May 29, 1780: Battle of the Waxhaws

From Wikipedia

Regimental Color of the 3rd Virginia Detachment, captured at the Waxhaws

Regimental Flag of the 3rd Virginia Detachment, captured at the Waxhaws

The Battle of Waxhaws is the name of a battle that took place during the American Revolution on May 29, 1780, near Lancaster, SC between a Continental Army force led by Abraham Buford and a mainly Loyalist force led by Banastre Tarleton. The American commander refused to surrender but when his men on foot were attacked by British and Loyalist cavalry, most of them threw down their arms in surrender. Little quarter was given them: 113 were slain outright, 150 were so badly maimed that they could not be moved, and only 53 prisoners were carried off by the British. “Tarleton’s quarter” became a common expression for butchery and subsequent battles saw few prisoners taken alive.

Colonel Abraham Buford led a force of between 350 and 380 Virginian Continentals (the 3rd Virginia Detachment (composed of the 7th Virginia Regiment, two companies of the 2d Virginia Regiment and an artillery detachment with two six-pounders) and about 40 Virginia Light Dragoons to assist the Continental forces in the Siege of Charleston. Before arriving, they learned that the city had already been captured by the British, and they turned back to Virginia.

Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleto

Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton by Joshua Reynolds

However, Lord Cornwallis heard that South Carolina’s Patriot Governor John Rutledge was traveling with Buford. Anxious to capture Rutledge, Cornwallis sent Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton in pursuit with a force of roughly 150-230 men, consisting of around 130 Legion dragoons, 100 Mounted British Legion infantry, and a three-pounder cannon. Only an advance force of 60 dragoons from the 17th Light Dragoons and the British Legion cavalry, 60 mounted infantry from the British Legion, and an additional flanking force of 30 British Legion dragoons and some infantry actually engaged in the main attack.

On May 29, 1780, Tarleton caught up with Buford in the Waxhaws, at a crossroads in what is now Buford, South Carolina. Governor Rutledge, alerted to Tarleton’s advance, had already separated from Buford’s detachment.

While waiting for his reserves to move up, Tarleton sent Captain David Kinlock forward to the rebel column, carrying a white flag, to demand Buford’s surrender. In his message, Tarleton hugely exaggerated the size of his force—claiming he had 700 men—hoping to sway Buford’s decision. The note also stated firmly to Buford, “Resistance being vain, to prevent the effusion of human blood, I make offers which can never be repeated”, indicating that Tarleton would ask only once for Buford to surrender. Buford refused to surrender with the message: “I reject your proposals, and shall defend myself to the last extremity.”

Divisional color of the 3rd Virginia Detachment, captured at the Waxhaws

Divisional color of the 3rd Virginia Detachment, captured at the Waxhaws

Despite this, Buford made the unwise decision to keep marching rather than prepare for battle. Tarleton’s bugler sounded the charge, and the entire loyalist force set upon Buford’s column. When Tarleton’s attack came, Buford waited until the enemy was within ten yards to give the order to fire. This had minimal effect on the charging cavalry and resulted in a rout of the Virginians, since they had no time to reload their firearms. As Tarleton’s cavalrymen tore Buford’s column to pieces, many of the Americans began laying down their arms and offering to surrender.

What happened next is the subject of much debate. According to a Continental eyewitness, a field surgeon named Robert Brownfield, Col. Buford raised a white flag, “expecting the usual treatment sanctioned by civilized warfare”. While Buford was calling for quarter, Tarleton’s horse was struck by a musket ball and fell. This gave the loyalist cavalrymen the impression that the rebels had shot at their commander while asking for mercy. Enraged, the loyalist troops charged at the Virginians. According to Brownfield, the loyalists attacked, carrying out “indiscriminate carnage never surpassed by the most ruthless atrocities of the most barbarous savages”. Tarleton’s men stabbed the wounded where they lay, regardless of implied surrender.

According to Tarleton’s after battle report, the American rebel casualties were 113 men killed, 147 wounded and released on parole, and the 2 six pounders and 26 wagons captured. The British losses were 5 killed, 12 wounded, with 11 horses killed and 19 horses wounded.

