Sir Banastre Tarleton

The notable successes of Sir Banastre Tarleton (1754-1833), English cavalry officer during the American Revolution, earned him the sobriquet "Bloody Tarleton."

Banastre Tarleton was the son of a wealthy Liverpool merchant, a sometime mayor of the city. After attending Oxford, young Tarleton entered the King's Dragoon Guards in 1775. He volunteered for service in the American colonies and gained his first military experience in Henry Clinton's unsuccessful venture against Charleston, S.C., in June 1776. Tarleton participated in the New York, Philadelphia, and Monmouth campaigns and was a member of the small party that captured American general Charles Lee in late 1776.

Accompanying Clinton on his second expedition against Charleston in 1780, Tarleton demonstrated his ability as commander of light infantry and dragoons. In a number of engagements he sometimes annihilated the opposition at little loss to his own men. After the bloody battle at Waxhaws, S.C., in May, Tarleton was regarded by the Revolutionaries as bloodthirsty and merciless. His reputation was largely a consequence of his tactics—usually a rapid cavalry charge followed by the energetic use of sabers and bayonets—and their impact upon the often poorly trained Americans.

Tarleton helped rout Horatio Gates's army at Camden, S.C., in August 1780 and surprised and destroyed the mixed forces of Thomas Sumter at Fishing Creek. Tarleton's defeat at Cowpens, S.C., in January 1781 materially weakened British forces in the South and raised rebel morale and encouraged resistance to the British. Subsequently, he won minor engagements and led a spectacular raid deep into Virginia in July. But, as he admitted, the results of this raid did not compensate for the loss of men and horses. He served with Lord Cornwallis in the Yorktown campaign, and their forces surrendered in October.

After being paroled, Tarleton returned to England in 1782. He served (with one year's exception) as a Liverpool member of the House of Commons from 1790 to 1812. Sometimes active in the army, he advanced gradually to become full general in 1812. He received a baronetcy in 1815.

Tarleton was involved with the actress Mary Robinson, former mistress of the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), for many years. He later married an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Ancaster. Tarleton died on Jan. 25, 1833, in Leintwardine, Shropshire.

A historian of the American Revolution wrote of Tarleton: "As a leader of cavalry, he was unmatched on either side for alertness and rapidity of movement, dash, daring and vigor of attack."


Further Reading on Sir Banastre Tarleton

Tarleton wrote A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (1787; repr. 1968). A colorful popular biography of Tarleton and his mistress is Robert D. Bass, The Green Dragoon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson (1957). Franklin and Mary Wickwire, Cornwallis: The American Adventure (1970), has extensive material on Tarleton's career. Accounts from the American side are best summarized in John R. Alden, The South in the Revolution, 1763-1780 (1957).