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Part 1: The Early Years

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Banastre Tarleton is living proof that history is more interesting, and much more entertaining, than fiction. His life could have been written by George McDonald Fraser with out-takes to spare. Unfortunately, Tarleton's spirited existence has gone unnoticed for two significant reasons. First, the mythologizing of American history has granted him the role of two-dimensional bad guy and insisted he keep it regardless of factual evidence that lessens his villainy. Second, although he was a hero when he returned to England, the American War was largely pushed under the rug of popular thought with the brief exception of the Clinton-Cornwallis tabloid skirmishes. Over time, many of the worthy men who fought in the Colonies were forgotten as heroes of the Napoleonic and Indian conflicts began their historical ascents.

And so our Butcher of the Carolinas has languished underappreciated and very much misrepresented by history. The recent howl that went up in Britain regarding the movie The Patriot has brought Ban back into the limelight. The totally fictitious, but quite dashing, Tavington character elicited consternation from Liverpool and fandom on both sides of the Atlantic. The obvious question, "Was Tarleton really like that?" has to be answered, "Absolutely not." Tarleton had plenty of foibles and failings to go along with his other attributes, but a cardboard killing machine he wasn't.

Before launching into a biography, perhaps listing his strengths and weaknesses would be wise, as these characteristics are woven throughout his life. On the positive side, he was a very good soldier, naturally adept at cavalry. His courage in battle was never questioned by either army. He was classically educated and intelligent if not diligent. He was described as extremely polite by many people. The fact that he was most charming is found in many descriptions. He was obviously very handsome, as first-hand descriptions and portraits attest. Often described as unfeeling and even brutal, and his letters laconic, much of his correspondence proves otherwise. He could be quite emotional as evidenced in his letters to his mother about the capture of Charles Lee, in his letter to his sister Bridget after Guilford Courthouse, in his letter to his brother John from France in 1783. There are more examples. He was loyal to the people he chose to be loyal to, even when it meant going up against his family and at the risk of his political career. He was a highly athletic person who seemed to take sports and personal strength seriously until arthritis and gout slowed him down. The adjectives most often used to describe Ban were "spirited" and "gallant." He was reported to have a lively nature, great joie de vivre, a high energy level. He was ambitious.

On the other hand, he was arrogant and reportedly boastful. To him, war was war and soldiers were wounded or killed. (I am always amused to hear how terrible his behavior was through the Carolinas when, as a Southerner, I recall Sherman laying waste to my neighborhood a few decades later. But since Sherman is an American hero, his actions are accepted. It's just ironic.) He could very well have been cruel in battle, although he was never the homicidal maniac often depicted. Such pathology would surely have continued in Britain, but it didn't. He drank too much at times, and the fact that he was a womanizer, not a "ravisher," is certain. No improper or unwanted activity of this nature made it into print. A British officer did not rape even an enemy, or he would be courtmartialled. Ban was much too ambitious to let this happen. His flings appear to have been mutually enjoyed. His major flaw was a gambling addiction which haunted his career from his Oxford days until well into his forties. He also made the mistake of choosing a lifestyle and a political philosophy he could not afford in order to continue friendships with the rich and famous, as well as a long romantic involvement which encouraged running with that crowd. He was weak in this way, as many people are, and it hurt his career. He loved the beautiful carriages, fast horses, and elegant uniforms which combined with gambling debts were far beyond his means. He loved the night life, he loved to party.

With these characteristics in mind, the story begins on August 21, 1754, in Liverpool. Something must be said about his birth order. It has been determined that birth order plays a large role in the development of children's personalities. Ban was a second son which meant not being the family heir unless his elder brother died. As there were five other children, there must have been great competition for parental affection. Perhaps Ban cultivated manners and charm trying to stand out in the crowd. It is obvious that Mother Jane was more tolerant of him than most mothers would be during his post-war escapades. The Tarleton family was "in trade," but wealthy.

The family's roots included a Captain Edward Tarleton, a captain in Cromwell's Navy. After the Civil War, he left for Barbados for obvious reasons. This is possibly where the Tarleton family's interests in the Indies began. Edward later returned and became Mayor of Liverpool. The family had trade interests in the Chesapeake, New England, and Newfoundland as well as the Caribbean. They dealt in many cargoes, one of which was human slaves. By 1722, Grandfather Thomas Tarleton was delivering slaves to Antigua. Thomas' son John, Banastre's father, became the "Great T," Mayor of Liverpool, and the purchaser of land in the West Indies. (Mount Pleasant Estate in Carriacou,1 Grenada was in the family until 1910.There was also a warehouse in St. Georges, Grenada and another estate in Dominica.) There is record of a slave ship named Banastre, which was lost, and so another Banastre was commissioned.

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John Tarleton married Jane Parker of Cuerdon, Lancashire, on June 25, 1751 at Tarleton Chapel, Lancashire. They settled into a large house on Water Street in Liverpool which later became the famous King's Arms Hotel. It was here that the children were born: Thomas in 1753, Banastre (named for his maternal grandfather) on August 21, 1754, John in 1755, William in 1758, Bridget in 1760, and Clayton in 1762.

