Atrocities in the South

Below are July 14, 2003 postings by Patrick J. OKelley to the Southern Campaign Yahoo group reproduced here with his permission.  They provide an excellent discussion of the dark side of the Revolution.

The Origin of the Atrocities

Atrocities committed by Regular troops in the South happened rarely prior to Charleston, but this can be easily explained. There were very few Regular troops committed to actions prior to Charleston. Actually there were very little actions prior to the British invasion of Savannah in 1778. Most actions had Loyalist militia and Provincials on the British side, and militia or State troops on the Patriot side.

Now, the war turning ugly did not happen with Tarleton. Prior to 1779 the war in the South was fought pretty much by the rules of war. You don't see the animosity and hatred that you would see in 1781 (when it was a true civil war). So what changed it?

The battle of Kettle Creek in Georgia. It wasn't the actual battle that changed it, but what happened to the prisoners afterwards. The 150 Loyalist prisoners were brought to Augusta, where they were confined in chains in the bullpen of Old Fort Augusta. Only 20 of these were from battle at Kettle Creek. Some were Loyalists like Captain Christopher Nealley and 78 Kettle Creek Loyalists who turned themselves in to Williamson on the promise that they would be released after they posted bond. The prisoners were marched to Ninety-Six on March 10th where they were told they would be put on trial. This would result in one of the largest Loyalist trials of the war. It was decided that the Loyalists were not prisoners of war, but traitors and criminals. Pickens wanted to send a message to all Loyalists in the region that to rise up in arms against the Patriots would only mean death.

Fifty of the Loyalists were found guilty of treason but were granted reprieves because “most of them had been seduced and terrified” into serving with the Loyalist militia. Twenty of the Loyalists were sentenced to hang on April 17th. Their graves were dug and a gallows was erected within sight of the prisoners. On the day of the execution a writ of habeas corpus arrived from Governor Rutledge to move the condemned to the jail in Orangeburgh, “a place of greater security.”

The British leaders in Georgia did not forget their men. Lieutenant Colonel Prévost wrote to Williamson that any harm came to “faithful subjects” who had joined “the royal standards” then similar action would be taken against Whig prisoners under his care. Prévost did want to retaliate against the prisoners he held, but he did not do so for fear that there would be similar reprisals against the British troops that had been captured when Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga in 1777. Clinton settled the matter by ordering Prévost to do nothing that might endanger the British troops.

When General Prévost launched his invasion of South Carolina in April the South Carolina authorities feared that harm would come to their property if they executed all the men held in Orangeburgh. All but five of the prisoners were given a reprieve, the rest of the men were sent to Ninety-Six to prevent them being rescued by the British. The five men that were hanged were Aquilla Hall, Charles Draper, Samuel Clegg, James Lindley and John Anderson. Captain Lindley had been one of the few Loyalists who were in Moore’s militia at Kettle Creek.

Similar trials took place in Salisbury, North Carolina on September 15, 1779 for those Loyalists who marched with Boyd in Georgia. Instead of quelling any uprisings the executions did the opposite. Loyalists recognized that the trials were a mockery of justice. They now had a license to commit outrages against their Whig opponents.

So, Clinton's army, and Tarleton's dragoons, arrived in an area that was already turning ugly. Tarleton's actions (along with Wemyss, a much worse character) aided the Patriot cause and brought in hundreds of men to fight against the British.

Tarleton, Ferguson, and King's Mountain  

There were several personal feuds, but they are rather famous. Clinton versus Cornwallis is one that drove the war in the South into North Carolina. McKenzie versus Tarleton is another (which set off a Hanger versus McKenzie feud).

I don't know what the two felt towards each other but I do know that Ferguson did not think that Tarleton's men, the British Legion, were all that great.  I get this opinion from the complaint Ferguson had against the British Legion in the court martial of Tarleton's men due to their treatment of the women at Monck's Corner. During the war in the South there are references about the British Legion being out of control. At the end of the war you have even more comments about Tarleton, such as McKenzie's books about Tarleton and the Legion, but McKenzie was biased due to Tarleton killing off a lot of his Highlanders.

As to Tarleton not helping Ferguson at King's Mountain, the only place I have seen that is in Clinton's book, and he only references it by way of Balfour's letter. I don't think Tarleton, nor anyone, could have helped Ferguson. Ferguson, unlike the romantic stories you hear, did not do a very effective job either. He took a people who pretty much stayed out of the war, and turned them into a serious force that the British had to reckon with. In the end it got him, and his men, killed, and left Cornwallis's left flank wide open.

Tarleton was down at that time, due to a fever, and the Legion was pretty much fighting for their lives in Charlotte, so he could not have helped Ferguson even if he wanted to.

No one could.

