joined the military in 1775, he eagerly followed General Charles Cornwallis (1738–1805) as they sailed into the North American colonies once rebellion had begun.[3] Fervently motivated to forge a reputation for himself, Tarleton was awestruck as the Crown failed at the first siege of Charleston. The disaster would come to be known as the Battle of Sullivan’s Island. Nonetheless, Charleston was not captured until 1780 with the combined forces of Tarleton, General Clinton and General Cornwallis.


Riddled with self-doubt and zealously eager to stomp the insurrection in the colonies, Tarleton next traveled to New York. The Mid-Atlantic colonies are where Tarleton became attracted to the more brutal aspects of war. A more notorious example of his early callousness was the surrender of Colonial General Charles Lee (1731–1782). Tarleton attacked while the General was asleep and promptly stormed his quarters. Tarleton threatened to destroy his belongings. Lee was humiliated into surrendering, still dressed in pajamas. The General Lee incident was the first example of skewed military ethics displayed by Tarleton.


The loss seen by the British at the Battle of Saratoga coupled with French intervention motivated the British into reigniting the southern campaign. Tarleton, now a commander, led a battle that solidified his reputation for brutality. Banastre moved inwards in South Carolina as he gained momentum and garnered a small force of loyalists trained by royal officers. The Battle of Waxhaws, as it came to be known, pit a force of about 400 Patriots against 150 Loyalists and Redcoats. Colonial General Buford’s forces barely challenged the leadership and military force of Tarleton, who suffered only five casualties and fewer injuries. Banastre’s pride flared.


The sequence of events that followed is one disputed by American and British historians. Many propagate that General Buford reluctantly raised a white flag, clear to all present. While many still stand by the belief that Tarleton had never been relayed a notice of surrender. However, no historian denies the Loyalist forces charging upon the wounded and injured colonials. The Loyalists slaughtered the suffering and incapacitated where they rested, and slayed the unarmed militants as they recuperated from their losses. The brutality from the men Tarleton commanded was unheard of. Colonials colloquially deemed this event Buford’s Massacre and adorned Tarleton with monikers such as “Bloody Tarleton” or “Tarleton’s Quarters” referring to the treatment and capture of surrendering forces.[4] The viciousness demonstrated by Tarleton rallied more and more Patriots and fence-sitters to the side of independence.



Engraving depicting Continental Army against cavalry
of Tarleton in Virginia, 1781. Library of Congress

Tarleton marched forward through the backcountry of South Carolina. At the age of twenty-six, he was dispatched to combat the entire Low-Country Guerrilla infantry.[5] Again, colonials watched British severity as Tarleton pursued fleeing Patriots led by General Thomas Sumter (1734–1832), following the Battle of Camden in 1780. Tarleton surprised Sumter and devastated his forces with only 450 casualties.[6] Shattered and demeaned, Sumter barely escaped, smuggled into an escaping wagon.[7] Ordered to neutralize Sumter, Tarleton viewed his escape as an embarrassment. The skirmish is known as the Battle of Fishing Creek.



Shortly after Fishing Creek, Banastre was dispatched to eliminate Francis Marion (1732–1795), more popularly named “The Swamp Fox.” Marion, noted for his exceptionally effective guerilla tactics, evaded Tarleton in the swamplands for twenty-five miles before Tarleton turned around. Tarleton himself bestowed the moniker on Marion, “As for this damned old fox, the Devil himself could not catch him.”[8] These events were dramatized and revised in the popular Roland Emmerich film The Patriot.


Three months after Fishing Creek, November 1780, at the Battle of Blackstock’s Farm, Sumter faced Tarleton again with the prior seeing victory. Faced with the first defeat of his career, Tarleton responded with surprising grace, recoiling two miles away and burying the dead of both sides while caring for his wounded.[9] Tarleton, however, lied to his superior Cornwallis about the battle; he claimed he had “broken” the American forces.[10] Sent by a daunted General Cornwallis, Tarleton jumped at the next chance for action. Tarleton saw the Battle of Cowpens as a chance for retribution and saving his weakened reputation. He faced Daniel Morgan for what many historians claim was the turning point in the Southern Theatre. Weary and poorly fed, Tarleton’s troops were outnumbered, but he kept pushing forward. The battle itself finished in under an hour. There were 712 prisoners taken captive and the “Butcher of Waxhaws” defeated colonial support surprisingly.[11] The loss proved necessary for the psyche and the military of the American colonists.


