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The phrase "Tarleton's quarter" was coined by the rebels to mean "no quarter," i.e. "take no prisoners." It came into use after the Battle of the Waxhaws, where it was claimed that the British Legion slaughtered members of a defeated rebel force as they were trying to surrender.
The truth of the accusation is a source of endless debate -- see my article on the battle itself -- but it was widely accepted at the time. Once it gained a foothold, the cry "Give them Tarleton's quarter" became an excuse used by the rebels to butcher British or Tory forces in "revenge" for Abraham Buford's command -- even though, needless to say, it was unlikely that the men they were killing had anything whatsoever to do with the events at Waxhaws. This modus operandi is recorded at the battles of Williamson's Plantation, King's Mountain and Cowpens, after the Lee/Pyle conflict at Haw River, and elsewhere.1
Many 19th century (and even a few modern) historians have not only swallowed the myth of "Tarleton's quarter" as an objective truth, they have exaggerated it into a claim that Ban Tarleton and the British Legion never took prisoners.
This allegation has no basis in fact and even the worst of the contemporary accounts do not support it. At Waxhaws, traditionally considered the Legion's most brutal battle, more than two-thirds of Abraham Buford's rebel command survived the skirmish. Eyewitness accounts tell us that wounded prisoners were paroled on the battlefield and transported to the nearby Waxhaw Presbyterian church for medical treatment. Healthy prisoners (of which there were at least fifty) were marched off to Camden, where they were confined in the local jail.
Rebel battle returns for three of Tarleton's more memorable victories are given as follows by Edward McCrady. McCrady was no fan of the Legion and thus his numbers should provide a suitable "worst case" measure.2
These numbers ring with the echoes of bloody encounters, but they are not unreasonable for a conflict between the battle-hardened veterans of a combined cavalry/infantry force such as the Legion and troops which were, in the first case, grossly unprepared to meet an attack and, in the second, incompetently led. Even in the worst case, Waxhaws, many rebels obviously were granted quarter. As Doc M notes elsewhere, "Tarleton's quarter" was, on average, perfectly generous.
Why, then, did the myth of "no prisoners" come about? There is no definitive answer, but several factors suggest themselves immediately:
Generations of 19th century historians took already exaggerated tales at face value and made them still worse. Even through the first half of the 20th century, many accepted them without question. Fortunately, in recent years there has been a growing trend to go back to original sources and evaluate them on their own merits. As a result, the traditional meaning of "Tarleton's quarter" is being relegated to the realm of myth and propaganda.
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1 There are numerous examples to be found in Edward McCrady, The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1775-80 (New York: Russel and Russel, 1901) and The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-83 (New York: Russel and Russel, 1902). The sheer brutality aimed at Loyalist prisoners after the battle of King's Mountain is graphically accounted by a survivor, Anthony Allaire, whose journal is published as an appendix in Lyman Draper, King's Mountain and its Heroes (Johnson City, TN: The Overmountain Press, 1996). The encounter between Lee and Pyle is covered John T. Hayes, Massacre: Tarleton and Lee, 1780-1781 (Fort Lauderdale, FL: The Saddlebag Press; 1997), and in an eyewitness account by one of Lee's men published in John C. Dann, ed., The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980). Etc., etc., etc. [ back ]
2 McCrady, 1780-83, Appendix B. [ back ]
3 John S. Pancake, This Destructive War (University, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1985), p71. [ back ]
4 See footnote 1, above. [ back ]
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