The battle has always been controversial, since after breaking Buford’s line Tarleton’s men slaughtered many of the Virginians who had offered to surrender, hacking them down with their sabres. Some sources, such as Buford’s Adjutant Henry Bowyer and Surgeon’s Mate Robert Brownfield, claim that Buford belatedly raised a white flag but was ignored by Tarleton. In Tarleton’s own account, he admitted that his men, thinking their commander dead, engaged in “a vindictive asperity not easily restrained” after his horse had been shot from under him during the initial charge.

Records of the Moravians in Salem, NC indicate that at least one American soldier picked up his musket and fired it at Tarleton after the American had already offered to surrender; this would only have been a violation of the rules of war if the offer had been accepted.

Divisional color of the 3rd Virginia Detachment, captured at the Waxhaws

Divisional color of the 3rd Virginia Detachment, captured at the Waxhaws

After the battle, the wounded were treated at nearby churches by the congregants, one of whom was a young Andrew Jackson. This battle at least temporarily consolidated British control over South Carolina, and American sentiment was at a low ebb. General Clinton, among other acts before he left Charleston for New York, revoked the parole of surrendered Patriots. This affront (technically violating accepted “rules of war”), and reports of this battle, may have changed the direction of the war in the South. Many who might have stayed neutral flocked to the Patriots, and “Tarleton’s Quarter!” and “Remember Buford” became rallying cries for the Whigs. News of the massacre was also directly responsible for the “over-mountain men” (from the Watauga Association settlement at Sycamore Shoals at a location is now Elizabethton, TN) forming volunteer forces participating in actions against British Loyalists at both the Battle of Musgrove Mill on August 18, 1780 near the present day city of Clinton, South Carolina and the decisive defeat of British Major Patrick Ferguson’s command on October 7, 1780 at Kings Mountain, near present day Blacksburg, SC.

This letter by Dr. Robert Brownfield is exerpted from A Sketch of the Life of Brigadier General Francis Marion by William Dobein James. The letter is found in the appendix.

Dear Sir,

In obedience to your request, I send you a detailed account of the defeat and massacre of Col. Buford’s regiment, near the borders of North Carolina, on the road leading from Camden to Salisbury. This regiment consisting of three hundred and fifty men, well appointed and equipped, had marched from Virginia for the relief of Charleston, and had advanced to Santee, where they were met by intelligence of the surrender; a retreat then became unavoidable. — Between this place and Camden they fell in with Gen. Caswell, at the head of about seven hundred North Carolina militia, whose object had been the same, and whose retreat became equally imperious. At Camden these two corps unfortunately separated; Caswell filed off to Pedee, and Buford pursued the road to Salisbury. This measure was accounted for by the want of correct intelligence of Tarleton’s prompt and rapid movements, who was in full pursuit with three hundred cavalry, and each a soldier of infantry behind him. — Neglecting Caswell and his militia, the pursuit was continued after Buford to the Waxhaw. Finding he was approximating this corps, he despatched a flag, saying he was at Barclay’s with seven hundred men, and summoned them to surrender on the terms granted to the garrison in Charleston. Buford immediately laid the summons before a council of his officers with three distinct propositions from himself: — Shall we comply with Tarleton’s summons? Shall we abandon the baggage, and, by a rapid movement, save ourselves? or, shall we fortify ourselves by the waggons, and wait his approach?

The first and second were decidedly rejected by the unanimous voice of the council, declaring it to be incompatible with their honour as soldiers, or the duty they owed their country, either to surrender or abandon the baggage on the bare statement of Tarleton. They had no certainty of the truth of his assertion, and that it might be only a ~ruse de guerre~ to alarm their fears and obtain a bloodless victory. The third was also negatived on the ground, that although they might by this means defend themselves against Tarleton, but as no succour was near, and as Tarleton could, in a short time, obtain reinforcements from Cornwallis, against which no effectual resistance could be made, this measure would be unavailable.

The discussion soon resulted in a resolution to continue the march, maintaining the best possible order for the reception of the enemy. In a short time Tarleton’s bugle was heard, and a furious attack was made on the rear guard, commanded by Lieut. Pearson. Not a man escaped. Poor Pearson was inhumanely mangled on the face as he lay on his back. His nose and lip were bisected obliquely; several of his teeth were broken out in the upper jaw, and the under completely divided on each side. These wounds were inflicted after he had fallen, with several others on his head, shoulders, and arms. As a just tribute to the honour and Job-like patience of poor Pearson, it ought to be mentioned, that he lay for five weeks without uttering a single groan. His only nourishment was milk, drawn from a bottle through a quill. During that period he was totally deprived of speech, nor could he articulate distinctly after his wounds were healed.