The family lived in considerable comfort. John, the "Great T," was co-owner of Tarleton and Blackhouse, a very successful trading firm. John bought a seat at Aigburth for his family. The children did not attend a private academy but a free school in Liverpool. Bass presumes that Banastre was athletic and active, as his later life would suggest. His adeptness at speaking and acting persuaded his father to choose a law career for his second son. And so, on April 10, 1770, John took his two eldest sons to Oxford, registering Ban's name at Middle Temple.

Banastre's college career was neither long nor distinguished, although he had excellent teachers. He entered University College on November 2, 1771. His tutor was the brilliant professor William Scott, later to become Lord Stowell, an international jurist and judge of admiralty law. As Scott was also a professor of Greek, it stands to reason that along with Latin, Ban studied this language as well. He probably "studied" much harder the cricket fields and the Cocoa Tree club in St. James, where he undoubtedly discovered the thrills of gambling. He definitely was a constant patron of the theater, where once at Drury Lane he rose during intermission and gave an impromptu eulogy on a relative who was still very much alive. This suggests a prankish and fun-loving nature, and someone eager to be the center of attention.

The most important acquaintance the student made, however, was to lead him on a different path, away from a scholarly lifestyle. Ban became good friends with Francis Rawdon of County Down, Ireland. Rawdon was already a soldier, an ensign in the 15th Regiment of Foot. Rawdon stayed at Oxford until 1773. His father was eventually created Earl of Moira, and thus young Francis became "Lord Rawdon." It was young Rawdon who thrust the idea of a military career at Ban at a time when he desperately needed a change of venue.

In September of 1773, John Tarleton died. He left Ban £5,000. The second son went through his inheritance in record time. By spring of 1775 he needed a new career, and immediately remembered Rawdon's recommendations. And so, on April 20, 1775, Mother Jane paid £800 for a cornetcy in the 1st Regiment of Dragoon Guards. Ban's military career was launched. It was ironic that the day before the purchase of the commission, the rebellious colonists had fired upon British soldiers at Lexington, MA. War was brewing. By December it was reported that Lord Cornwallis was leaving for America with five regiments of infantry. Tarleton, eager for adventure abroad, volunteered to go. But before shipping out, he managed a few farewell parties at the Cocoa Tree. During one, he delivered a typically Tarletonesque prediction. After a discussion of the Patriot leader General Charles Lee, Ban leapt to his feet, swinging his saber over his head, and shouted, "With this sword I'll cut off General Lee's head!"

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The first piece of American real estate Ban saw was Cape Fear, North Carolina, on May 3, 1775. From here General Clinton launched the first attempt at Charleston, South Carolina. Tarleton's first view of war was a British failure. The British cannon balls bounced off the palmetto log fort in Charleston Harbor. They abandoned the effort several weeks later, returning to New York City, where the fighting was more to their liking. George Washington didn't have any palmetto to work with.

The summer passed without much news from Cornet Tarleton. However, throughout the fighting around New York, General Charles Lee was a major Patriot player. Then Fate struck. On December 12, Lee decided to spend a quiet evening catching up on correspondence at White's Tavern at Basking Ridge, New Jersey. On the morning of December 13, an attack by a small group of British Light Dragoons surprised the careless Lee, and after a brisk exchange he was captured. Cornet Tarleton was among those few British Dragoons, and in his letter to his mother about the event, he sounded like an excited boy, which he was, enjoying the first of many victories to come. After describing the event in detail he states, "This is a most miraculous Event -- it appears like a dream."

The winter of 1777 was boring, and Ban wrote his mother to that effect. "Winter Quarters in America are stupid and afford no description for the pen." But more stirring times were ahead. June saw the launch of the campaign to capture Philadelphia by the British. September saw the bloody battle of Brandywine, followed by Captain John André's night attack at Paoli. On September 26th, the British marched into Philadelphia as the music played "God Save the King."

Thus for the entire fall, winter and spring, the British occupied Philadelphia. While the Patriot army suffered Valley Forge, it was one party after another for their enemies. According to Jackson's book With the British in Philadelphia, young occupying soldiers were warned that should they "dishonor" any native girl, they would wind up marrying her. There were constant balls, hunting expeditions, cockfights, and the ever-present gambling. Ban lost heavily and sent his bills home to Mother. In other arenas, the young officers imitated their commander, General William Howe, who kept a loving mistress (whose own husband was conveniently given distracting duties). Her name was Mrs. Loring, and the affair prompted song lyrics:

Sir William he, snug as a flea,
lay all this time a'snoring.
Nor dreamed of harm, as he lay warm
in bed with Mrs. Loring.

It was in this atmosphere that an episode occurred which almost had the young cornet in a duel of honor. Major Richard Crewe sported a fine mistress, of whom he was mightily proud. One day he opened her bedroom door to find that besides beauty and a fine figure, she also had a wandering eye. A young Cornet was keeping Crewe's place warm for him. Fortunately, nothing came of the event, but Tarleton and Crewe remained unfriendly.

