Banastre Tarleton in the War of American Independence
Championed by Lord Cornwallis and promoted by General William Howe, Banastre Tarleton was one of the most celebrated—some would say notorious—British commanders of the American Revolution. Tarleton was just twenty-two years old when he arrived at Cape Fear, North Carolina, carrying a recently purchased commission as a cornet in the First Regiment of the King’s Dragoon Guards. When he returned home after Yorktown, still not yet twenty-nine, he was a lieutenant-colonel and one of the most famous men in England. Tarleton had led a series of successful operations in both the northern and southern theaters; aided in the capture of Charles Lee, the English-born soldier of fortune and American general; and resided in both British-occupied New York and Philadelphia. Back in London, he sat for a justly acclaimed portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds; began a fifteen-year affair with Mary Robinson, the actress, author, proto-feminist, and royal consort; and was shortly to write one of the standard English battle histories of the Revolution, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (London, 1787).
The fact that Tarleton returned to England in defeat and on parole did nothing to diminish his reception. If anything, the widely held—and perhaps not inaccurate—belief that the Revolution might have terminated differently had Tarleton been the British commander-in-chief probably served to burnish his reputation further. (In Robert Hamilton Vetch’s article on Tarleton in The Dictionary of National Biography, Cornwallis’s surrender is described in these laconic terms: “[A]fter vainly waiting for relief by Clinton, which arrived just too late, Cornwallis found it impossible to hold out any longer; terms of capitulation were arranged the following day, and on the 19th [October 1781] Yorktown and Gloucester were surrendered to Washington, and Tarleton returned to England on parole early in 1782.”)
Immediately after landing at Cape Fear, Tarleton joined the forces led by Sir Henry Clinton on an unsuccessful attack on Charleston, South Carolina, June 1776. The next month, he sailed with Clinton’s command to Staten Island, where they united with the main British Army under the command of Sir William Howe. Until the winter weather forced the suspension of operations in late January 1777, Tarleton saw action throughout New York and New Jersey, participating in the battles of White Plains, Brunswick, Princeton, and Trenton and the captures of New York City, Fort Washington, and Fort Lee. Tarleton’s value was readily apparent to his superiors, and he was soon promoted to captain in Harcourt’s horse and appointed a brigade major of cavalry.
The following fighting season saw Tarleton still detached to General Howe’s troops and taking part in the captures of Germantown and Philadelphia. From Philadelphia he staged several forays against George Washington, without any decisive result. But in December 1777, France learned of the startling American victory at Saratoga and decided to recognize the United States as an independent nation. The following May, Congress ratified two treaties with France: one of amity and commerce and one of military alliance in the event—now all but inevitable—of war between France and England. Once these Franco-American treaties were signed, General Clinton, who had followed Howe as supreme commander, abandoned Philadelphia in order to concentrate his troops in New York. Tarleton distinguished himself in the several cavalry skirmishes that took place with American forces along the perimeter of the British line of march, and Clinton had him made lieutenant-colonel commandant of the British Legion, whose troops were partly recruited from American Loyalists. Tarleton’s exploits with the British Legion, which often operated in conjunction with the Queen’s Rangers and the Seventeenth Light Dragoons, gave him the command that would ensure his fame.
Pound Ridge and Bedford, New York
The first flag taken to England as a trophy by Tarleton was captured in a raid on Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York, 2 July 1779. On one of his first independent commands, Tarleton was ordered into northern Westchester to capture Major Ebenezer Lockwood and to subdue the Second Connecticut Continental Dragoons, who, under the command of Colonel Elisha Sheldon, were supporting militia operations throughout Westchester. Lockwood’s militiamen had been particularly active in harassing Loyalists in the so-called “Neutral Ground” of northern Westchester.
Sheldon had been sent to Westchester by George Washington and ordered to Bedford by General William Heath at the behest of New York governor George Clinton. As the British had taken White Plains and nearby forts on both the east and west sides of the Hudson River (at Stony Point and Verplanck’s Point), and with West Point now threatened, the continued security of Bedford became paramount. An important place of supply for both state militia and Continental regulars, Bedford was also strategically placed between the Hudson and the Long Island Sound, as well as at the northern gateway to New England.
In Col. Sheldon’s absence, Major Benjamin Tallmadge reported to Heath, 27 June 1779, that the position of Sheldon’s Dragoons was “very insecure[.] Bedford is an open Country with many Roads leading to it, too many for the whole Detachmt. to occupy, much less defend.” That same day, Tallmadge received correspondence from George Washington, which reiterated the mission of the Second Connecticut Dragoons: “as near the enemy as you could with military prudence take post for the purpose of covering the inhabitants, & preventing the ravages of small parties.” On 28 June Washington ordered Colonel Stephen Moylan to cross the Hudson with his Fourth Regiment of Continental Dragoons and take command at Bedford, there “to protect the country and inhabitants, give countenance to the militia, and as far as it lies in your power, gain intelligence of the enemy’s force, movements & designs.…”
But Tarleton met with Sheldon’s troops before Moylan could, and although the engagement was indecisive (Lockwood escaped and Sheldon was able to withdraw), Tarleton did take the American’s silk Regimental battleflag, which consists of thirteen alternating red and white stripes and a painted device of a thundercloud within a central canton; as was customary with cavalry flags, Sheldon’s color is fringed.
