Ban the Book

(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI do not get nearly as much time as I would like, these days, to read, but I did recently seize the opportunity to read the History of the campaigns 1780 and 1781 in the southern provinces of North America by Lieutenant-Colonel[1] Tarleton. I had previously come across the somewhat glamorous figure of Banastre Tarleton for the purposes of my book 500 Fenwicks (still not finished).

Banastre Tarleton was a descendant of the Shakespearean actor (the subject of John Dowland’s beautiful lute piece Tarleton’s Resurrection). He was the son of a successful merchant in Liverpool; he early wasted his inheritance gambling and womanising before joining the Army, and then distinguished himself as the most successful cavalry officer fighting on the loyalist side in the American Revolutionary war, particularly in the southern campaigns, running from the loyalist capture of Charleston[2] in 1780 to the siege of Yorktown in 1781. That is a war which the loyalists would certainly have won but for the massive intervention of the French, hugely jealous of British success in North America, which was so expensive to the French as to drive them to virtual bankruptcy, and hence sow the seeds of the French Revolution. It was also a war which, perhaps not surprisingly, has been massively romanticised by Americans. At the time, also unsurprising, the Rebels were not big fans of Tarleton.[3]

After the war, Tarleton wrote his book about the campaign. It is interesting for its historical content, of course, but also for some serendipitous reasons.

He obtained promotion very fast: a mere cornet in 1775, he was a Lieutenant-Colonel within 5 years, at the age of just 26. He was essentially a cavalry officer, commanding loyal Americans, but his unit, which came to known as Tarleton’s Raiders, also consisted of some mounted infantry and horse-drawn light artillery (3 pounders). His unit was famous for moving at very rapid speed, and achieving several victories over the rebels despite being greatly outnumbered. He would have been about the same age or younger than most of the Americans he commanded, and from the side of the Atlantic, but was obviously held in great affection and admiration by his men for his skill and bravery.

One curious thing about the book is the way that Tarleton spelled Scottish names; hence eg M’Arthur, not McArthur or MacArthur. It is a fashion which has long passed, but is not that illogical. After all we have O’Reilly etc in Ireland and D’Estaing etc in France.

patrick_fergusonA Scotsman who did not need the abbreviation was his friend Major Patrick Ferguson. Ferguson was also hugely popular with his unit of local militia, a group of American civilians who were anxious to fight the rebels.  In his mid-thirties, he was a decade older than Ban Tarleton, a talented musician, writer and inventor, having developed the breach-loading Ferguson rifle. At Brandywine Creek, whilst scouting with a small detachment, he might had had the opportunity to shoot George Washington, then on horseback, in the back, but did not do so.

As I was with the distance, at which in the quickest firing, I could have lodged a half dozen balls in or about him before he was out of my reach, I had only to determine, but it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual who was acquitting himself coolly of his duty, and so I let him alone.[4]

A couple of days later, Ferguson was shot in the right elbow by a musket ball. He refused to let the surgeons amputate, and learned to fight with his left hand, but must have been in a good deal of pain.

He and Tarleton were good friends, worked closely together and thought alike. They worked together, for example, to bring to court-martial any of their men who mistreated women.[5]  Tarleton wrote in his account:

On the arrival of some country people, Earl Cornwallis directed Lieutenant-General Tarleton to dismount his dragoons and mounted infantry, and to form them into a rank into, for the convenient inspection of the inhabitants, and to facilitate the discovery of the villains who had committed atrocious outrages the previous evening. A sergeant and one private dragoon were pointed out, and accused of rape and robbery: they were conducted to Halifax, where they were condemned to death by martial law. The immediate infliction of the sentence exhibited to the army and manifested to the country the discipline and justice of the British general.

It was not uncommon for military units in that war to travel with women. Ferguson had two such doxies to wash his clothes, share his tent and generally comfort him. On the night before he was killed by the Rebels at King’s Mountain in October 1780, it is recorded that he was comforted by both of them, one plaiting his hair and the other  – the “buxom young redhead” Virginia Sal – lying with her head in his lap as she sang to him.

