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On page 2 of The Green Dragoon, the only full-length biography of Banastre Tarleton, readers will encounter a long anecdote which the author, Robert Duncan Bass, has lifted from an 1821 magazine article. The narrator, a former Loyalist, recalls arriving, forty years earlier, at the Legion's camp on the James River, just in time to see Tarleton break his new horse. The adversaries are well-matched: the horse is "...a large and powerful brute...with an eye that actually seemed to blaze with rage"; Tarleton has "a face almost femininely beautiful" and "a form that was the perfect model of manly strength and vigor." After belaboring the animal with "spurs of immense length and rowel" and "a scourge, with shot well twisted into its knotted lash," Tarleton gains mastery. His horse, "its eye dim and lustreless," now follows him around "like a dog." [ Full Text ]
Appearing at the very beginning of the definitive Tarleton biography, the episode effectively defines Tarleton. The problem is, it can't have happened. By June, 1781, when the former messenger sets the story, Tarleton was in no condition to grip reins for dear life while swinging a heavy scourge; three months earlier, a musket ball had carried away half of his right hand. In a longer version of the same story, which appears in Parton's Life of Andrew Jackson, the narrator recalls meeting Tarleton's servant, "a grave, sedate Englishman of fifty or sixty years of age." He explains that he has come to America at the request of Tarleton's father, "a worthy clergyman." In actual fact, John Tarleton, Sr. died over two years before his son shipped off for war. He was a slave trader, and never, as far as anyone knows, took even minor orders.
There's no question that Bass knew the story was at least partly false He cites Parton as its original source, so he must have read the full version and counted the discrepancies with the facts he'd unearthed himself. Yet he included the excerpt without raising a single question about its accuracy. As an accredited historian who taught at the United States Naval Academy, Bass must surely have felt some professional obligation to distinguish fact from fiction. The question remains: why did he, in this one particular case, allow himself to shirk?
One reason may be plain old scholarly desperation. Between the lines of his gracious "acknowledgements" section, Bass complains bitterly about the difficulty of finding source materials relating to his hero. This should surprise no one, since Tarleton's postwar public life consisted, in the main, of blindly following the Whig party line in Parliament, and the Prince of Wales' entourage around the clubs of Pall Mall. Although surviving relatives granted Bass access to some of Tarleton's private papers, thus enabling him to expand his study to 450 pages, they may have withheld the most interesting ones. Bass does not seem to have known that Tarleton sired an illegitimate daughter after his marriage to Susan Priscilla Bertie; indeed, he can do no more than sketch each of his subject's personal relationships. True or not, the horse-breaking story at least featured Tarleton center stage.
But Bass was more than a scholar of the American Revolution; he was a warm-blooded, misty-eyed enthusiast, and his research methodology showed a precocious tendency towards gonzo. According to Dr. Bobby Moss, a pioneer in Loyalist studies, Bass once seized the limb of a tree with one hand, and hung in mid-air for a considerable length of time, the better to identify with an historical figure who had been obliged to assume a similar attitude. He may simply have wanted to believe that Tarleton did for his animals like Ben Hur, and convinced himself that everything after the bit about the Reverend Tarleton was perfectly plausible.
Perhaps only a writer with Bass' imaginative powers could have created a readable biography from sources so fragmented, and Green Dragoon is nothing if not readable. With Bass' short, adjectival sentences and conveying a sense of immediacy, it reads suspiciously like a romance novel. Meeting Tarleton, handsome and proud as Lucifer, as he tames a steed as fierce as Alexander the Great's Bucephalis, c ertainly gives a reader some idea what to expect in the forthcoming four hundred pages.
So the horse-breaking story had its purpose; where did it come from in the first place? Probably no one will ever know for certain, although I would place its inception in the fancies of a nostalgic old man, or perhaps those of a young journalist working under a deadline. But since few people produce their own fancies without borrowing concepts from their cultural enviornment, one might wonder where either of them came by such violent, stirring images, or found the words to express them. Again, a definite answer is impossible; but the language used to describe Tarleton closely resembles that with which Sir Walter Scott depicted Colonel John Graham of Claverhouse, the stylish villain of his 1817 historical novel Old Mortality. Compare the two texts: in the first, Tarleton takes on the forces of nature; in the second, Claverhouse goes at it with a group of rebellious Covenanters.
