January 25, 1833 Leintwardine, Shropshire, England
Banastre Tarleton was the fourth of seven children born to the merchant, ship owner and slave trader, John Tarleton of Liverpool (1719 – 1773), who was mayor of Liverpool (1768). Tarleton was educated at the Middle Temple, London and went up to University College, Oxford University where he matriculated in 1771, after which entered the British army. As a young man, he had inherited £5,000 on his father's death, but squandered it all on gambling. In 1775 he purchased a commission as a cavalry officer in the 1st Dragoon Guards, and proved to be a gifted horseman and leader of troops.
In December 1775, he sailed as a volunteer to America with Earl Cornwallis, and his services to the British during the American War of Independence in the year 1776 gained him the position of a brigade major of cavalry.
Under the command of Colonel William Harcourt, Tarleton was part of a scouting party sent to gather intelligence on the movements of General Charles Lee in New Jersey. On Friday, December 13th, Tarleton surrounded a house in Basking Ridge, New Jersey and forced Lee, still in his dressing gown, to surrender by threatening to burn the building down. After becoming the commander of the British Legion, a mixed force of cavalry and light infantry also called Tarleton's Raiders, he proceeded at the beginning of 1780 to South Carolina, rendering valuable services to Sir Henry Clinton in the operations which culminated in the capture of Charleston, South Carolina.
On May 29, 1780 Tarleton, with a force of 150 mounted soldiers, overtook a detachment of 350 to 380 Virginia Continentals led by Abraham Buford. Buford refused to surrender or even to stop his march. Only after sustaining heavy casualties did Buford order the surrender. What happened next is cause of heated debate. According to American accounts, Tarleton ignored the white flag and mercilessly massacred Buford's men. By Tarleton's own account, his horse was shot from under him in the charge, and chaos erupted when his men believed he had been killed. In the end, 113 Americans were killed and another 203 captured, 150 of whom were so badly wounded that they had to be left behind. Tarleton's casualties were 5 killed and 12 wounded . The British called the affair the Battle of Waxhaw Creek, while the Americans knew it as the Buford Massacre or the Waxhaw Massacre.
In recounting Tarleton's action at the scene one member of the British Army who was there, a surgeon named Robert Brownfield, wrote that "... Tarleton with his cruel myrmidons was in the midst of them, when commenced a scene of indiscriminate carnage, never surpassed by the ruthless atrocities of the barbarous savages." The Waxhaw massacre became an important rallying cry for the revolutionaries. Many people who had been more or less neutral became ardent supporters of the Revolution after the perceived atrocities. "Tarleton's quarter" and "no quarter" became rallying cries for American Patriots for the rest of the war.
Tarleton's nemesis in South Carolina was Francis Marion, whom he could never capture or neutralise. Marion remained quite popular with South Carolina residents and continued his guerrilla campaign with their support. Tarleton, by contrast, alienated the citizenry by numerous acts of cruelty to the civilian population. For example, at one plantation of a deceased Patriot officer, he had the man's body dug up, then required the widow to serve him a meal. One of Marion's men later wrote of the incident:
On one expedition (Nelson's Ferry - Nov. 1780), Tarleton burnt the house, out houses, corn and fodder, and a great part of the cattle, hogs and poultry, of the estate of Gen. Richardson. The general had been active with the Americans, but was now dead; and the British leader, in civilised times, made his widow and children suffer for the deeds of the husband and parent, after the manner of the East, and coast of Barbary. What added to the cruel nature of the act, was that he had first dined in the house, and helped himself to the abundant good cheer it afforded. But we have seen before the manner in which he requited hospitality. It was generally observed of Tarleton and his corps, that they not only exercised more acts of cruelty than any one in the British army, but also carried further the spirit of depredation.
Tarleton materially helped Cornwallis to win the Battle of Camden in August 1780. He was completely victorious in an engagement with Thomas Sumter at Fishing Creek, or Catawba Fords, but was less successful when he encountered the same general at Blackstock Hill in November 1780. Then in January 1781, in spite of much personal valour, Tarleton's forces were virtually destroyed by American Brigadier General Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens. Tarleton, however, managed to escape.
Having been successful in a skirmish at Tarrants House, and having taken part in the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in March 1781, he marched with Cornwallis into Virginia. Tarleton undertook a series of small expeditions while in Virginia. Among them was a raid on Charlottesville, Virginia in an attempt to capture then-Governor Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia legislature. The raid was mostly foiled when Jack Jouett rode 40 miles through the night to warn Jefferson and the legislature of Tarleton's approach. All but seven of the legislators escaped. After other missions, Cornwallis instructed Tarleton to hold Gloucester Point, Virginia. This post, however, was surrendered to the Americans with Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781, and Tarleton returned to England on parole.
It is noteworthy that after the surrender at Yorktown, all of the British commissioned officers were invited to dine with their American counterparts, except for one — Banester Tarleton.
In 1784, Tarleton stood for election as M.P. for Liverpool, but was narrowly defeated. In 1790 he succeeded Richard Pennant as MP for Liverpool in the Parliament of Great Britain and, with the exception of a single year, remained in the House of Commons until 1812. He was a supporter of Charles James Fox despite their opposing views on the British role in the American War of Independence. Tarleton spoke on military matters and a variety of other subjects, but especially the slave trade, with which the port of Liverpool was particularly associated. In reality, Tarleton was working to preserve the slavery business of his brothers Clayton and Thomas, and he became well-known for his taunting and mockery of the abolitionists. He generally voted with the Parliamentary opposition, with exception to when the Fox-North Coalition came to power, he gave his support to the government nominally headed by William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland. He was rewarded with the title of Governor of Berwick and Holy Island.
In 1794, he was promoted to Major-General, in 1801 to Lieutenant-General, and in 1812 to General. He held a military command in Ireland and another in England. In 1815, he was made a Baronet and in 1820 a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB).
Despite being married to the daughter, born out of wedlock, of the 4th Duke of Ancaster since 1798, Banastre died childless at Leintwardine, Shropshire, England. For some time, he lived with the actress Mary Robinson (Perdita), whom he seduced on a bet. Despite their 15 year relationship, Tarleton and Robinson had no children, although in 1783 Robinson had a miscarriage.