Tarleton seized two small victories at The Skirmish of Torrence Tavern and the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Tarleton was again at the disposal of Cornwallis as they marched into Virginia together.[12] Their forces dwindled as they became desperate. The two led a sequence of episodic raids in Virginia. Notably, Tarleton commanded a raid in Charlottesville. Thomas Jefferson narrowly avoided capture. While Tarleton had not captured any colonial legislators, the raid demonstrated the unpredictability and vivaciousness Tarleton still possessed.


Cornwallis sent Tarleton across the York River to Gloucester Point, an area Cornwallis did not know was under colonial control.[13]  Surrounded by Patriot militants, it was there in October 1781 that the “Butcher of Waxhaws” surrendered to the colonials. This event ended his career in the American Revolution. In early 1782 Tarleton departed to England on parole. Having expected admonishment from his superiors; Tarleton was greeted with grateful admiration and promptly promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of Light Dragoons (cavalry).


Lt. Col. Tarleton still carried the knowledge and experiences of his youth; he sought a position in Parliament in 1784 to represent Liverpool. Narrowly defeated, Tarleton saw loss again but eventually replaced the winner in 1790.[14] Before Tarleton took his seat in Parliament, he published A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781: In the Southern Provinces of North America. Tarleton’s work favorably and kindly depicted his brutality in the war.


In Parliament Tarleton enjoyed a successful career for 22 years. Banastre departed as the War of 1812 unfolded. Tarleton fiercely advocated slavery and openly mocked any who opposed him or stood with abolitionists. Doing so Tarleton protected his father’s business ran by his brothers in Liverpool. Though Parliament ultimately abolished slavery in 1833, it is clear the effect Tarleton had in delaying its progression. Tarleton avidly sought command in the Peninsular War; ultimately turned down in favor to the Duke of Wellington, which led to the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Tarleton received a promotion to the rank of General as compensation.[15] On January 15, 1833, eight months before the Slavery Abolition Act would pass, and nearly 52 years after his return to England by the Americans, General Banastre Tarleton died. Tarleton’s death received little extraordinary attention, but American veterans rejoiced that “The Butcher of Waxhaws” had finally left the world.




About the author

Michael Melli is a senior at The University of Central Florida on the Presidents List finishing his History major and Political Science minor, with concentration on English Monarchical History. His research interests include Victorian and Edwardian royal foreign relations and Georgian military history.



Recommended citation

Michael Melli, “Ambition before Ethics: A Biography of Banastre Tarleton (1754–1833),” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 4, no. 1 (April 2014).





[1] Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1834 Vol. XVIII, (Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1834), 274.

[2] Robert Bass, The Green Dragoon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson (Orangeburg: Sandlapper Press, 1957), 23.

[3] Ben Rubin, “The Rhetoric of Revenge: Atrocity and Identity in the Revolutionary Carolina” Journal Of Backcountry Studies, 2010, 8.

[4] Rubin, Ben, The Rhetoric of Revenge: Atrocity and Identity in the Revolutionary Carolina, 18.

[5] Robert Wilson, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, National Parks Service,, (accessed 26 Sep. 2013).

[6] Joes, Guerrilla Conflict before the Cold War, 30.

[7] Tarleton, Banastre, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781: In the Southern Provinces of North America, (London: Colles, Exshaw, White, H. Whitestone, Burton, Byrne, Moore, Jones, and Dornin 1787), 42.

[8] Amy Crawford, The Swamp Fox, Smithsonian Magazine, 01 July 2007, 2.

[9] Henry Lumpkin, From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South (Cleveland: iUniverse, 2000) 114.

[10] Bass, The Green Dragoon, 121.

[11] Lumpkin, From Savannah to Yorktown, 102.

[12] Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1834 Vol. XVIII, 274.

[13] Donald Moran, Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, the Most Hated Officer in America, , (accessed September 26, 2013).

[14] Bass, The Green Dragoon, 387.

[15] Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1834 Vol. XVIII, 275.

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