The struggle for mastery had commenced -- bound succeeded bound with the rapidity of thought; every device which its animal instinct could teach was resorted to by the maddened brute to shake of its unwelcome burden -- but in vain. Its ruthless rider proved irresistible, and clinging like fate itself, plied the whip and rowel like a fiend. The punishment was too severe to be long withstood, and at length, after a succession of frantic efforts, the tortured animal with a scream of agony, leaped forth across the plain, and flew across it with the speed of an arrow...I have witnessed many stirring scenes, both during the Revolution and after, but never one half so stirring as the struggle between that savage man and that savage horse!
Never did man, however, better maintain the character of a soldier than [Claverhouse, whose features, like Tarleton's are said to exhibit "even feminine regularity,"] did that day. Conspicuous by his black horse and white feather, he was first in the repeated charges which he made at every favorable opportunity, to arrest the progress of the pursuers and to cover the retreat of his regiment. The object of aim to every one, he seemed as if he were impassive to their shot. The superstitious fanatics, who looked upon him as a man gifted by the Evil Spirit with supernatural means of defence, averred they saw bullets recoil from his jack-boots and buff coat... he put spurs to his wounded horse; and the generous animal, as if conscious that the life of his rider depended on his exertions, pressed forward with speed, unabated by either pain or loss of blood.
Besides the pieces' stylistic and thematic similarities -- rolling sentences, repeated superlatives, black horses, comparisons of the central figure with a supernatural force -- there is other, albeit circumstantial evidence that places the author of the first in debt to that of the second. American readers of the early nineteenth century, especially Southerners, loved Scott's books, a fact on which Mark Twain, only half-jokingly, blamed the Civil War. One didn't have to be a plagiarist to feel Scott's influence and respond to it. Either the aging Loyalist or the reporter who "edited" his recollections could have been exposed to Old Mortality, whose first edition appeared four years before the horse-breaking story.
Of all Scott's works, Old Mortality would have had particular significance to anyone concerned with America's War of Independence. It is the story of the Scottish Covenanters, a 17th-century sect of devoutly Calvinistic commoners who revolt against Royal authority. Scott, ambivalent about the strikes of his own day, and about the violent governmental reprisals they provoked, tried to show the good and bad in both sides. The rebels he praises for their simple, earnest piety; the reactionaries, for their grace and sophistication. Claverhouse, a real historical figure later ennobled as Viscount Dundee, not only exemplifies the merits of the Royalist cause by maintaining "the character of a soldier" in difficult circumstances, he apologizes for its faults with chilling eloquence. When Henry Morton, the novel's hero, insists that both camps are equally guilty because they shed blood "without mercy or remorse," Claverhouse responds:
There is a difference, I trust, between the blood of learned and reverend prelates and scholars, of gallant soldiers and noble gentlemen, and that which stagnates in the veins of psalm-singing mechanicks, crack-brained demogogues, and sullen boors; -- some distinction, in short, between spilling a flask of generous wine, and dashing down a can full of base, muddy ale.
Conscious of Scott's influence or not, American national mythmakers of the early nineteenth century gave their redcoats something of Claverhouse's cold-blooded class prejudice. Parson Weems' claim that British officers planned to impress American women into harems is only the most absurd example of this kind of propagandizing. For nationalistic Americans of any era, reducing the War of Independence to a struggle against snobbery has obvious appeal. It obscures, for example, the fact that the cause of liberty received vital support from wealthy planters and merchants -- men who were probably pretty snobby in their own right.
And it obscures the true character of many prominent British officers, including, Banastre Tarleton. By conflating Tarleton with the stereotyped cavalier Scott defined with his version of Claverhouse, we find handy explanations for the puzzling episodes in his career. Of course Tarleton premeditated the massacre at Waxhaws settlement; he believed that Yankee rabble deserved no mercy. Of course he should bear full responsibility for the defeat at Cowpens; he believed that Yankee rabble couldn't fight, and thus waltzed his troops into an ambush. Bass may not have explicitly endorsed this interpretation, but he didn't challenge it, either. As we have seen, his narrative style leaves little room for critical inquiry, and fleshes out the cavalier stereotype only by combining it with that of the Regency rake.
Fortunately, "Banastre Tarleton: The Revised Curriculum" has begun to emerge. In Devil of a Whipping, Lawrence Babits demonstrates that Tarleton was facing much longer odds at Cowpens than tradition has allowed. Through my own research, I've found that Continental officers who knew the details of the Waxhaws engagement condemned not Tarleton, but Colonel Abraham Buford, the American commander who opposed him. Tarleton's next biographer will have to dig harder for facts than Bass did. If the results of his search don't lead him to be kinder to Tarleton, he may, at the very least, remember to be kinder to Tarleton's horses.
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