Sheldon maintained that the flag was essentially abandoned in the midst of an orderly retreat. Tarleton’s report to supreme British commander Sir Henry Clinton provided a different perspective of the skirmish and the taking of Sheldon’s color: “I have the Honor to inform your Excellency, that I moved with the Detachment you was pleasd to intrust me with, at half past eleven o clock last Night. … I pursued my Route thro’ Bedford to Pound Ridge, without any material Occurences. … The Enemy’s vedette had noticed to them our passing their front—The whole regiment was mounted & formed behind the meeting House—An attack was instantly made by the advanced guard, consisting of the 17 Lt. Dragns., the ground not allowing more than seven or eight in front. The enemy did not stand the charge a genral Route immediately ensued—The difficulty of the country & there being no possibility of obtaining their rear, enabled the greatest part of the regiment to escape. … The loss of men in Sheldons Dragoons, upon enquiry & comparison of accounts, I estimate at 26 or 7 killed, wounded & prisoners; but their disgrace in the Loss of the Standard of the regiment and of Helmets, Arms & Accoutrements was great—Part of the Officers & regimental baggage fell into our hands.”
If not a disgrace, the loss of the battleflag was a stinging embarrassment to the Americans. American accounts also challenge the number of casualties reported by Tarleton, but even General Heath’s post-war Memoirs (Boston, 1798) paint a fairly bleak picture, although he inflates the size of Tarleton’s command by at least fifty percent, while claiming for Sheldon fewer men than he actually had: “About 360 of the enemy’s light horse and light infantry … attacked Col. Sheldon’s light horse, who were posted at Poundridge, about 90 in number. The superior force of the enemy obliged our horse, at first, to retreat, but being reinforced by the militia, they in turn pursued the enemy. Our loss was one Corporal, one Trumpeter, and eight privates wounded; three Sergeants, one Corporal, and four privates missing; and 12 horses missing. The standard of the regiment being left in the house when the dragoons suddenly turned out, was lost. … The enemy set fire to and burnt the meeting-house and Maj. Lockwood’s house; they also burnt Mr. Hay’s house, at Bedford.”
In Tarleton’s official report to Sir Henry Clinton, he placed the responsibility for the fires squarely on “The Inveteracy of the inhabitants of Pound Ridge & near Bedford [whose] firing from Houses and Out Houses obliged me to burn some of their meeting & some of their dwelling Houses with Stores—I proposed to the Militia Terms: that if they wou’d not fire shots from buildings, I wou’d not burn. They interpreted my mild proposal wrong, imputing it to fear. They persisted in firing till the Torch stopped their Progress—after which not a Shot was fird.”
The fine bicentennial publication of the Bedford Historical Society, The Burning of Bedford July 1779, describes two standards known to have been carried later by Sheldon’s Dragoons, and the authors note that “We do not know which of these flags was captured during the Pound Ridge raid.” In fact it was neither of the designs they described, but a more elaborate color that Tarleton took, one that presumably inspired the designs of the two related, but simpler standards of the Second Dragoons.
The manner in which Sheldon’s flag was lost may have been irregular, but the significance that both the British and the Americans attributed to its capture was not. Tarleton gloated over his prize, while the mortified Americans were hard put to even acknowledge its loss. (This reluctance to speak of the loss of the flag may well have been exacerbated because the officers’ baggage that was taken by Tarleton also included highly sensitive correspondence relative to a spy ring that was being run by Major Tallmadge.)
Flags, of course, have been employed for both civil and military purposes through all of recorded human history. They were particularly important during the struggle for American independence as symbols of colonial and, ultimately, national unity. Eighteenth-century military forces were especially dependent on flags, not because they were powerful badges of honor and sources of unit pride, but because they were a vital part of field communications and organization. Despite the example of Pound Ridge, battleflags, for both of these reasons, were usually relinquished only under the most desperate circumstances.
Waxhaws, South Carolina
Desperate circumstances were facing Colonel Abraham Buford’s Third Virginia Continentals at Waxhaws, South Carolina, on 29 May 1780. Buford was retreating from an unsuccessful effort to reinforce Charleston, which had already been taken by Lord Cornwallis. Cornwallis dispatched Tarleton, now a lieutenant colonel, in pursuit. Tarleton pushed his Seventeenth Light Dragoons 105 miles in just a bit more than two days, and caught Buford, the latter’s artillery far ahead of his infantry column, in a fatally compromising position. The resulting battle remains one of the most controversial episodes of the Revolutionary War.