The Mountaineers[6], it is reported, used every insult and indignity, after the action, towards the dead body of Maj Ferguson, and exercised horrid cruelties on the prisoners that fell into their possession.

That is, one might think, a rather restrained account of what actually happened, which was the Rebels urinated on Ferguson’s dead body, shot Virginia Sal as she was tendering the wounded, and left the pair of them in a shallow grave, the Rebels having stolen Sal’s necklace from her dead body.

Equally restrained is the account Ban gives of having been himself shot in the right hand, losing two fingers from it, at the Battle of Guildford[7]. He was assiduous in recording losses, and wrote this:

On the part of the British, the honourable Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart, of the guards, two lieutenants, two ensigns, , 13 sergeants and 75 rank and file killed: Brigadier-generals O’Hara and Howard and Lieutenant-colonels Webster and Tarleton, nine captains, four lieutenants, five ensigns, two staff officers, 15 sergeants, five drummers and 369 rank-and-file, were wounded, and 25 rank and file were missing.

To bury his own injury among accounts of the injuries of others, referring to himself in the third person, is quite extraordinary terse.  In other parts of the book, he indulges himself with opinions about the tactics of both sides, both military and political, and one would have thought that he would have said at least something about what it is like to have half of one’s right hand blown off[8]. I guess he was right handed, and so the injury would have been not only very painful, but would also have caused him considerable difficulty in using the main tool of his trade: the cavalry sabre. And yet, that is the only mention of the point.

Another interesting feature is the large number of references to the parole system. Instead of killing or detaining prisoners of war, the Loyalists would offer them a deal. If the prisoners would give their solemn promise not to fight for the Rebels any more, the Loyalists would let them return to their farms or trades. And time after time, the Rebels would break this solemn oath.

Tarleton wrote:

In the beginning of June, Lord Rawdon, with the volunteers of Ireland and the detachment of Legion cavalry, made a short expedition into a settlement of Irish, situated in the wax or is: the sentiments of the inhabitants did not correspond with his Lordships expectations: either learned what experience confirmed, that the Irish were the most adverse of all other settlers to the British government in America. During the stay of the volunteers of Ireland in the Waxhaws, many of the inhabitants gave their paroles; an obligation they readily violated, when called to arms by the American commanders.

What Tarleton did not write was what he was probably thinking: that a settlor of Irish origin was likely to regard any promise given to an Englishman as not something that it was necessary to honour.

What Tarleton was clear about, however, was that he thought that the soft hand of the Loyalist Commander Lord Cornwallis following the victory of the Loyalists at Charleston was a mistake. Loyalist Americans had been very badly treated by the Rebels when the Rebels were on the up, and resented it when they saw the Rebels treated so well by the Loyalists when, in 1780, the Rebels were defeated and the Loyalists had the upper hand. Tarleton wrote:

Lord Cornwallis attempted to conciliate to the minds of the wavering and unsteady, by promises and employments: he endeavoured to so conduct himself, as to give offence to no party; and the consequence was, that he was able entirely to please none. He carried his lenity so far, that violent enemies, who had given paroles for their peaceable behaviour, availed themselves of the proclamation of the second June, and, without examination, took out significant certificates as good citizens, which conduct opened the door to some designing and this insidious Americans, who secretly undermined, and totally destroyed, the British interest in South Carolina. The army was governed with particular discipline, notwithstanding the exultation of victory, care was taken to give as little offences possible in Charles Town and country to the jealousy of the vanquished. This moderation produced not the intended effect: it did not reconcile the enemies, but it discouraged the friends. Upon their return home, they compared their past with their enemies’ present situation, they reflected on their own losses and sufferings, and they are enumerating the recent and general acts of rigour, exercised upon them and their associates by all the civil officers employed and Congress, for their attachment to Great Britain. The policy therefore adopted on this occasion, without gaining new, discontented old adherents; and the future scene will discover, that lenity and generosity did not experience in America the merited returns of gratitude and affection.

