Banastre Tarleton was born into a middle-class family in Liverpool, England, in August 1754. On April 19, 1775, while the Battle of Lexington and Concord was raging in the American colonies, Tarleton was studying law at Oxford. The following day, his father bought him a cornet’s commission from the King’s First Regiment of Dragoon Guards. By 1778, at age 23, Tarleton rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel of the British Legion.
Tarleton’s military success during the American Revolution in both the northern and southern theaters merited many illustrious titles. He played an active role in the battles of Monck’s Corner, Charleston, Waxhaws, Camden, Fishing Creek, Blackstocks, and Cowpens in the Carolinas. At the Battle of Waxhaws, however, his military career took a turn. Patriot soldiers accused his dragoons of disregarding a Patriot surrender by attacking the Americans after they laid down their arms. Afterward, Americans ascribed the moniker “butcher” to Tarleton and the “Waxhaws Massacre” or “Tarleton’s quarter” to the Battle of Waxhaws, shouting the latter as a rallying cry at the ensuing Battle of Cowpens.
On January 17, 1781, at the Battle of Cowpens, Daniel Morgan used Tarleton’s impetuosity against him. Morgan tricked Tarleton’s men into thinking they had successfully routed their adversary, luring them in with a fake retreat. Once Tarleton released his full force, Morgan’s men turned around to counterattack. Tarleton retreated with a few of his dragoons, but an old adversary, Colonel William Washington, followed him in desperate pursuit, determined to get revenge for past wrongs. The two men clashed in hand-to-hand combat, but Tarleton managed to escape. Nevertheless, the battle devastated Tarleton’s legion—100 killed, 229 wounded, 600 captured—and marked the beginning of the end of the British plan to re-annex the South.
Tarleton’s rash behavior in battle strained his relationships with his superiors who believed he was too reckless and lacked “military maturity.” His relationship with General Charles Cornwallis became particularly tense. After Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, when Patriot leaders invited British leaders to dine with them. Tarleton was not included. The Americans made it clear that the omission was a deliberate censure for his ruthless treatment of Continental soldiers.
After being paroled at Yorktown, Tarleton returned to England. He continued his military career and went into politics, becoming a Member of Parliament in 1790. He continued to receive military promotions, first as colonel in 1790, and then, as major general in 1794. In the Napoleonic Wars, he served under the Duke of Wellington. In 1815, he was awarded a baronetcy, and in 1820, he was knighted by the King.