Tarleton and the British Legion

Banastre Tarleton was born on August 21, 1754 in Liverpool, England. His father was a merchant who dealt in sugar and slaves. After squandering an inheritance in London, he convinced his mother to buy him a commission in the British Army in 1775. The least expensive commission at that time was that of a cavalry coronet.

The cavalry suited him well, and after the start of the Revolutionary War he volunteered for service in America. By 1778, at the age of 24, he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel. (1)

At right: "Ban" Tarleton, detail from 1783 painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Tarleton is wearing the green jacket and white buckskin pants that were the Legion's uniform. Reynolds has partially concealed Ban's right hand from which he lost two fingers during the Guilford Courthouse battle on March 15, 1781.

The British Legion, which became known as "Tarleton's Legion", was originally formed in 1778 by the union of the Philadelphia Light Dragoons, Caledonian Volunteers, and Kinloch's Light Dragoons, all from the Pennsylvania and New Jersey area. In 1779, the volunteer group was named the 5th American Regiment, and in 1780 it absorbed the Bucks County Light Dragoons.

In February 1780, the Legion was transported to South Carolina and began a campaign that lasted almost two years, and was filled with great highs and great lows. Through that time many were killed or captured, but Loyalists from the Carolinas (many of Scottish origin) joined the Legion. As the muster rolls from October 1781 show, the Legion consisted largely of these Scotch Loyalists.

Author Thomas H. Raddall's 1947 paper "Tarleton's Legion" discussed the history of the Legion and their settlement at Port Mouton, Nova Scotia following the war. The Mersey Heritage Society has created a digital version of this important paper, and published it on this web site, with the kind permission of Dalhousie University.

Tarleton's Legion Revolutionary War battles:

The Legion played a key role in many of the most famous battles of the Revolutionary War:

For more information on specific battles, see our Battles Links .

By May 1781, the Legion was in hard shape, reduced to tattered uniforms and meager rations as they marched north to Chesapeake Bay, making raids and skirmishes along the way. The victory at Charlottesville in June 1781 gave them fresh stores and provisions, and in July 1781 they met the British fleet at Norfolk, Virginia and obtained new uniforms and supplies.

"But," as Thomas Raddall says in his paper, "the end of the long campaign, if not the war, was fast approaching now". After planning an escape for the British Army from Yorktown, a storm prevented Tarleton from commencing the action, and in his words, "thus expired the last hope of the British Army". Cornwallis, Tarleton's commander, surrendered the British army in October 1781.

It is presumed that many of the Legion left Yorktown on vessels that were allowed by General Washington to leave for New York. After being reunited with family members, the remaining Legion members were evacuated to Shelburne, Nova Scotia and subsequently most went to Port Mouton to help found the Guysboro Township , named in honour of Sir Guy Carlton, supreme commander of the British forces.

Tarleton's Legion and"The Patriot"

In 2000, the exploits of Tarleton's Legions were incorporated in the Mel Gibson movie "The Patriot". While this movie is definitely not a historical documentary, the main characters and events are based on actual people. The British bad guy, William Tavington, is based on Banastre Tarleton, although Tavington is extremely evil, burns children alive, etc, and is killed in the end. For some interesting discussions of this movie, and comparisons with the actual historical events, check our "The Patriot" reviews links.

The Uniform and Colours

In his paper "Tarleton's Legion" , Thomas Raddall describes the Legion uniform, as seen above in Reynolds's painting:

"The chosen uniform was much like that of [John Graves] Simcoe's, consisting of a short green jacket with a black roll collar, white buckskin breeches, with black riding boots for the cavalry or long black gaiters for the infantry. The headgear was a black leather cap, hard and polished, and looking like a small round iron pot, with a glazed leather peak in front. The dragoons were armed with sabre and pistol, the infantry carried a light musket with the usual cross-belts holding bayonet and cartridge-box."

The British Collectibles (Militaria) Limited once advertised a "Tarleton-style" 9thRegiment Light Dragoons helmet, shown on the right (the photo is from their website). This isn't an actual Tarleton's Legion helmet, but is of much the same style:

"A rare 1784-1812 Georgian Tarleton helmet. The body and peak are of stout black jacked leather, the peak is edged with a silvered band, across the front above the peak, is a silvered metal title strap inscribed "1X Light Dragoons". A black velvet pleated turban encircles the body, fastened with three sets of silvered chains to each side. The right side is mounted with a large silvered regimental Crowned emblem comprising the English rose, shamrock, acorns and oak leafs, below are two-part scrolled banners inscribed "Dieu Et" "Mon Droit". To the top of the helmet, a large black bearskin fur crest. The left side, inset in the top of the turban is a concealed metal plume holder (plume now absent). To the rear, a black velvet padded bow with hanging silvered twist wire tassels. The interior retains a scarlet silk liner, now faded but intact, also present a mostly faded label of "Hawkes Mosley & Sons" Hatters To His Majesty The Prince Of Wales, Piccadilly London. Helmet is complete with little or no restoration, in remarkable good condition for its age.

"The Tarleton helmet is named after Banastre Tarleton, who raised a legion in the American War of Independence. Hand manufactured by hatters and saddle makers, skull and peak made of boiled leather and thus combining a resistance to sword-cuts with some degree of lightness. After the American War, the helmet became popular among the regular regiments of Light Dragoons and was worn by them up until 1812, when the Shako replaced it."

Related Links

Links to more information about Banastre Tarleton:

Banastre Tarleton, by Janie B. Cheaney http://jrshelby.com/kimocowp/tarlton.htm

Article on Banastre Tarleton from U.S. National Parks Service http://www.nps.gov/cowp/tarleton.htm

Links to more information about The British Legion:

(2) Tarleton's Legion, by Thomas Raddall (we are awaiting permission from the Nova Scotia Historical Society to publish this document on our web site - it should be here by February 2001)

"Tarleton's Legion" , research paper by noted Canadian author Thomas H. Raddall, 1949.

British Legion Muster Rolls from October 1781 http://www.royalprovincial.com/military/musters/britlegn/mrblmain.htm

Loyalist Institute: British Legion Documents http://www.royalprovincial.com/military/rhist/britlegn/bllist.htm

Links to Specific Battles:

Cowpens National Battlefield Site (U.S. National Parks Service) http://www.nps.gov/cowp/index.htm

Material related mostly to the Battle at Cowpens http://jrshelby.com/kimocowp/cp.htm

George Washington Papers on the American Revolution http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/1781.html

The Patriot Movie Reviews links:

"The Patriot not just about the American Revolution". Right-wing American take on the movie. http://www.constitution.org/col/the_patriot.htm

Interesting review of Military and Historical detail in the movie http://atlasgeo.span.ch/fotw/flags/filmpatr.html

Event Movies - The Patriot (Hollywood-esque review) http://www.geocities.com/eventmovies/patriot.htm

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