Tarleton’s views here were obviously not the views of the Loyalist command, and he even had a rather bizarre view about slaves. Although this aspect of the war is not now much taught in American schools, the American War of Independence was never about tea in Boston Harbor (although it is true that the earliest of the rebels were typically smugglers or other crooks); rather it was a largely civil war that had a good deal to do with slavery and genocide. Great Britain was, by this time, making moves to abolish slavery around the world, and was not supportive of the ongoing genocide of the Native American Indians which was very much what the Rebels had in mind. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the overwhelming majority of Native Americans and black slaves were on the Loyalist side, not 0n the Rebel side. Tarleton wrote this:

Commissioners were appointed to arrange the differences which subsisted in Carolina concerning the Negroes. It is here necessary to observe, that all the Negroes, men, women, and children, upon the approach of any detachment of the Kings troops, thought themselves and resolve from all respect their American masters, and entirely released from servitude: influenced by this idea, they quitted the plantations, and followed the army: which behaviour caused neglect of cultivation, proved detrimental to the Kings troops, and occasion continued continual disputes about property of this description.

In this respect, it is evident that Tarleton was much more of the mind of the new leaders of the rebellion, Washington et al, who were very largely slave-owners on a substantial scale.  Instead of thinking, “Oh, that’s nice” when the slaves thought that they were being liberated by the loyalist troops under British command, Tarleton obviously wanted them back on their plantations and under the thumb.

He was wrong about both of these things of course. In the end, the impact of the kindness with which the British officers treated the Americans on both sides was the foundation for the special relationship between the United States of America and the United Kingdom which has, with a few bumps along the way, endured for over 200 years. By contrast, the relationship between the United States and France engendered by French coming along with huge amounts of money, materiel and a large fleet, thus winning the war for the United States, has faded to something very much less warm.

For the Irish in America it is, perhaps, still a slightly different story. It was the Irish Americans who were behind the third of the United States’ unsuccessful attempt to invade Canada at the conclusion of the second Civil War[9]. Perhaps there was a feeling then, and even lingering among some today, that having left Britain they had hoped also to leave behind any British influence.

Likewise, in popular culture, it is understandable that many Americans want to forget the atrocities committed on other Americans by the Rebels during that first Civil War, and to paint the Loyalists as if they were unlikable and cruel despots. Mel Gibson’s absurd movie The Patriot is arguably even more historically inaccurate than his ridiculous Braveheart.[10]

gainsborough_mary-robinsonAnyway, Tarleton survived the war. He returned the England, was knighted, promoted to General, and served as MP for Liverpool for 20 years. He had a long love affair with Mary Robinson[11], the previous mistress with the Prince of Wales, but she miscarried their only child. He later married the daughter of the Duke of Ancaster, but had no children with her either. His baronetcy thus extinguished.





[1] As he then was.

[2] The Fenwick family had a small part to pay in this, in that the besieging loyalist army was headquartered at Fenwick Hall on John Island.

[3] They called him “Butcher Ban”, but the epithet was entirely unfair. It arose from an incident at the Battle of Waxhaws. Tarleton had overhauled and surprised a Rebel force three times the size of his own unit. The Rebels raised the white flag of surrender, but then having surrendered, shot at the mounted Tarleton, causing him to fall. His men thought this was very poor form (as indeed it was) and killed some of the Rebels with, as Tarleton put it, “a vindictive asperity not easily restrained”. It turned out that the treacherous shot had killed, not Tarleton, but Tarleton’s horse, which fell trapping Tarleton beneath it. Tarleton eventually got out from under the dead horse, but too late to prevent his men’s revenge.



[6] I.e. the Rebels.

[7] Now sometimes known as the Battle of Guilford Court House.

[8] The later painting of by Sir Joshua Reynolds suggests it was his upper two fingers which had been blown off.

[9] See Canada for my earlier blog about the first and third attempts, and 200 Years on from the War of 1812 for the second.

[10] Perhaps it is not an entire coincidence that Gibson’s extraction is Irish; see

[11] Widely known as Perdita, for her portrayal on stage of that Shakespearean character.


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