Though in command of just 270 men, in comparison to Buford’s three or four hundred, and exhausted from his brutal ride, Tarleton nonetheless boldly demanded Buford’s surrender. He later wrote that “by magnifying the number of the British,” he thought he might “intimidate [Buford] into submission, or at least delay him whilst he deliberated on an answer.” Tarleton’s original correspondence to Buford is preserved in the Emmet Collection, New York Public Library, and differs materially from the text published in Tarleton’s own History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces.
“Resistance being in vain to prevent the Effusion of Blood I make offers which never can be repeated.
“You are now almost encompassed by a Corps consisting of Artillery & Seven hundred Lt. Troops on horseback: half of which Number are Cavalry & Earl Cornwallis is within a short march with nine Battalions of British.
“I warn you of the Temerity of further inimical Proceedings especially when I hold out the following Conditions which are nearly the same accepted by Charles Town:—
“But if any Person of any Denomination attempts to leave your Army after this Flag is received, rest assured, that be the fugitives of any Rank or Dignity, they shall experience hostile treatment.
“1st Article. All officers to be prisoners of War but admitted to Parole & allowed to Return to their habitations t'ill exchanged.
“2nd Art. All Continental Soldiers to go to Lampries Point or any neighboring Port & Remain there Prisoners of War till exchanged. To be allowed Provisions as good as British Soldiers.
“3rdly All Militia Soldiers to be permitted to Return to the Habitations upon Parole.
“4thly All Arms, Artillery, Ammunition, Stors, Provisions[,] Waggons, Horses &c to be faithfully delivered.
“5thly All Officers to be allowed their Private Baggage & Horses & to have their Side Arms returned.
“I expect an answer to these propositions in half an hour; if they are Excepted you will order every Person under Your command to Pile his Arms in one hour: if you do not receive these Terms the Blood be upon Your head.”
Tarleton’s terms of capitulation were dismissed by Buford, but it is not clear if this was because he was aware that the British officer was greatly exaggerating his force and the proximity of Cornwallis, or due to some other cause. His own account of the battle (also preserved in the Emmet Collection), sent to the Virginia Assembly on 2 June 1780, is disjointed and inconclusive. Buford reported that on the morning of 29 May, “a flag approach my rear guard tho I had Patrolls in rear I sent to know his business who Inform’d that it was with me I returned to the rear was presented with a letter addressdt to me from Lt. Col. Tarleton of the British legion the content was a pomp of demand of the troops stores &c under my command with articles of capitulation annext To which I gave a virble answer and continued my march …”
Tarleton claimed that Buford actually sent a written “defiance”: “I reject your proposals, and shall defend myself to the last extremity,” but is unlikely that Buford would deny sending a written note that could be later produced. So the verbal answer that Buford returned will never be known, but whether it was a sharp refusal of Tarleton’s terms or some sort of ploy to purchase extra time, Tarleton’s response was a daring cavalry charge that resulted in a massacre of the Americans. Of a force of about 350, some 113 of Buford’s men were killed and 203 were captured; most of the prisoners were wounded, 150 so seriously that they could not immediately be moved. Tarleton, on the other hand, reported just nineteen casualties.
The results of the Waxhaws engagement are not disputed. The causes that led to those results are. In his own History of the Campaigns, Tarleton termed the battle a “slaughter” but blamed the outcome on “a report amongst the cavalry, that they had lost their commanding officer [Tarleton’s mount was shot from under him], which stimulated the soldiers to a vindictive asperity not easily restrained.” The American perspective is well represented by the synopsis given by John Marshall in his Life of Washington: “While the flags [of truce] were passing, Tarleton continued to make his depositions for the assault, and the instant the truce was over, his cavalry made a furious charge on the Americans, who had received no orders to engage, and who seemed to have been uncertain whether to defend themselves or not. In this state of dismay and confusion, some fired on the assailants, while others threw down their arms and begged for quarter. None was given.”
Decades after the Revolution, Dr. Robert Brownfield, a surgeon attached to Buford, set down his recollections of that awful day. Brownfield claimed that the Third Virginia Detachment initially held firm, despite having to fight on poor ground, but that they were eventually overrun by Tarleton’s cavalry. “Buford, now perceiving that further resistance was hopeless, ordered a flag to be hoisted and the arms to be grounded, expecting the usual treatment by civilized warfare. This, however, made no part of Tarleton’s creed. His ostensible pretext for the relentless barbarity that ensued was that his horse was killed under him, just as the flag was raised. He affected to believe that this was done afterwards and imputed it to treachery on the part of Buford. … Ensign Cruit, who advanced with the flag, was instantly cut down. Viewing this as an earnest of what they were to expect, a resumption of their arms was attempted, to sell their lives as dear as possible. But before this was fully affected, Tarleton … was in the midst of them … The demand for quarter, seldom refused to a vanquished foe, was at once found to be in vain. Not a man was spared, and it was the concurrent testimony of all the survivors that for fifteen minutes after every man was prostrate, they went over the ground, plunging their bayonets into everyone that exhibited any signs of life, and in some instances, where several had fallen one over the other, these monsters were seen to throw off on the point of the bayonet the uppermost, to come to those beneath.” Thus the term “Tarleton’s quarter” entered the military vocabulary.
However, several points must be borne in mind when comparing these reports. The first is that the battlefield was, by all accounts, close, confused, and chaotic; it is easy to imagine that the British light horse could have believed Tarleton dead, and that Tarleton did not see Buford’s flag of surrender. Moreover, many theaters of the Revolution, especially those along the frontiers, were the scenes of brutality on both sides. Guerilla tactics and citizen-soldiers had taken the province of gentlemen professionals. Even Dr. Brownfield concedes that quarter was “seldom”—not never—refused. And, finally, if Brownfield’s account were wholly reliable, he and all other survivors to whom he refers by rights ought to have been executed.
Waxhaws was undeniably a bleak and bitter loss to the Americans and likely the apogee of Tarleton’s career. His pride in his spoils is evident, even in the relatively taciturn prose of his Campaigns. And the first prizes Tarleton lists in his catalogue of trophies, immediately following his assessment of American casualties, are the regimental flags of Buford’s Second Virginia Detachment: “Upwards of one hundred officers and men were killed on the spot; three colours, two six-pounders, and above two hundred prisoners, with a number of wagons, containing two royals, quantities of new clothing, other military stores, and camp equipage, fell into the possession of the victors.”
The return of “rebels, killed, wounded, and taken, in the affair at Wacsaw,” that Tarleton sent to Cornwallis mistakenly refers to the three Virginia flags as “3 stand of colours.” In fact, these “three colours” are the only surviving set, or “stand” of American battleflags from the Revolution. The set comprises the principal battleflag, made of gold silk and featuring a blue canton of thirteen silver stars and bearing a painted vignette of a beaver felling a palmetto tree above the motto “Perseverando.” The two slightly smaller subsidiary flags, called “ground colors,” belonged to the “Grand Divisions” of the regiments and were used for signalling and moving troops. One of the ground colors is made of gold silk, the other of blue silk; each bears a painted vignette of a ribbon displaying the word “Regiment.”
Although Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States (Philadelphia, 1779) advocated a two-flag system for regimental direction, many American forces, including Buford’s, still employed a system that comprised a main regimental standard together with two to four less elaborate “ground colors.” (Coincidentally, this signaling system was described by General Charles Lee, whose capture by the British in 1777 had been expedited by Tarleton’s actions.)
After Waxhaws, Tarleton’s standing with his superiors was at its zenith. When Cornwallis forwarded Tarleton’s report on the battle to Sir Henry Clinton, 2 June 1780, he closed his transmittal letter with the note, “I can only add the highest encomiums on the conduct of Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton. It will give me the most sensible satisfaction to hear that your Excellency has been able to obtain for him some distinguished mark of His Majesty’s favour.” Clinton, in turn, noted in a 5 June 1780 letter to Lord George Germain, secretary of state for the colonies, “That the enemy’s killed and wounded, and taken, exceed Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton’s numbers with which he attacked them.”
Camden, South Carolina
Tarleton’s next action, at Camden, South Carolina, in mid-August 1780, was as successful as Waxhaws, but it was not attended with the same controversy. The previous month, the United States Congress had appointed Horatio Gates to command of the Southern Department. General Gates determined to march on Camden, which position Cornwallis reinforced from Charleston. In numbers, Gates had a superior force, but many of his men were untested militia. Cornwallis directed a near flawless attack, spearheaded by a cavalry charge led by Tarleton, who then pursued the Dragoons led by French volunteer Marquis de la Rouerie Tuffin (called Colonel Armand by his American compatriots) for some twenty miles beyond the field of battle. The next day, 17 August, Tarleton led a force of 350 light infantry and cavalry in pursuit of the partisan leader Thomas Sumter, known as the “Carolina Gamecock.” Tarleton caught the Gamecock unawares at Fishing Creek, North Carolina, and administered a total rout: 150 Americans were killed and twice that number taken prisoner; in addition, the British Legion captured two large cannon and forty-four wagons.
As for the principal action at Camden, John Marshall wrote, “Never was a victory more complete, or a defeat more total.” Gates’s Grand Army was virtually obliterated. From a force of perhaps 4,000, only some 700 escaped death, wounding, capture, or dispersement; in Tarleton’s words, “rout and slaughter ensued in every quarter.” Not including the prizes taken at Fishing Creek or from Tuffin, Tarleton reckoned that in addition to “many prisoners of all ranks,” the British had captured “eight pieces of cannon, several colours, and all their carriages and wagons, containing the stores, ammunition, and baggage, of the whole army.”
It should be noted that Tarleton’s descendants kept his captured battleflags for many years in nineteenth-century vitrines that bore gilt and painted plaques identifying them as “American colours taken by Colonel Tarleton commandant of the British Legion at the actions of Wacsaw Springs 29 May 1780 and Camden 16 August 1780 N. Carolina in the War of American Independence.” But it is certain that these commemorative plaques are partly incorrect. One of the American colors was undeniably taken at Pound Ridge, while the three others form a multihead stand and could only have been seized at a single action.
There is no accurate description of the American battleflags raised at Waxhaws, or, for that matter, of any American colors flown anywhere in the Southern Theater. However, at Waxhaws, Tarleton was the commanding British officer; his post-battle dispatch to Earl Cornwallis somewhat ambiguously reports the capture of “3 stand of colours,” but this he clarifies in the text of his History of the Campaigns to “three colours.”
At Camden, by contrast, Tarleton was not only subordinate to Cornwallis, but just one of a highly capable British officer corps that included Lt. Col. James Webster, Lt. Col. John Hamilton, Col. Morgan Byran, and Lord Rawdon. Moreover, in his Campaigns, Tarleton provides three separate inventories of equipment and stores captured from the Americans: during the Camden campaign that seized from Tuffin’s dragoons; that taken from Sumter at Fishing Creek (or, as the British called it, Catawba Fords); and that taken at the main action at Camden. Only the catalogue of prizes captured at Camden proper—where Tarleton played his least role—mentions flags. In his official letter to Lord George Germain, 21 August 1780, Cornwallis himself mentioned that “a number of colours … were taken.” And while his report singles out Tarleton for his “brilliant” pursuit and thrashing of Sumter on 18 August, Tarleton is just one of a number of the King’s troops to whom Cornwallis expressed particular indebtedness for their performances at Camden on the sixteenth: "Colonel Lord Rawdon, … Lieutenant-colonel Webster, … Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton, … Lieutenant M Leod, … Captain Ross, and Lieutenant Haldane.” Certainly any American flags captured at Camden that day would have redounded to Lord Cornwallis.
General Gates was given command of the Southern Department over the objections of George Washington, who favored Nathanel Greene for the position. As he headed to his new post, Gates supposedly received some prescient counsel from soldier-of-fortune and erstwhile American general Charles Lee: “take care lest your Northern laurels turn to Southern willows.” In the aftermath of Camden, it would have been impossible for Tarleton and Cornwallis to realize that all their triumphs would shortly be transformed into willow branches.
The Battle of Cowpens
A bout of fever took Tarleton off the field for a part of the autumn campaign, though his British Legion continued operations under temporary commanders. In November 1780, Tarleton was back on the South Carolina trail of Thomas Sumter and his irregulars, engaging him first, with Major Wemyss, at Fishdam Ford and then, on 20 November, in a bloody but indecisive stalemate at Blackstocks that nearly cost the Gamecock his life. Sumter’s pyrrhic draws, though, were inspiring Carolina patriots and causing Cornwallis some discomfiture. The British General recalled Tarleton from his pursuit of the partisans in order to set him after Continental General Daniel Morgan, who was operating in Cornwallis's rear with an effective force of light horse and infantry.
Morgan had earlier played pivotal roles in the American victories at Quebec and Saratoga, but he had resigned his commission in the summer of 1779 when a command he coveted was awarded instead to Anthony Wayne. The debacle at Camden, however, caused him to put aside this slight and to offer his services to General Greene.
Tarleton himself planned his approach and attack, approved by Cornwallis, which was intended to separate Morgan’s men from the main body of Greene’s army and trap them at either King’s Mountain or Broad River. Morgan was aware that Tarleton was shadowing him, and on the advice of local scouts, he decided to meet the British at an open, hilly pasture known as “the cowpens.” He fed, rested, and encouraged his men, so that his mongrel force of Continental regulars, state militiamen, and partisan rangers was fully primed for Tarleton’s attack, which came the morning of 17 January 1781.
Morgan’s brilliant strategy has been recently summarized by Lawrence Babits in a history of the battle that takes its title from a letter that Morgan wrote to William Snickers: “I was desirous to have a stroke at Tarlton … & I have Given him a devil of a whiping [sic].”
“British infantry drove in Morgan’s skirmishers before advancing against American militia. The South Carolinians stood their ground. Every battalion fired at least one close-range volley before retreating around the American left flank with Tarleton’s dragoons howling in pursuit. Tarleton’s infantry advanced again and engaged the Continentals and Virginia militia in a firefight. When Tarleton moved to break the main-line deadlock, the American right withdrew. In the crisis, Morgan selected a point where the Continentals would halt, turn, and fire. When they did so, the British infantry collapsed in shock and began a panic-stricken withdrawal. The British fled, and although Tarleton and most of his dragoons eluded pursuit and rejoined Cornwallis, few infantrymen escaped the Americans” (A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens, p. 10).
Tarleton’s own History presents much the same picture: “As the contest between the British infantry in the front line and the continentals seemed equally balanced, neither retreating, Lieutenant-colonel Tarleton thought the advance of the 71st into line, and a movement of the cavalry in reserve to threaten the enemy’s right flank, would put a victorious period to the action. … Upon the advance of the 71st, all the infantry again moved on: The continentals and back woodsmen gave ground: The British rushed forwards: An order was dispatched to the cavalry to charge: An unexpected fire at this instant from the Americans, who came about as they were retreating, stopped the British, and threw them into confusion. Exertions to make them advance were useless. The part of the cavalry which had not been engaged fell likewise into disorder, and an unaccountable panic extended itself along the whole line. The Americans … taking advantage of the present situation, advanced upon the British troops, and augmented their astonishment … they surrendered or dispersed.”
