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The Waxhaws "Massacre"

The legends of "Bloody Tarleton" trace their roots to a single skirmish which took place near Waxhaws Creek, South Carolina, on May 29, 1780. The encounter might be more properly identified as the First Battle of the Waxhaws, but it is more often referred to by melodramatic nicknames such as "The Waxhaws Massacre," "The Buford Massacre" or "Buford's Bloody Battleground."

Events leading up to the Waxhaws skirmish began with the surrender of Charleston. Colonel Abraham Buford had been leading a force of roughly 400 Virginia Continentals towards the city but after the skirmish at Lenud's Ferry, he headed back towards North Carolina, where the rebel forces were hoping to regroup. Gaining information that the force was moving through the area, Lord Cornwallis sent Tarleton and the Legion in pursuit.

Tarleton had a talent for moving men and equipment around at amazing speed. With less than 300 men, a mixture of Legion mounted infantry, Legion cavalry and regular British dragoons, Banastre pushed after Buford at top speed, covering more than 100 miles in 54 hours -- a nearly impossible accomplishment for a corps which included infantry and even some extremely light artillery. This spectacular speed exacted a heavy price from his troops and cavalry horses, many of whom were carrying two men. The weather was fiercely hot, and a number of horses died along the way and had to be hastily replaced. By the time his scouts located Buford's column, the Legion was on its last legs. Men were falling behind and horses were beginning to collapse with the heat.1

In A New Age Now Begins, Page Smith remarks:

The determination of the young officer is worth commenting on. On this occasion, as on a number of others, Tarleton displayed that quality essential to successful military leaders -- the resolution to force an issue by sheer power of will, ignoring or overcoming the obstacles and complications that will provide ample excuse for a less aggressive commander to break off the action.2

Even force of will could only carry him so far. Realizing that it would be impossible to push the chase any further, Tarleton came up with a plan to delay Buford so he could catch up. He sent Captain David Kinlock forward under a flag of truce to demand Buford's surrender. In his message, he hugely exaggerated the size of his force -- claiming he had 700 men -- in hopes of swaying Buford's decision, or at the very least causing him to delay while he conferred with his officers.

His message to Buford began with the prophetic words, "Resistance being vain, to prevent the effusion of human blood, I make offers which can never be repeated," and went on to outline a set of fairly standard articles of surrender, based upon those which Sir Henry Clinton had offered to the defenders of Charleston. The message ended with another warning: "I expect an answer to these propositions as soon as possible; if they are accepted, you will order every person under your command to pile his arms in one hour after you receive the flag: If you are rash enough to reject them, the blood be upon your head." Buford sent back a terse reply: "I reject your proposals, and shall defend myself to the last extremity." [Full Text]

As Kinlock headed back to Tarleton to bring him this information, Buford made the decision to continue marching rather than preparing his troops to meet the upcoming battle. Even worse, he kept his artillery at the front of the column, where they proved useless when the Legion overtook him from the rear.

It took Tarleton's exhausted forces until mid-afternoon to catch up with Buford's small rear guard, which they immediately captured en masse. Only at this point did Buford finally shift his column from their marching order into a defensive formation. In doing so, he failed to take into account that the terrain -- open woods -- would not prevent an effective cavalry charge.

Tarleton formed his troops and ordered a charge. Buford's officers ordered their men to hold their fire. Apparently no one explained to them that the old adage "don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes" does not apply when facing cavalry. By the time the rebel line finally opened up, the Legion cavalry was ten yards away -- no more than a second or two at full gallop -- and the rebel volley had essentially no effect. The Legion rolled over Buford's badly formed line with deadly efficiency, breaking it completely on their first charge. Some of Buford's men ran; others were cut down as they attempted to put up a disorganized resistance.

The most significant casualty of the charge seems to have been Banastre Tarleton's horse. Its loss put Tarleton out of action for several minutes while he recovered from the fall, cut himself free of his saddle equipment, found another mount, and regained control of his troops.

What happened during and after those critical few minutes has been the subject of controversy for more than two hundred years. Eyewitness accounts vary so wildly that it is hard to believe all the speakers were fighting in the same battle. Generations of historians have further muddied the waters by taking one side or another and skewing their recounting to support their theories.

Tarleton's own comment in his Campaigns is terse and to the point: "...the battalion was totally broken, and slaughter was commenced before Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton could remount another horse, the one with which he led his dragoons being overturned by the volley. Thus in a few minutes ended an affair which might have had a very different termination."3

The final comment, "Thus in a few minutes ended an affair which might have had a very different termination," derives from the fact that the Legion was badly outnumbered by Buford's forces, and Tarleton entered the battle having made plans with his officers to regroup and retire in haste if Buford repulsed their initial attack.

For obvious reasons, subsequent generations of American historians have had reservations about accepting Tarleton's version. After all, he was bound to be biased in his own favor. Also, Tarleton has nothing whatsoever to say about the controversial matter of the white flag.

According to some rebel accounts (most famously those of Adjutant Henry Bowyer, and Surgeon's Mate Robert Brownfield) in the wake of having his line broken by Tarleton's cavalry charge, Buford made a belated decision to accept the surrender terms he had rejected that morning. The usefulness of the accounts is reduced by the fact that they tell mutually contradictory stories about what happened, and even about who carried the hypothetical surrender flag. A third account (by Captain John Marshall of Virginia) joins Tarleton in making no mention of a flag at all.4

Bowyer claims to have been ordered to carry the flag himself, which he did under protest:

Adjutant Bowyer was ordered to advance with a flag, and to say to Tarleton, that [Buford] was willing to accept the terms offered before the action began. The Adjutant remonstrated by saying, that as the firing still continued, the execution of the order would be impracticable, exposing the bearer of the flag to the shot of both parties. Beaufort repeated his orders, in positive terms, and the Adjutant rode forward, with a handkerchief displayed on the point of his sword. When close to the British commander, he delivered Beaufort's message, but a ball at the moment striking the forehead of Tarleton's horse, he plunged and both fell to the ground, the horse being uppermost. Extricated by his men from so perilous a position, the exasperated Colonel rose from the ground, and ordered the soldiers to despatch him.5

Bowyer eluded their efforts and made a clean escape from the field -- presumably taking his white flag with him. Bowyer's account differs from Tarleton's (and from Buford's as well) in several particulars. He goes on to confirm that firing continued after the raising of a white flag: "The rage of the British soldiers, excited by the continued fire of the Americans, while a negotiation was offered by flag, impelled them to acts of vengeance[.]" Their "rage" was hardly surprising, since by the standards of 18th century warfare Buford was (albeit by ineptness rather than intent) guilty of the worst sort of treachery.6

It is Brownfield's melodramatic account which provided most of the myths associated with the "Waxhaws Massacre." Brownfield's version, like Bowyer's, was written down some forty years after the events took place, but beyond that they have little in common:

"Buford now perceiving that further resistance was hopeless, ordered a flag to be hoisted and the arms to be grounded, expecting the usual treatment sanctioned by civilized warfare. This, however, made no part of Tarleton's creed. His ostensible pretext, for the relentless barbarity that ensued, was, that his horse was killed under [him] just as the flag was raised. He affected to believe that this was done afterwards, and imputed it to treachery on the part of Buford; but, in reality, a safe opportunity was presented to gratify that thirst for blood which marked his character in every conjuction that promised probable impunity to himself. Ensign Cruit, who advanced with the flag, was instantly cut down. Viewing this as an earnest of what they were to expect, a resumption of their arms was attempted, to sell their lives as dearly as possible; but before this was fully effected, Tarleton and his cruel myrmidons was in the midst of them, when commenced a scene of indiscriminate carnage never surpassed by the ruthless atrocities of the most barbarous savages."7

He goes on to recount how "not a man was spared" and how the Legion infantry scoured the field, plunging their bayonets into anything that moved.

Brownfield may have had a great future in writing Gothic horror or rebel propaganda, but there is relatively little in his account that is useful as history. The claim that no man was spared is contradicted by the casualty figures reported by both commanders and numerous subsequent documents. Ensign (John) Cruit (or Crute) must have had more lives than a cat, for Brownfield himself later mentions him as being one of the survivors. (There even exists the possibility that Cruit was not present at all. Another document lists an officer of the same name as having been taken prisoner at Charleston, and there seems to be no suggestion that two John Cruits were serving locally.)8

Although they disagree on what happened afterwards, the two other main accounts (Buford's and Bowyer's) which discuss Buford's attempted surrender agree that the bearer of the white flag survived unharmed. There is, however, an anecdote which claims that Buford's standard-bearer was taken down during the initial cavalry charge. Given Brownfield's attitude, it is deeply ironic that he wove these two events into a mélange, because the anecdote presents a Legion officer (the same Captain Kinlock who delivered Tarleton's initial surrender terms) protecting the life of a fallen enemy. The standard-bearer, Sergeant Mitchell, was wounded in the initial charge but refused to surrender his Colors, and Kinlock shielded him from being killed in the subsequent action.

The words Brownfield lays at Tarleton's door can be dismissed after reading Tarleton's accounts of the incident. He claims nothing of the sort in either his report to Lord Cornwallis or his account of the battle in his Campaigns.

