The American Revolution in North Carolina

The Battle of Waxhaws

May 29, 1780

Patriot Cdr:

Col. Abraham Buford (VA)
British Cdr:

Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton






Original County: 

Mecklenburg County
Present County:

Union County

Battle of Waxhaws (From Harper's Weekly)

On May 6, 1780 at Lenud's Ferry, Col. Abraham Buford and 350 Virginia Continentals watched helplessly from the far bank of the Santee River when Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton dispersed a force of Continentals including Lt. Col. William Washington, part of Pulaski's Legion, and one company of NC Continentals under Brigadier General Isaac Huger, plus a handful of North Carolina Militia units. They had been on their way to Charlestown as reinforcements.

On May 12, however, the Siege of Charlestown ended when Major General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered to General Sir Henry Clinton. When word of the surrender reached Col. Abraham Buford, he held his position and awaited new orders. Brigadier General Isaac Huger, who had been surprised by Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Moncks Corner on April 14th, ordered Virginian Col. Abraham Buford to retreat to Hillsborough, North Carolina.

On May 18, 1780, Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis, commanding 2,500 men, marched out of Charlestown with orders from General Clinton to subdue the backcountry and establish outposts. He made his way to Lenud's Ferry and crossed the Santee River and headed for Camden. Along the way, Lord Cornwallis learned that South Carolina Governor John Rutledge had used the same route under the escort of Col. Abraham Buford. Governor Rutledge had managed to flee Charlestown during the early stages of the siege.

However, Col. Abraham Buford was ten days ahead, so Lord Cornwallis's only chance to catch Governor Rutledge was to send out the ever-mobile Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton of the British Legion.

On May 27th, Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton set out from Nelson's Ferry with 270 men in pursuit of South Carolina Governor John Rutledge, who was said to be traveling with Col. Abraham Buford. Tarleton's command included forty British regulars of the 17th Dragoons, 130 of his British Legion Cavalry, 100 of his British Legion Infantry, mounted on this occasion, and one three-pound artillery piece.

Since Col. Abraham Buford had such a large lead on them, Lord Cornwallis had given Lt. Col. Tarleton discretion to continue the pursuit, turn back, or attack Col. Buford if he caught up with him. Tarleton was at Camden the next day. At 2:00 a.m. on May 29th, he set out again and reached Rugeley's Mill by mid-morning. There, he learned that Governor Rutledge had been there the night before and Col. Buford was now only twenty miles ahead.

Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton sent a messenger ahead requesting that Col. Abraham Buford surrender. In the message, Tarleton exaggerated his forces in hopes of scaring Buford into surrender, or at least delaying him. After delaying the messenger, while his infantry reached a favorable position, Col. Buford declined in a one sentence reply: "Sir, I reject your proposals, and shall defend myself to the last extremity."

Around three o'clock in the afternoon on May 29, 1780, Lt. Col. Tarleton caught up with Col. Buford near the Waxhaws district near the border of North and South Carolina. Tarleton's advance guard slashed through Buford's rear guard. Buford now formed his men up in a single line. Meanwhile, Tarleton did not wait for his stragglers to catch up, but continued to press the attack.

Lt. Col. Tarleton assigned fifty cavalry and fifty infantry to harass Col. Buford's left flank. Another forty cavalry were to charge at the center of Buford's line, while Tarleton would take another thirty cavalry to Buford's right flank and reserves. He formed up his troops on a low hill opposite the American line. At 300 yards, his cavalry began their charge.

When Lt. Col.Tarleton's cavalry was fifty yards from Col. Buford's line, the Americans presented their muskets, but they were ordered to hold their fire until the British were closer. Finally, at ten yards, Buford's men opened up, but that was too close for cavalry. Tarleton's horse was killed under him, but the American line was broken and in some cases, ridden down. The rout began and controversy soon followed.

The details of what happened following the battle are still under controversy. Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton later claimed that his horse was shot out from under him and he was pinned. His men, thinking that their commander had been shot and killed under a flag of truce, angrily attacked again. They slashed at anyone and everyone, including men who were kneeling with their hands up in surrender.

Patriots claimed that Lt. Col. Tarleton himself ordered the renewed attack because he didn't want to bother with taking prisoners. Based on his aggressive style and zeal for brutal charges in other engagements, the Patriot claims are usually given more credence. Although the first complete statement claiming a massacre did not appear until 1821 in a letter from Dr. Robert Brownfield to William Dobein James.

Either way, the slaughter lasted a little more than fifteen minutes. The result was 113 Continentals killed and 203 captured with 150 of those wounded. Col. Abraham Buford himself managed to escape. There were only five killed and twelve wounded on the British side. The controversy continues to this day, but it took only this one event for Lt. Col.Tarleton to be branded with the reputation for which he is remembered even to this day.

Lt. Col. Tarleton became known as 'Bloody Ban' or 'Ban the Butcher.' For the remainder of the war in the South, 'Tarleton's Quarter' meant no quarter and Buford's Massacre became a rallying cry for Patriots. It was on the lips of the Patriots at the Battle of Kings Mountain in October 1780 during their defeat of Maj. Patrick Ferguson. There was no indication that Tarleton minded the nickname. Meanwhile, Lt. General Charles, Lord Cornwallis occasionally reminded Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton to look after the behavior of his men.

Most historians agree that this battle waged on both sides of the NC-SC border in the "general area" shown in the maps above. Precise locations have not been passed down over the course of time.

Known Patriot Participants

Known British/Loyalist Participants

Col. Abraham Buford - Commanding Officer

Scott's VA Brigade, 3rd Detachment led by Col. Abraham Buford with Maj. Thomas Ridley and the following six (6) known companies, led by:
- Capt. Andrew Wallace
- Capt. Claiborne W. Lawson
- Capt. Robert Woodson
- Capt. John Stokes
- Capt. Adam Wallace
- Capt.-Lt. Thomas Catlett

Sgt. "Unknown" of the 3rd Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons

SC Militia led by Col. James Williams (Little River District Regiment) with 180 men in the following four (4) known companies, led by:
- Capt. John Weathers - Little River District Regiment
- Capt. Thomas Jenkins - New Acq. District Regiment
- Capt. John Roebuck - 1st Spartan Regiment
- Capt. Henry Bishop - Turkey Creek Regiment

Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton - Commanding Officer

British Legion Infantry led by Maj. Charles Cochrane with 100 men, including Lt. Lachlan McDonald and Lt. Peter Campbell

British Legion Cavalry with 130 men, including Capt. David Kinlock and Capt. Charles Campbell

17th Regiment of Foot detachment led by Capt. William Henry Talbot, with Lt. Matthew Patteshall and 40 men







© 2009 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved