On this day in 1754, future British Lt. General Banastre Tarleton is born in Liverpool. During the American Revolution, he came to be known as “Bloody Ban” Tarleton because of his cruel and ruthless tactics.
Tarleton has appeared as the villain in several of this page’s history posts! I thought maybe you’d like to hear his story.
For those of you who are wondering: Yes, the villain in Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot” was based on this guy, although the fictional Colonel William Tavington was probably even more cruel than the real-life Tarleton.
Tarleton was born to an Englishman who had a thriving business in the sale of slaves. (Do you feel like you already understand some of Tarleton’s problems?!) He was well-educated and studied law at Oxford. He eventually lost much of his inheritance gambling or otherwise engaged in “fashionable amusements,” so he used the funds that he had left to buy himself a commission in the 1st Regiment Dragoon Guards. Before too long, he was on his way to America.
Tarleton became known for his scorched-earth tactics. He would burn crops and destroy houses in his path, despite the fact that war was then expected to be conducted in a more gentlemanly way. He soon earned a nickname for himself: Bloody Tarleton. The phrase “Tarleton’s Quarter” came to be used in the wake of the Battle of Waxhaws. In that battle, he’d allegedly refused to give quarter to American soldiers who were attempting to surrender. Instead, he and his men continued to attack, even as Americans were trying to lay down their arms.
Tarleton’s last major battle in America was the Battle of Cowpens. In that battle, American Brigadier General Daniel Morgan administered “a devil of a whipping” by using Tarleton’s own tactics against him. Tarleton escaped, but his forces had been devastated.
After Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, many British officers remained in America as terms of a peace were negotiated. During this time, Americans would sometimes host British officers as their dinner guests. Tarleton was never invited to a single dinner. He reportedly asked about the omission and was told that it was because of his cruelty during the war.
Tarleton nevertheless returned to England a hero. Over the remaining years of his life, he received military promotions, was knighted, and even served in Parliament for a time. As a parliamentary member, he advocated strongly for the continuance of slavery.
Sadly, his cruelty and his advocacy for slavery may be his biggest legacies. He died childless in 1833
Henry Lumpkin, From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South (1981)
John C. Fredriksen, Revolutionary War Almanac (2006)
Lawrence E. Babits, A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens (1998)
Lt. General Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America (1787)