Now, to stop another form of folklore, the militia at King's Mountain did not do anything to Ferguson's body. If they had, every surviving Loyalist officer would have mentioned it, but it is not heard of until the 19th century, and that is only from a single source. After King's Mountain the militia was skittish as cats, and were wanting to get out of there quickly. They believed Tarleton was coming, and they wanted to get the hell out. Even the mention that Tarleton had arrived prompted an incident of killing the prisoners.

The author you quoted stated that "some U.S. commentators clearly prefer to conjure non-existent feuds between British officers than focus on the activities of the Rebels after the battle", but every history I have read deals with the militia killing off the Loyalists after the battle. I have yet to see anyone try to hide that fact.

William Washington Acting Like Tarleton  

Two incidents come to mind.

On 5 March 1781 Washington's dragoons killed 23 drovers driving cattle to Cornwallis's camp. These guys are not armed.

An even more Tarleton-like example is on 30 December 1780 at Hammond' Store. Washington's men were angered at the attacks on the settlements in the area, and when they attacked 250 Loyalist militia, they did a Waxhaws. They charged and killed everything they could. Out of 250 Loyalists, 150 were killed and wounded and only 40 taken prisoner. So that means most of the killed and wounded, were killed. I don't know the exact number.

Many of these were killed after they had surrendered. Thomas Young was a militiaman riding with Washington that day, and he wrote in his memoirs, “When we came in sight, we perceived that the Tories had formed in line on the brow of the hill opposite to us. We had a long hill to descend and another to rise. Col. Washington and his dragoons gave a shout, drew swords, and charged down the hill like madmen. The Tories fled In every direction without firing a gun. We took a great many prisoners and killed a few.” Young also wrote “In Washington's corps there was a boy of fourteen or fifteen, a mere lad, who in crossing Tiger River was ducked by a blunder of his horse. The men laughed and jeered at him very much, at which he got very mad, and swore that boy or no boy, he would kill a man that day or die. He accomplished the former. I remember very well being highly amused at the little fellow charging round a crib after a Tory, cutting and slashing away with his puny arm, till he brought him down.”

Tarleton, Waxhaws, and Cowpens

Tarleton did have a continual pattern of screwing up. I like to compare him to Custer. Custer was one of the most well known cavalry officers in US history, but he wasn't that successful, and in the end he had his men (and himself) massacred due to his mistakes. Cowpens was Tarleton's "Little Big Horn". The only difference was Morgan was not the Sioux, and he took prisoners.

Anyway, back to Tarleton. You start seeing a pattern of Tarleton, and his men, becoming extreme during the siege of Charleston. Now, why would they do this? First off, it was overlooked by the senior commander. Ferguson and Tarleton kept bumping heads because Ferguson thought that the British Legion were a bunch of out of control Americans. This may have gone back to when Tarleton and Ferguson almost killed each other in a friendly fire incident during the Charleston siege. Ferguson ended up with a bayonet wound in the arm due to that incident. When Ferguson and Tarleton work together to take out the Patriot cavarly, Tarleton now has something to prove. Tarleton did not seem like a man who appeared unsuccessful, so in his first fight against William Washington (Bacon's Bridge) he loses the fight due to a junior officer who charges too early and gets in the way. When Tarleton gets orders to go after the American cavalry at Monck's Corner, he really wants to prove that he can defeat the Patriot cavalry. It works. Total surprise and the cavalry is routed. However, due to the fact that he did move so quickly without the main body supporting him, most of the cavalry got away. Tarleton's men begin the pattern of killing the wounded at this time. Some believe that the killing of wounded was common at that time, but it really wasn't. No one knows the exact number of Patriot's who were at Monck's Corner, but it was probably around 400 to 500. This can be "swagged" by the number of horses that were captured (400). Out of those numbers there were 14 killed and 19 wounded. Not excessive, but the 14 killed were mainly killed after the fighting was over. Why were the numbers so low? It was night, and Tarleton was not working alone. Ferguson was with him. When the British Legion begin smacking around the women though, this is the last straw. Ferguson threatens to line up the Legionnaires and shoot them. This is the last time they work together, but Tarleton now has two reputations. One, he is percieved as an officer who is successful. He ends up with more independent commands after this. However he is also perceived as an officer who's troops are ruthless and do not follow the rules of war.

The British Legion does seem to have been made up with Loyalists with a chip on their shoulder. You had men from Emmerick's Chasseurs (who ended up in Huck's troop), who were disbanded for behaving against the rules of war. You had the Roman Catholic Volunteers, who may not have liked the whole idea of being in a religion hated by everyone else. There was also British soldiers who had been captured with Burgoyne and escaped when they were part of the convention army. The rest are Loyalists from up north who had been treated pretty badly by the Whigs up there, losing homes and family members to mob justice. So these guys bring a lot of baggage with them.

