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This Day in History: Americans defeat the much-loathed Bloody Banastre Tarleton

On this day in 1780, American Patriots win a notable victory against the British: A motley band of militia defeated the much-loathed Bloody Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Blackstock’s.


Perhaps you remember the fictitious villain, Colonel William Tavington, from Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot”? Bloody Ban Tarleton was the real-life inspiration for Tavington.

Blackstock’s might not have occurred but for the fact that British General Charles Cornwallis had become so frustrated with American Brigadier General Thomas Sumter. The so-called “Carolina Gamecock” was a constant thorn in Cornwallis’s side! Cornwallis wanted Sumter caught, and he decided to send the much-feared Tarleton to accomplish this task.


Fortunately, a British deserter told Sumter what he knew about Tarleton’s plans and the size of his force.


Sumter and his officers decided to make a stand! The decision was not easy. Sumter had more men than Tarleton, but the British commander led a force of British regulars with a reputation for cruelty. By contrast, Sumter was leading a ragtag crew of militia.


Nevertheless, Sumter prepared for battle, choosing a spot near Captain William Blackstock’s plantation. It was situated on a steep hill, with many sturdy buildings, railed fences, and wooded areas for posting riflemen. The men would be protected by a river at their back, and a ford behind the house was available if the men needed an escape route. Sumter placed his main force on the hill, while riflemen hid in plantation buildings. Militia hid in trees along the road.


Tarleton arrived late on November 20. His initial attack went well. Americans shot their volleys too soon, and Tarleton’s men pursued the militia with bayonets. But as the Americans retreated, the British followed them too far up the hill. They came in sight of the American riflemen, who began shooting at officers. Sumter soon noticed British dragoons sitting on their horses, watching the fighting. Before they could join the fray, he sent Colonel Edward Lacey through the woods towards them. Lacey and his men came within roughly 50 yards of the dragoons and began taking shots before they were noticed.


Finally, Tarleton was forced into retreat. As the British were leaving, Sumter made a nearly fatal mistake. He and a group of officers came too close and exposed themselves. The British fired, seriously wounding Sumter. Acting unfazed, Sumter rode away, still sitting erect in his saddle. He didn’t want his men to realize that he’d been wounded. He made it back to his command post, even though he couldn’t move one arm! He was eventually evacuated from the scene, leaving Colonel John Twiggs in charge.


Tarleton was determined to return the next day, after his reinforcements arrived. But Twiggs fooled him. Decoy campfires were left behind as the American militia crossed the river and left. Tarleton decided that, since he had the field of battle the next day, he could tell Cornwallis that the British had won.


By contrast, Americans knew that they had achieved an important feat: Bloody Tarleton, with his British regulars, had been beaten by a band of American militia. Perhaps the British didn’t have quite as much control over South Carolina as they thought.

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