What actually happened? We'll never know the details, and can only derive a scattering of conclusions from those facts which can be reasonably documented.

That the skirmish was bloody is obvious from the casualty figures. As Banastre puts it, "The loss of officers and men was great on the part of the Americans, owing to the dragoons so effectually breaking the infantry, and to a report amongst the cavalry, that they had lost their commanding officer, which stimulated the soldiers to a vindictive asperity not easily restrained." In other words, Buford's high casualties resulted from a combination of his bad tactics and the perception of treachery during his belated attempt to surrender.9

That a portion of Buford's force survived is well documented. His advance column seem to have taken no part in the fighting at all, but continued on their way, leaving their comrades behind to be defeated. Already exhausted, the Legion made no attempt to pursue them even though (as one modern historian has noted) they would have been easy prey if Tarleton had been actively seeking to increase the bloodshed. Independent documentation from both sides confirms that there were survivors among the elements of Buford's fighting force which engaged in the battle. One hundred and fifty wounded men were paroled on the field and sent to the nearby Waxhaw Presbyterian church for medical treatment. (Future President Andrew Jackson's mother was among the women who attended to them.) Uninjured prisoners (fifty-three of them, by Tarleton's numbers which are generally accepted) were marched off to Camden, where they were incarcerated in the local jail. As many as seventy men escaped during the battle.10

Did Tarleton order his men to "wipe out" Buford's forces? Aside from Brownfield's overblown rhetoric, there is no evidence that he did, and considerable logic to imply that he didn't.

As Dan Morrill observes, "Rational judgment suggests that the commander of the British Legion was most likely innocent of intentionally ignoring Buford's white flag or practicing bloodthirsty tactics. If he were completely insensitive to the accepted conventions of warfare, why, for example, did Tarleton let the wounded patriots go and allow them to be hauled away by the Presbyterian ladies?"11

Why indeed? Another sensible question is whether Tarleton would have risked his promising career merely for a chance to indulge in a few homicidal jollies, as Brownfield implies. The overwhelming drive behind Ban's military career was ambition. He was a young man without high connections who had already made a meteoric rise through the ranks on his own merits. Keeping himself on that fast track meant keeping in good with his (relatively new) boss, Lord Cornwallis, who was an old-style soldier with strict notions of honor. Brownfield's "safe opportunity" to indulge his baser nature doesn't take into account that the 18th century British Army was a hotbed of office politics worthy of Dilbert. Whatever information made it into the official reports, we can be sure that the full details filtered back to Cornwallis via some grapevine or other. It was in Ban's very best interest to be sure those details contained nothing of which the Earl would disapprove. This was especially true at the time of the battle, at which point Tarleton had only been under Cornwallis's command for a brief time, and was still "on probation." (Cornwallis, in general, did not take to officers who came to him from Clinton's ranks. The aloofness of his communications with Tarleton during this early period stands in obvious contrast with the friendly warmth of letters written later in the year. )

An ancillary question is whether Tarleton was even inclined towards homicidal jollies. There is no evidence that he had any particular love of killing for its own sake. He abhorred the practice of duelling. Outside the years he spent in America, he seems to have had no more interest in blood sports than was considered normal for a man of his culture (i.e. cock fighting, boxing, hunting, etc.) His attachment to Charles James Fox's radical Whigs involved him in some rough-and-tumble politics, but again they fall within the normal range for late 18th century society. There is plentiful evidence that he had no compunctions about killing when his job called for it, but that seems to be all it was to him: a job.

It's not so easy to give the whole Legion a clean slate in this particular incident, though the more I learn about the battle, the more I realize that there are a number of factors which must be taken into consideration before judging their actions. They were always noted for fierceness in combat, and in this case there is evidence -- including Tarleton's own comments -- that they did get out of control for a short time while seeking "revenge" for their not-quite-as-dead-as-he-appeared commander. Given the chaos of close-quarters combat and Buford's perceived treachery in allowing his men to continue firing while Bowyer (or whoever) was presenting a white flag, such a reaction was almost inevitable. (I don't believe for a moment that Buford intended treachery, but after looking at the man's military career -- check out his bio note -- it isn't surprising that he lost control of his troops entirely as soon as things went bad.)

I recently encountered an academic paper on the battle which provided several excellent insights into how human psychology under battlefield conditions would apply to this particular incident. Tarleton's men, badly outnumbered and suffering from exhaustion, made their initial charge against a (relatively) well-rested enemy in battle formation. Buford's line may have been hastily (and as it turned out, badly) set up, but from the Legion's perspective it must have appeared formidable. So they entered the battle in anticipation of a tough fight against a strong enemy, but instead almost immediately found themselves in the midst of a mop-up operation when that "formidable" enemy line turned to smoke and chaos.

