Brutal Virtue: The Myth and Reality of Banastre Tarleton

by Anthony J. Scotti, Jr.
(Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2002), 285 pgs.

As the British army passed through North Carolina in early 1781, Lord Cornwallis himself rode to the front of the column and ordered Col. Banastre Tarleton to dismount his cavalry regiment, the British Legion, and line up the men by the side of the road. Tarleton was only 27 years old, but he had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel and had become one of Cornwallis’s favorite officers, for his energy and fearlessness in battle. As the Legion troopers stood at attention, Cornwallis and several civilians walked down the line, inspecting each face. They held a hushed consultation, then Cornwallis’s guards seized a sergeant and a private from the ranks. The two were briskly taken away, brought before a court martial, found guilty of rape and robbery, and promptly hanged.

If brutality toward the few, in order to influence the many, can ever be defended as a virtue, it is in the harsh discipline commanders must use with their soldiers, because an undisciplined army is a menace to itself and to all. Just months before, Cornwallis had warned Tarleton to bring his Legionnaires under stricter control. The ruthlessness of the Legion had earned its young commander his reputation as “Bloody Tarleton” and, had he lived in a different time, might also have earned him a place in the dock as a war criminal.

The British Legion survives today in the form of a historical re-enactment unit in North Carolina, and the author of Brutal Virtue is a member of the Legion and a professor of American history. This book is Scotti’s argument that Tarleton was merely obeying an older concept of virtue, that he was no more ruthless nor brutal than many other commanders during a bloody Revolution, and that mitigating circumstances explain the instances of the Legion’s alleged brutality. Although Scotti’s argument is not always convincing, his book is well-researched and documented, written in an engaging and graceful style, and thought-provoking throughout.

Banastre Tarleton was the second son of a wealthy Liverpool merchant, and after an indifferent performance at Oxford, he squandered the bulk of his £5,000 inheritance in drink and gambling. At that point, his mother purchased a commission for him in the King’s Dragoon Guards, apparently with the warning that from then on, he was on his own. He arrived in the Colonies in early 1776, promptly ran up yet another £2,500 in debts, but also began his swift rise in rank through dash and daring. When the British Legion was formed in 1778, Tarleton was made lieutenant colonel at age 24 and put in command. Stunned by Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga in 1777, the British shifted the focus of their campaign to the South, and it was there that the Legion earned its reputation through the relentless pursuit of Rebel militias and guerillas in the Carolinas.

The Legion moved swiftly, often far afield from the main British army, confiscating such supplies as it needed from the local populace. Tarleton rarely had as many as 550 men; more often he had fewer than 300. Roughly half the Legion were cavalry dragoons who fought from horseback with sabers. The others were mounted light infantry soldiers who rode to the battle on horses and then dismounted to fight with muskets. As the wretched climate and hard fighting took their toll, the Legion replenished its ranks with Loyalist volunteers and Rebel deserters. The Legionnaires were encouraged to think of themselves as elite soldiers, and while the rest of the British army wore red coats, the Legion wore green. They rode hard. They preferred to strike at night. They attacked even when the opposing forces were two and three times their number. Tarleton’s own words explain his policy: “I have promised the young men who choose to assist me in this expedition the plunder of the leaders of the [Rebels]. If warfare allows me, I shall give these disturbers of the peace no quarter. If humanity obliges me to spare their lives, I shall convey them as prisoners to Camden. For a confiscation must take place in their effects. I must discriminate with severity.” “Nothing will serve these people,” he asserted, “but fire & sword.”

By early 1780, the Legion’s reputation for plunder, arson, rape, brutality, and terror was already growing. It was sealed at Waxhaws, South Carolina, in May 1780, when the Legionnaires hacked away at defeated American soldiers who were attempting to surrender. “I have cut 170 officers and men to pieces,” Tarleton bragged to Cornwallis. In fact, the number was closer to 300, including one Captain John Stokes who was stabbed four times with bayonets even after his sword hand had been severed from his arm.

Scotti’s defense of Tarleton has many parts. In fact, so many that they undercut each other. An ethic that views ruthlessness in war as a virtue is as old as Machiavelli and as modern as destroying the village in order to save it. Yet if Tarleton’s effort to spread terror by “fire & sword” is defensible as a harsh but ancient virtue, then Scotti gains nothing with the added arguments that the Legion was no more barbarous than others, was in any case provoked in each brutal instance by extenuating circumstances, and was singled out for vilification by American myth-makers only because Tarleton was “a young, arrogant, ambitious favorite of a British general.” Virtue should need no other defense than virtue.

In the end, all these arguments confront a genuine difficulty, which Scotti acknowledges: the Legion’s behavior was condemned as barbarous, even at the time, not just by Americans but also by the British press, by Tarleton’s fellow officers, and by Cornwallis himself. Yet this does not diminish the value of Brutal Virtue. Indeed, Scotti’s effort to make all these arguments brings a real historical richness to his book and vivacity to a struggle in the South that was fundamentally a civil war between two groups of Americans, wearing different uniforms and spurred by different visions of who should govern and how. It was a battle fought largely by irregular and undisciplined guerilla and militia units, and Scotti is correct that we have no reliable history of which side was more ruthless in the tit-for-tat of revenge and retaliation.

So was Tarleton a war criminal? An argument Scotti does not present, but his evidence does, is that Tarleton was simply too young and inexperienced for the responsibility he was given. Everything about the Legion made it like a cult. It moved and fought detached from the rest of the British army, surrounded by a populace whose sentiments it could neither know nor trust and whose property it was compelled to steal in order to survive. The Legion fought from horseback, and all things being equal, a horseman with a two-foot saber stood no chance against a squad of soldiers armed with five-foot muskets and eighteen-inch bayonets. Even a well-trained horse will halt before such a threat, yet high attrition among its horses forced the Legion to make do with confiscated and untrained steeds. The British army judged that it took three years for a mounted trooper to learn his skills, yet disease and battle losses forced the Legion to refill its ranks constantly with raw recruits. To steel himself for battle in the company of such horses and comrades, a Legionnaire had to possess a strong belief in his own invulnerability and a conviction that his enemies were contemptible cowards who would turn and run rather than fight. Legionnaires had to believe they were exalted men.

The danger with such an elite unit is that it will become a law unto itself, readily able to justify all manner of violence toward those who are not of the cult. Sharing in acts of brutality may even become a bond among the unit’s members. Such men may easily run amok, unless reined in by the moral sensibilities of a strong leader. What young Tarleton lacked, and his swift rise in rank had not given him, was moral maturity and strength of character. He had gambled away his inheritance, and he gambled away the lives of his men. At Blackstocks Hill in November, 1780, he threw his 250 soldiers against a Rebel force of a thousand, and lost perhaps 190 men dead and wounded. At Cowpens in January 1781, he plunged into battle against a well-prepared American force, and in the space of an hour lost perhaps 900 dead, wounded, or captured among the 1,100 British soldiers entrusted to him. The Legion itself lost virtually all its infantry and a third of its dragoons in this single battle. Whatever moral restraints Tarleton may have felt, he failed to convey or enforce them with his officers and men. Cornwallis warned Tarleton repeatedly “to prevent the troops under your command from committing irregularities.” In reply, Tarleton revealed his weakness of character and leadership: “I am sorry your Lordship has cause to complain of the plundering of the Legion. The officers have kept me in ignorance, or steps should have been taken immediately to suppress it.” It was an excuse unworthy of a lieutenant colonel, and a more mature man would have been embarrassed to offer it.

Tarleton was among the British soldiers forced to surrender at Yorktown in October, 1781. A few days later, as he awaited passage on a ship back to England, he was confronted in the street by the steward of a nearby plantation. The steward announced that Tarleton’s horse had been stolen from his employer and demanded it back. Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton of the King’s British Legion dismounted and stood in the dirt while on-lookers laughed. He returned to Britain, dabbled in politics, boasted that he “had killed more men and ravished more women than any man in America,” and died in comfort on his estate in Shropshire in 1833, at the age of 79.

Author Bio

Donald L. Hafner is Drum Major of the Lincoln Minute Men. When he is not serving as a fifer in the ranks of the Minute Men, he is a Professor of Political Science at Boston College. His scholarly work has been principally in the fields of arms control and U.S. foreign policy.

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