Tarleton escaped, with many of his light horse, and after rejoining Cornwallis he enjoyed some modest successes during the spring campaign. He was still with Cornwallis when the Franco-American siege of Yorktown—led by Washington, supported by Benjamin Lincoln, Baron Steuben, the Marquis de Lafayette, the Comte de Rochambeau, and the Comte de Grasse—turned the world upside down. Through the intermediary of General Charles O’Hara, Cornwallis gave the allies his sword and the United States their independence.
For the charmed Tarleton, however, life stayed on an even keel. He returned to a tumultuous reception in London, took a high place in society, served many terms in the House of Commons, and was awarded the Knight Grand Cross of the Bath. Though he lived until 1833, Tarleton’s greatest achievements and greatest fame were both founded in the American Revolution. To history, Tarleton never became a seventy-nine-year-old man; he forever remains the confident warrior of Reynolds’s celebrated portrait, surrounded by the objects he coveted: horses, arms, and the flags of his enemies.
Preliminary Census of American Revolutionary Battleflags
A census of surviving American Revolutionary War battleflags has never been formally created, but is, nevertheless, implicit in the writings and ruminations of flag scholars. Any analysis today of Revolutionary flags begins with the late Edward W. Richardson’s Bible on the subject, Standards & Colors of the American Revolution. The present census order — “Liberty” flags, Continental standards succeeded by state colors, follows the arrangement of Richardson’s book, and is heavily indebted to his descriptions of surviving flags.
Please note that this is a preliminary census only and very likely subject to errors and omissions.
“Liberty” Flag. Schenectady Historical Society. History unknown, but possibly dating to the Revolution. Fragmentary condition.
“The Easton Stars and Stripes.” Easton Public Library, Easton, Pennsylvania. History known to 1814, but conjectured to be of Revolutionary War origin.
“Headman Color.” Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. By tradition carried during the Revolution. Fragmentary condition.
“Fort Washington Flag.” Cincinnati Historical Society, Cincinnati, Ohio. By tradition flown over Cincinnati in 1788 or 1790, but no recorded history before 1926. Of Revolutionary War origin.
Squadron Colors of the Second Regiment, Continental Light Dragoons. This is lot 1 in this catalogue.
Squadron Colors of the Second Regiment, Continental Light Dragoon (Blue Field). Connecticut State Library: Museum of Connecticut History, Hartford, Connecticut. No recorded history before 1904, but of Revolutionary War origin.
Squadron Colors of the Second Regiment, Continental Light Dragoons (Pink Field). Smithsonian Institution. No recorded history before 1904, but of Revolutionary War origin.
Regimental Standard of the Third Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons, also known as the “Eutaw Standard.” Washington Light Infantry, Charleston, South Carolina. By tradition made in 1780 for Colonel William Washington.
Standard of Pulaski’s Legion of 1778. Maryland Historical Society. By tradition, sewn for Colonel Casimir Pulaski in 1777-1778; recorded history from 1824.
George Washington’s Headquarters Standard. American Revolution Center, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. By Washington family tradition “Washington’s Headquarters Flag"; recorded history from 1912.
Regimental Standard of Webb’s Additional Regiment of 1777, later the Ninth of 1780, and then Third Connecticut Regiment of 1781. Collection of the United States Army, Fort McNair, Washington, D.C. Descended in the family of Colonel Samuel B. Webb as did the three following colors. Recorded history from 1876. Fragmentary condition.
Division I Color, en suite with the above. Collection of the United States Army, Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.
Division III Color, en suite with the above. New-York Historical Society, New York, New York.
Division IV Color, en suite with the above. New-York Historical Society, New York, New York. Fragmentary condition.
Delaware Militia Colors, also known as the “Dansey Flag.” Delaware Historical Society, Wilmington, Delaware. One of eight (including the four flags in this catalogue) surviving American flags taken by the British. Captain William Dansey captured this flag in 1777, near Brandywine and described its capture in a letter home. In 1927 the flag was sold by Sotheby’s in the only recorded auction sale of a Revolutionary War flag.
Standard of the Bedford Minutemen of 1775. Bedford Public Library, Bedford, Massachusetts. By tradition carried in the Revolutionary War.
“Forster Color.” Flag Heritage Foundation, Winchester, Massachusetts. Color of the Manchester Company, First Regiment of Militia, Essex County. Descended in the family of Lt. Samuel Forster. By tradition carried at the Lexington Alarms; recorded history from 1895.
Second New Hampshire Regiment of 1777 (Blue Field). New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, New Hampshire. This flag, as well as the following flag, is one of eight surviving American flags captured by the British. It is well documented, having fallen on July 8, 1777 at Fort Anne, New York, to Lieutenant John Hill, from whose descendants it was purchased in 1912.
Second New Hampshire Regiment of 1777 (Buff Field). New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, New Hampshire. Captured by the British in 1777 and returned to the United States in 1912, as described in the note to the flag above.
“Monmouth Color.” Monmouth County Historical Association, Freehold, New Jersey. By tradition a captured British flag, but possibly an American divisional color.
Standard of the Third New York Regiment of 1777. Albany Institute of History and Art, Albany, New York. Recorded history from 1880.
Standard of the Philadelphia Light Horse of 1774-1775. Museum of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Completely documented, including invoices for its manufacture dated September 1775.
Standard of the Westmoreland Battalion, Proctor’s Brigade of 1775. Fort Pitt Museum, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Recorded history from 1880.
Standard of the Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment of 1775, of the First Continental Regiment of 1776 and the First Pennsylvania Regiment of 1777. State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Described in correspondence dated 8 March 1776.
Division Color of the Seventh Pennsylvania Regiment of 1776 ("The Brandywine Flag"). Independence National Historic Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By family tradition carried at Brandywine.
Stripes with Rattlesnake Canton – Rhode Island Militia, Sullivan’s Life Guards. Rhode Island Historical Society, Providence, Rhode Island. By traditional carried by General Sullivan’s Life Guards in 1777 but no recorded history before 1925. Fragmentary condition.
Standard of the Rhode Island Regiment of 1781 (Anchor Device). State House, Providence, Rhode Island.
Standard of the Rhode Island Regiment of 1781 (Scroll Device). State House, Providence, Rhode Island.
The Second South Carolina Regiment of Fort of 1775. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., in shared ownership with the South Carolina State Museum, Columbia, South Carolina. One of the eight surviving American flags captured by the British, this was seized on 9 October 1778 in Savannah and presented to General Prevost.
Regimental Color of the Third Virginia Detachment under Colonel Abraham Buford. Lot 2 of this catalogue.
Yellow Division Color of the Third Virginia Detachment under Colonel Abraham Buford. Lot 2 of this catalogue.
Blue Division Color of the Third Virginia Detachment under Colonel Abraham Buford. Lot 2 of this catalogue.
Alexandria Rifle Company, XI Virginia Regiment, George Washington Masonic Memorial, Alexandria, Virginia.
“Forster Colors.” Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. Found in the house of Major Israel Forster. Remnant of canton only.
John Stark’s New Hampshire Militia Brigade, “Flag of the Green Mountain Boys.” Bennington Museum, Bennington, Vermont. By tradition, General Stark’s; recorded history from June 1877. Canton fragment only.
Possibly of Revolutionary War date, but more likely of later origin.
Standard of General Washington’s Life Guards. George Washington Masonic National Memorial, Alexandria, Virginia. Given in the early 19th century by George Washington Parke Custis.
Standard of the II Battalion, II Connecticut Regiment. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut. Recorded history from the early 19th century. Fragmentary condition.
Three American Revolutionary War Battleflags, 1778–1780 The complete stand of three colors of the 3rd Virginia Detachment, under the command of Colonel Abraham Buford, captured by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Waxhaws, Waxhaws, South Carolina, on May 29, 1780. Together with the battleflag in the previous lot, the last American Revolutionary War colors known to remain in British hands and the last such colors to remain in private hands anywhere. This regimental flag and its matching grand division colors form the only intact stand of regimental colors known to have survived from the Revolution. The earliest surviving documented American flag of any kind bearing thirteen stars. The earliest surviving documented American flag designed, as is our national flag, with a canton of stars. The earliest surviving documented American flag containing, as does our national flag, five-pointed stars. Among the last great relics of the Revolution in private hands. THE REGIMENTAL COLOR. The silk gold-yellow field well-painted on both sides with the device of a beaver felling a palmetto over the motto “PERSEVERANDO” and inset on the upper hoist and with a blue silk canton containing thirteen silver five-pointed stars. The flag is composed of three equal widths of yellow silk seamed together, to the upper hoist end of which has been pieced a canton of blue silk into which have been inserted thirteen silver tin-glazed five-pointed stars, arranged as a triangle of three stars within a circle of eight stars, with two further stars at the upper left and right corners of the canton. Whether the beaver and palmetto were centered between its hoist and fly end of the color is uncertain as a portion of its fly end has been cut away and is missing. If the images were centered then as much as 17 inches of its fly end is missing. If it were not (as is the case with other colors where a canton was part of the design) then the missing portion would be as little as five or six inches. Dimensions: 50 ¼ inches (hoist) x 45 3/8 inches (fly) Framed THE YELLOW "GRAND DIVISION" COLOR. The gold-yellow field composed of three strips of silk sewn together and on