This attack gave Buford the first confirmation of Tarleton’s declaration by his flag. Unfortunately he was then compelled to prepare for action, on ground which presented no impediment to the full action of cavalry. Tarleton having arranged his infantry in the centre, and his cavalry on the wings, advanced to the charge with the horrid yells of infuriated demons. They were received with firmness, and completely checked, until the cavalry were gaining the rear. Buford now perceiving that further resistance was hopeless, ordered a flag to be hoisted and the arms to be grounded, expecting the usual treatment sanctioned 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; but, in reality, a safe opportunity was presented to gratify that thirst for blood which marked his character in every conjuncture that promised probable impunity to himself. 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 dearly as possible; but before this was fully effected, 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 most barbarous savages.

The demand for quarters, 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 every one 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 at those beneath. Capt. Carter,* who commanded the artillery and who led the van, continued his march without bringing his guns into action; this conduct excited suspicions unfavourable to the character of Carter, and these were strengthened by his being paroled on the ground, and his whole company without insult or injury being made prisoners of war. Whether he was called to account for his conduct, I have never learnt. These excepted, the only survivors of this tragic scene were Capts. Stokes, Lawson and Hoard, Lieuts. Pearson and Jamison, and Ensign Cruit.

To consign to oblivion the memory of these gallant suffering few would be culpable injustice. When men have devoted their lives to the service of their country, and whose fate has been so singularly disastrous; there is an honest anxiety concerning them, springing from the best and warmest feelings of our nature, which certainly should be gratified. This is peculiarly the truth in regard to Capt. John Stokes, although in his military character perhaps not otherwise distinguished from his brother officers, than by the number of his wounds and the pre-eminence of sufferings. He received twenty-three wounds, and as he never for a moment lost his recollection, he often repeated to me the manner and order in which they were inflicted.

Early in the sanguinary conflict he was attacked by a dragoon, who aimed many deadly blows at his head, all of which by the dextrous use of the small sword he easily parried; when another on the right, by one stroke, cut off his right hand through the metacarpal bones. He was then assailed by both, and instinctively attempted to defend his head with his left arm until the forefinger was cut off, and the arm hacked in eight or ten places from the wrist to the shoulder. His head was then laid open almost the whole length of the crown to the eye brows. After he fell he received several cuts on the face and shoulders. A soldier passing on in the work of death, asked if he expected quarters? Stokes answered I have not, nor do I mean to ask quarters, finish me as soon as possible; he then transfixed him twice with his bayonet. Another asked the same question and received the same answer, and he also thrust his bayonet twice through his body. Stokes had his eye fixed on a wounded British officer, sitting at some distance, when a serjeant came up, who addressed him with apparent humanity, and offered him protection from further injury at the risk of his life. All I ask, said Stokes, is to be laid by that officer that I may die in his presence. While performing this generous office the humane serjeant was twice obliged to lay him down, and stand over him to defend him against the fury of his comrades. Doct. Stapleton, Tarleton’s surgeon, whose name ought to be held up to eternal obloquy, was then dressing the wounds of the officer. Stokes, who lay bleeding at every pore, asked him to do something for his wounds, which he scornfully and inhumanely refused, until peremptorily ordered by the more humane officer, and even then only filled the wounds with rough tow, the particles of which could not be separated from the brain for several days.

Capt. Stokes was a native of Pittsylvania county, Virginia. He was early intended for the bar, and having gone through the usual course of classical and other preparatory studies, he commenced the practice with the most flattering indications of future eminence. But the calm pursuits of peace not comporting with the ardour of his mind, he relinquished the fair prospect of professional emolument, and accepted a captaincy in Buford’s regiment.

At this catastrophe, he was about twenty-seven years of age. His height was about the common standard; his figure and appearance, even in his mangled situation, inspired respect and veneration; and the fire of genius that sparkled in his dark piercing eye, gave indications of a mind fitted not only for the field, but for all the departments of civil life.

Shortly after the adoption of the constitution of the United States, he was promoted to the bench in the Federal Court — married Miss Pearson — and settled on the Yadkin river, where the county is called Stokes, after his name.


R. Brownfield.