During the subsequent few minutes, while some of Buford's men attempted to surrender and their comrades continued to fight, the Legion troops remained in deadly danger. Faced with scattered groups of enemy soldiers, some putting down their weapons, others taking them up again, a man doesn't have the luxury to differentiate. He kills to stay alive. There is nothing cruel or inhuman about soldiers under fire concerning themselves foremost with their own survival and that of their comrades, rather than trying to identify which individual enemies might not (but then again might) be a continuing threat.

The same modern analysis found that the reported incidents of quarter being granted or denied to members of Buford's corps folowed a pattern which was the exact opposite to Brownfield's claim that Legion troopers went on a killing rampage at the end of the battle. In fact, it was exactly what common sense would dictate for a bloody encounter. During the beginning or middle of the skirmish, when the Legion troops felt themselves to be in danger and/or believed that Buford had killed their commanding officer by treachery, they fought flat-out. When the battle began to wind down, humane concerns returned, and incidents were reported of quarter being granted, prisoners taken, and aid given to wounded enemies.12

The majority of the high casualty figures at Waxhaws can be traced to Buford's poorly chosen tactics, which rendered his defense essentially useless. His unmounted, badly placed troops faced a cavalry charge essentially without resisting it, due to their extended delay in firing. This was followed by a bayonet charge by the Legion infantry. Heavy casualties were the inevitable result. The situation was compounded by the confusion of an abortive surrender attempt, the perception of treachery, and psychological factors including the initial belief by the Legion that Buford's forces had the upper hand. Mark Mayo Boatner III sums it up well: "As for the morality displayed by the victor, a successful cavalry charge exploited by a bayonet attack is bound to be messy, and the dividing line between military success and slaughter depends on which side you're on."13

Buford himself didn't stick around to share the final outcome of his command decisions. Sometime during the chaos he escaped on a fast horse and eventually rejoined the Southern Army. He was courtmartialled for losing his command, but acquitted of blame.

Related Documents:

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1 In his report to Earl Cornwallis, Tarleton says he made contact with Buford "after a march of one hundred and five miles in fifty-four hours." See Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America; (London: Printed for T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1787), p83. A number of more modern sources -- for example, Dan L. Morrill, Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution (Mount Pleasant, S.C.: The Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America, Inc., 1993), p78 -- give the distance as 150 miles. Tarleton's original report to Cornwallis agrees with his published version with respect to the distance. I have no idea whether the discrepancy comes from a contradicting contemporary source, an accidental transposition of "l05" to "150" by some past writer, or a measurement taken on more accurate modern maps. If it really was a 150-mile march, it was an even more impressive accomplishment. [ back ]

2 Page Smith, A New Age Now Begins, 2 vols. (New York: McGraw-Hill, c1976), 2:1395. [ back ]

3 Tarleton, p30-31. [ back ]

4 John T. Hayes, Massacre: Tarleton and Lee, 1780-1781 (Fort Lauderdale, FL: The Saddlebag Press; 1997) provides versions of all three accounts. [ back ]

5 Alexander Garden, Anecdotes of the American Revolution. Illustrative of the Talents and Virtues of the Heroes of the Revolution, Who Acted the Most Conspicuous Parts Therein,, 3 vols. (Brooklyn, New York, 1865), 3:128. [ back ]

6 Garden, 3:128. In his myth-bashing modern study of the skirmish, Jim Piecuch dismisses Bowyer's account entirely. See Jim Piecuch, The Blood Be Upon Your Head: Tarleton and the Myth of Buford's Massacre (Lugoff, SC: Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution Press, 2010), 22-25. [ back ]

7 William Dobein James, A Sketch of the Life of Brig. Gen. Francis Marion, and A History of his Brigade (1821), Appendix, "Letter from Dr. Robert Brownfield to the author." [ back ]

8 See Hayes, pp59-63, for a discussion of the casualty reports and various such discrepancies. [ back ]

9 Tarleton, pp30-31. [ back ]

10 Charles Bracelen Flood, Rise, and Fight Again; Perilous Times Along the Road to Independence (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1976), p275. Tarleton, pp84. [ back ]

11 Morrill, pp79-80. John S. Pancake, This Destructive War; (University, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 1985), pp71, offers a similar opinion. (See inset quote, this page.) [ back ]

12 These ideas were put forward by Captain Thomas Rider in his paper, "Tarleton and the Waxhaws," presented at the Banastre Tarleton Symposium in Camden, S.C., April 2002. To the best of my knowledge, this paper -- one of two excellent analyses of Waxhaws which were presented -- has not been published. [ back ]

13 Mark M. Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994), p1175. [ back ]

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