the hoist folded back to create a pole sleeve. The color is centered on both sides with a painted scrolling white ribbon highlighted with green containing the word “Regiment.” Self-fringed on the fly end. Dimensions: Including fringe 44 ½ inches (hoist) x 44 inches (fly) Excluding fringe 44 ½ inches (hoist) x 42 inches (fly) Framed THE BLUE "GRAND DIVISION" COLOR. The sky blue silk field composed of two sections of silk sewn together and folded back on the hoist end to create a pole sleeve. Centering both sides of the color is a painted scrolling white ribbon, highlighted in pink, containing the word “Regiment.” The fly end is self-fringed. Dimensions: Including fringe 40 ¾ inches (hoist) x 43 ¾ inches (fly) Excluding fringe 40 ¾ inches (hoist) x 42 ½ inches (fly) Framed Design of the main Regimental Flag: The regimental flag in this stand of colors is lushly painted on both sides with the device of a broad-tailed and bear-like beaver gnawing through the trunk of a palmetto tree. A stream flows by and on the grassy verge are broad-leaved water plants. Forming a lower border to this tableau is a scrolling ribbon containing the Latin word “Perseverando.” How this beaver and tree metaphor for the virtue of persistence in overthrowing tyranny reached the designers and flag-makers of this color is clear. When it became necessary for this new nation to create its own paper currency, Benjamin Franklin was invited to select appropriate motifs to be engraved on the new Continental bills. He consulted his 1702 edition of Joachim Camerarius's Symbolorum ac emblematum for suitable motifs. For the six dollar bill he chose an emblem signifying perseverance. The six dollar bill, albeit in the roughest form, included also almost all the elements of the present flag’s device: the beaver, palmetto, riverbank, and motto. This transference of emblems from patriotic currency to patriotic flags is conclusively demonstrated by an important Revolutionary War survival. This is Major Jonathan Gostelowe’s inventory, known as “Gostelowe’s Return,” which described in detail thirteen new stands of regimental colors held in his Continental Army Commissary stores in Philadelphia during the summer of 1778. This regimental color is described along with others for which there are no complete surviving examples. But all the described flags have in common devices drawn from Continental currency. The artist of this flag – who, perhaps, in quieter times, painted tavern signs and carriages – elaborated considerably on the rudimentary six dollar image. The beaver is large and robust. The palmetto flourishes but is doomed. To enclose this motto the artist has added a scrolling ribbon. The Union of Stars: The most remarkable aspect of this flag is the sky blue canton containing thirteen inset tin-glazed five-pointed stars. This is the most extraordinary survival of all. While the “Gostelowe Return” describes all thirteen flags bearing unions of stars, of the three likely survivors of the Return (in addition to the 3rd Virginia Detachment they are the “Headman Color” and the “Fort Washington Color”) only this one still retains the canton of stars. The appropriate arrangement of thirteen stars was a particular challenge for eighteenth-century flag-makers. The arrangement of stars in this flag is especially complex and unique among eighteenth-century flags. A circle of eight stars surrounds a triangle of three stars. In each of the upper corners of this canton are two further stars. The inspiration for this arrangement may well have been the Continental Congress’s resolution of 1777 establishing a national flag. The resolution calls for “13 stars white in a blue field representing a new constellation.” That phrase resonates. As our country was the latest nation among the nations of the Earth, so were the stars of our flag a new constellation among the stars in heaven. Was the designer of this flag creating his own version of a “new constellation”? The arrangement of stars is complex and intriguing. In any event this spatially complex design was difficult for a flag-maker to compose with scissors, thread, and paint and was never used again. There are three other Revolutionary War period flags with a canton of thirteen stars. But they all either postdate this flag or are undocumented. Dating the Colors: In the summer of 1778 Major Jonathan Gostelowe, a Commissary of Military Stores for the Continental Army, drew up an inventory of “New Standards and Divisionary Colors” available in his stores in Philadelphia. The “Gostelowe Return," as it came to be known, lists thirteen regimental standards, one of which is identical to the present flag. However, that flag is described as being accompanied by blue and red division colors, not blue and yellow. It is possible that the present flag was “new” in 1778. Certainly the design dates from no later than 1778. As all three colors were made of matching silk, they all must date from the same point in time.
Provenance: Lieutenant Colonel (later General Sir) Banastre Tarleton to his nephew, Thomas Tarleton and thence by direct descent to Captain Christopher Tarleton Fagan.
Over the past two and a quarter centuries the colors were displayed in various of Tarleton houses: Leintwardine in Shropshire, Bolesworth Castle in Cheshire, and for many years at the historic country house of Breakspears, just outside of London. A century-old photograph of the smoking room at Breakspears reveals a heroic tableau of Sir Joshua Reynolds's dramatic portrayal of Tarleton flanked by two hanging vitrines containing the four captured battleflags of the Revolution. More recently the colors hung at Capt. Tarleton Fagan's home in Hampshire, England.
In the late 1980s the four colors were conserved by the Textile Conservation Centre then located at Hampton Court Palace. A conservation report prepared by Dr. Crosby Stevens, the conservator for two of the flags, is available for review.