Another entertainment during Philadelphia's occupation was theater. In an old playhouse on South Street, John André and a company of officers developed their own theatrical group whose motto was "We act Monday, Wednesday, and Friday." André painted a beautiful backdrop, and the amateur thespians produced such "immortal" works as Duke or No Duke along with a little Shakespeare. There is no record of which characters young Tarleton might have acted, but it is almost certain he trod the boards.

When not acting, flirting, or gambling, the dragoons almost captured another Patriot Lee -- this time a wilier customer than Charles Lee before him. Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee, was also a young dragoon, and an able one. Quartered in the Spread Eagle Tavern near Valley Forge, he was attacked on the night of January 20, 1778, by Lt. Cols. Harcourt and Birch, whose force included a company of dragoons and young Ban. The attack was fought off, and the raid unsuccessful. Tarleton was fortunate to escape with his life. During the shooting he acquired three holes through his coat and his helmet was blasted from his head.

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By spring General Howe was relieved of his command. His young officers, who adored him, sent him off in style with a party often described as the grandest ever in America, the "Meschianza." John André concocted this fabulous event which included a regatta on the Delaware River and a Medieval tournament of knights followed by dinner and dancing. Two groups of "knights" were selected. Ban became the sixth Knight of the Burning Mountain, dressed in black and orange silk, on a black horse. His device was a light dragoon, and his motto was "Swift, Vigilant, and Bold." He rode for the honor of Miss Williamina Smith.

After this extravagant party, events turned more serious. Howe relinquished the army to Sir Henry Clinton who began making changes and granting promotions. Ban, now a captain, rose to brigade major. British soldiers were ordered to leave Philadelphia which was an unpopular decision with the young British men who had had such a grand time. Many hid in cellars and over a thousand deserted. Ban was not one of them.

During the spring and summer of 1778, an effort was made to form Loyalist volunteer companies, and out of these efforts was born the British Legion. Sir Henry Clinton created this famous company out of various light dragoon and infantry units, and on July 18, 1778 appointed Lord William Cathcart to its colonelcy and Tarleton its lieutenant colonel. As Bass points out, Ban was still only twenty-three, only in the army for two years, and he had no wealth or royal patron to help him. He had risen to this rank on merit. For those who picture dragoons, and Tarleton in particular, as simply galloping about with a saber, there is much more to being a good soldier than that. Much more drilling, conditioning, practice, hard work. The Legion was stationed at Knightsbridge, NY, and soon Cathcart was promoted again to quartermaster. This left Ban alone in command of the Legion.

Perhaps this is when Ban ordered the oatmeal for the foxhounds. Bass reports that he was bored. There was little military activity until an uprising of Indians demanded attention. On September 1 Ban was among a group led out by Colonel Simcoe to confront a band of marauding hostiles when an interesting incident occurred. During the skirmish, Ban rode down an Indian who was trying to run away, and, as Bass describes, "Standing in his stirrups, the Green Dragoon made a powerful slash with his enormous saber. He missed. The momentum of his stroke pulled him from his horse." The Indian jumped on Ban to deliver the death stroke when an orderly skewered the Indian in the nick of time. Simcoe wrote dryly, "That active officer had a narrow escape."

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The winter of 1778-1779 was spent defending New York, and here Ban played the "martinet," drilling his troops mercilessly. It was this training and discipline that prepared them for their Southern adventures which were soon to come. Along with the work, however, came personal discomfort. Mother Jane had stopped honoring Ban's gambling debts.

The first half of 1779 saw continued service in New York. On July 1st Ban was given his first independent command, a raid against Patriot troops in Westchester County. A prelude to the methodology to come, Ban's troops pursued the beaten Patriots, then burned local barns and houses. Not named a Butcher for this activity, he nevertheless sent his dispatches to Clinton who immediately sent them to London. Tarleton finally made the evening news. His report gave him his first taste of celebrity on a national scale.

In the summer of 1779, Cornwallis rushed to Britain. His beloved wife, Jemima, was dying. After her death, Cornwallis returned to the American theater, but not without a plan, developed with Lord Amherst and Lord Germaine, for a Southern Campaign. By the end of the year, a large portion of the British Army was embarked on a flotilla of 140 ships bound for the Southern Colonies. Ban was aboard the Romulus, in command of all the King's cavalry.

It was not a pleasant crossing. A "storm of the century" tossed the ships about, sickening or causing severe damage to most of the cavalry's horses. Many of the brutes had to be thrown overboard, and the ambitious young cavalry officer landed on Tybee Island, Georgia, with little for his troops to ride. The youngest colony had no replacements. Ban wrote John André in complaint of the situation, ending with, "I hate Difficulties of any kind."

And so he went about remedying the problem at Port Royal, SC, "in order to collect at that place, from friends and enemies, by money or by force, all the horses belonging to the islands in the neighborhood."


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1 According to Adam Tarleton, this is mistakenly transcribed as Curaçao in Liverpool library in the index of Tarleton Papers. -- Marg B. [ return ]

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