Ironically this ruthlessness is starting to be reflected on the Patriot side. Right before Lenud's ferry the Patriot cavalry catch some of Tarleton's men on a foraging party. After they are captured the 1st Dragoons were getting ready to hack them apart with their swords to revenge Monck's corner, but Captain Baylor Hill stops them by firing a pistol over their head.

Atrocity averted due to good leadership.

When Tarleton learns of the cavalry at Lenud's Ferry he literally kills horses to get there, leaving behind anything or anyone that will slow him down. When he arrives there isn't much of a fight. His reputation is enough to scare the hell out of the cavalry, and many drown trying to get across the swamp and river. The Patriot cavalry cease to exist for awhile.

So now Tarleton knows what works. Hit them fast, hit them hard, and use that reputation. He pulled off Lenud's Ferry with very little casualties on either side (2 on the Brit side, 11 on the Patriot). You do what works in combat.

Next is the Waxhaws. The only Continental force in the two Carolinas is Buford's men. Tarleton discovers them and literally kills horses to get to them. If he can bag these guys, his reputation as an effective leader is written in stone. I don't need to retell the Waxhaws here, but Tarleton does what he always does to win. Hit hard and use shock and surprise.

The Waxhaws would have ended like Lenud's Ferry, except for the surrender incident. As Ensign Cruit approached Tarleton with a white flag Tarleton's horse is hit in the head. Tarleton's men saw that in the act of surrendering, their commander was shot down. They may or may not have had love for Tarleton, but at that point Tarleton was the winning coach of a winning football team. He was their commander, and those savages just broke a cardinal rule and shot him down. Think of what we thought when we heard that some of our soldiers were shot down by Iraqis waving a white flag. I have been in that situation before, but the ones I were with actually surrendered. If they had fired we would have gunned them all down. Is this a violation of the Geneva Convention? Technically yes, but the mitigating circumstances would have cleared the troops who fired upon surrendering soldiers.

Back to the 18th century...

Tarleton wasn't dead, but his men didn't know that. They began killing anyone they could catch. Tarleton did finally get out from underneath his dead horse, and stop the killing, but the damage was done then. So how bad was the Waxhaws? Out of 530 Patriot forces there, 113 were killed and 203 captured. Out of the 203 captured, 150 were wounded. So dead and wounded is 263, almost 50%. This is excessive for a Rev War action, and most of the dead and wounded did happen after the surrender.

Tarleton's reputation is written in stone, but it is not one of a highly successful leader. It is one of being very ruthless and doesn't play by the rules. This reputation gets further entrenched with the actions of Huck during his ride through South Carolina (ending in his death, and the death of his men). On the Patriot side Tarleton's reputation does not stop any rising of the rebels, but instead fans the flames. For every death Huck or the British Legion does, hundreds flock to the partisans.

The reputation of Tarleton led to the deaths of Ferguson and his men. So Tarleton did more damage to the British cause than he helped. His tactics were not always successful either. When Tarleton was faced with a force that did not run, he was usually shot to pieces. Examples of this can be seen at the very opening engagement of Camden (at 2:00 in the morning), against Davie's men at Charlotte, or against Sumter at the Blackstocks. Davie kind of summed it up when he said “his men were accustomed to Tarleton, and did not fear him.”

Now, on to Cowpens.

The massacre of the British troops who surrendered did not happen mainly due to the leaders stopping it. The British did not do a surrender, such as at the Waxhaws. Instead it was small groups who surrendered, or ran, in all the chaos. So for some British to continuing to fight, after a smaller group gave up, is not the same as the Waxhaws. At no time did Tarleton order a surrender, but at the Waxhaws Buford did order a general surrender.

Tarleton's career wasn't finished, but his reputation as a highly successful officer was shot. He continues his Waxhaw-like behavior though. At Tarrant's tavern he cuts down militia, and civilians who look like militia. In another famous incident he cuts down a bunch of Loyalists who look like Patriot militia, which leads the Loyalists in the area to go home and not come to Cornwallis. Again, Tarleton's screw up hurt the British cause. These Loyalists could have helped Cornwallis in the fight at Guilford.

I think that if Tarleton had won at Cowpens (which doesn't seem likely given the circumstances of the day) the Waxhaws would still be remembered. It was entrenched in the propoganda of the day, and was already influencing battles such as King's Mountain. If by some miracle Tarleton had won Cowpens, the rest of the events would have been the same. Cornwallis would have still gone into North Carolina (to get back the prisoners of King's Mountain and gain Loyalist support in North Carolina). Once Cornwallis had his logistics stretched to the breaking point (from Charleston to North Carolina) he would be open to a crushing attack, and he would have to leave to Virginia. Not much would have changed.

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