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Legend has it that one night in 1781, Banastre Tarleton rode his horse up and down the entry staircase at Carter's Grove Plantation house, on the James River six miles from Williamsburg. As he rode, he hacked at the banister with his saber, leaving behind embedded slivers of metal which remain visible to this day.
I'm told by people who have visited the plantation that there are, indeed, metal slivers buried in the old wood of the railing. Everything else about the story is open to debate. An archaeological excavation on the site has produced a uniform button belonging to one of the units under Tarleton's command, which suggests that the Legion was in the neighborhood at some point during the war -- but it could just as easily have come from a uniform jacket appropriated from a dead British soldier at Cowpens or elsewhere.
There are several variations on the tale which offer differing reasons for why Tarleton decided to exercise his horse on the staircase. One version has him roaring drunk and doing it for fun. Another variant says he did it to rouse his officers who were asleep in the house, to warn them of the approach of the rebel forces. A third says he did it in a fit of rage, when the owner of the plantation refused to billet him and his officers in the house.
A more pragmatic question than why he did it would seem to be whether it would be possible to do it. The simple fact is that horses are not designed to climb stairs, and a typical horse will refuse to even make the attempt. Trick horses can be trained to manage it, but whether or not a well-trained cavalry horse could be driven up a staircase is an open question. It is possible though not, I think, probable.
So, until further evidence turns up, this highly entertaining tale resides firmly in the category of unproven -- and unprovable -- legend.
Carter's Grove is closed to the public due to financial woes, and an article in the New York Times (December, 2006) suggests that it may soon be sold back into private hands.
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