A Student of History

Banastre Tarleton Article (2000)

In 2000, I published an article, “To Disturb the Assembly: Tarleton’s Charlottesville Raid and the British Invasion of Virginia, 1781”.  This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2000 issue of Virginia Cavalcade magazine, the quarterly illustrated magazine of Virginia history and culture published by the Library of Virginia.  Unfortunately, due to state budget cuts, this magazine is no longer published.  Since the article is not readily available to many folks, I have reprinted the text below, but if you are interested in this subject, I would recommend trying to get a copy through ILL, as the magazine included several fine color illustrations including Reynold’s famous portrait of BT.


All rights reserved. Used by permission. © 2000 by the Library of Virginia.



To Disturb the Assembly: Tarleton’s Charlottesville Raid and the British Invasion of Virginia, 1781.

By John R. Maass


 Banastre Tarleton by Richard Cosway (front)

The active, enterprising, and vindictive Cornwallis gave chase to the retreating Americans. “I shall now proceed to dislodge La Fayette from Richmond,” he outlined in his strategy to Clinton. By 30 May, the British army, consisting of approximately seven thousand men and officers in several regiments of veteran foot troops and one of light cavalry, passed through White Oak Swamp east of the capital and bivouacked to the north at Hanover Court House. From there, Tarleton conducted several destructive cavalry raids, destroying supplies in rebel warehouses at Aylett and Hanover Town. “People are moving their Negroes, Cattle, Horses,  & c. from the neighbourhood of the Enemy & from the route which it is supposed they will take,” wrote Robert Honyman, a physician in Hanover County, on 27 May. “The Hardships, distress & damage at this time is unspeakable.” Lafayette expressed his own frustration to Jefferson: “The British have so many Dragoons that it becomes impossible either to stop or reconnoitre their movements.” He also feared Tarleton, writing Wayne about a recent attack on Virginia militia by Tarleton’s men that injured the Americans “very barbarously.”As Lafayette clearly recognized, the British owed a large part of their advantage to their overwhelming superiority in mounted troops, including Tarleton’s British Legion. “Of all our needs,” Lafayette lamented to one of his subordinates, the Vicomte de Louis-Marie Noailles, on 22 May, “the lack of cavalry is the most fatal.” Others shared his sentiments. “The enemy have . . . got so much the advantage of us in Cavalry or mounted Infantry,” wrote a Virginia military officer, John Pryor, to Greene on 5 June, “that we are not able to set bounds to their progress to any & every quarter of this Country.” Similarly, William Constable, an aide-de-camp of Lafayette, wrote to Jefferson, “We are in the utmost want of Cavalry, the Enemy’s great superiority in Horse, giving them such advantage over us, that they have it almost in their power to over run the County, in spight of all our efforts.”

A desperate Lafayette begged Steuben to persuade the General Assembly to supply fresh horses. “If they do not,” he said, “it is impossible we can defend this country.” On 24 May, the marquis wrote presciently to Greene, “The Ennemy’s Cavalry and Mounted Infantry Are So Numerous that we Cannot Guard Against partizan Strokes.” Only fifty, ill-equipped mounted troopers were then in the marquis’s command; as he succinctly observed, “Cavalry is everything in Virginia.” Jefferson agreed with the consensus and directed all county lieutenants in Virginia to remove riding and draft horses from the path of the British troops. On 28 May, the House of Delegates advised the governor to authorize Lafayette to impress the necessary animals. Lafayette met with limited success, telling Jefferson that “all the fine Horses in the Country are falling into the Enemy’s hands.” He blamed the owners’ unwillingness to move the animals out of Cornwallis’s path and the impressing parties’ difficulty in operating around the British forces. On 30 May, Steuben opined to Lafayette, “I am of the opinion that my 500 men, and even if it were 1,000, together with those you have, would not prevent Cornwallis from advancing or going wherever he pleases.” Steuben’s premise proved entirely correct.
Significantly outnumbered by the invading redcoats, the French marquis kept his thin units at a wary, respectful distance to the north and west of Cornwallis. The British battalions steadily marched towards Fredericksburg, and Cornwallis reached the North Anna River at Cook’s Ford on 1 June. Lafayette arrived at Mattaponi Church the next day. The British thrust appeared to be in preparation for an attack on Fredericksburg, site of a small arms manufactory, and Hunter’s Iron Works, a valuable foundry at Falmouth. With little opposition, the British campaign was demoralizing the rebels in Virginia. Cornwallis had “thrown every thing into great confusion, as well as filled the minds of the people with the greatest discontent,” wrote an apprehensive Virginia officer, Colonel William Davies, on 2 June.

The British also sought to prevent reinforcements in Pennsylvania under Wayne from reaching Lafayette, as the patriots intended. Lafayette, however, was too quick for Cornwallis, who abandoned any further moves to the north in pursuit of him. Though Tarleton’s stalwart troopers raided near Bowling Green, Cornwallis recognized his inability to catch the fleet-footed Americans and bring them to battle. He halted his advance at Cook’s Ford and altered his line of march. “From what I could learn of the present state of Hunter’s iron manufactory,” he reported later to Clinton, “it did not appear of so much importance as the stores on the other [western] side of the country, and it was impossible to prevent the junction between the Marquis and Wayne.” Fredericksburg now appeared safe, but Lafayette had left the western part of Virginia defenseless.

Major General Tarleton

The British quickly took advantage of the situation. While encamped outside the hamlet of Hanover Court House, Cornwallis’s videttes captured American dispatches from Lafayette to Greene, Jefferson, and Steuben, thus alerting his lordship of the Virginia assembly’s meeting at Charlottesville, as well as the large munitions collection at Point of Fork (now known as Columbia), the confluence of the James and Rivanna Rivers. The British commander was concerned that the assembly, recently reconvened in Charlottesville, would issue a statewide call for the mobilization of militia to repel his invasion. He had to prevent such an act. Therefore, he dispatched Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe, commander of the Queen’s Rangers, and Tarleton, his most combative and controversial lieutenant, “to disturb the Assembly.”

Cornwallis intended the much-feared cavalry officer to make a lightning-quick, hard-hitting “partizan stroke” and destroy supplies and war materiel in a westward dash on Charlottesville. At the same time, Simcoe and the Queen’s Rangers would ride southwest to destroy the patriots’ depot at Point of Fork. Tarleton’s mission included the alluring assignment of not only breaking up the legislature, but also capturing Governor Jefferson, who was presiding over the assembly at the time and residing at his mountaintop home, Monticello. While Tarleton and the cavalry galloped off to wreak havoc upon Virginia’s lawmakers and precious military supplies, Cornwallis intended to follow Simcoe’s path. He planned to move the bulk of his army via the Ground Squirrel Bridge on the South Anna River, through Goochland County to Jefferson’s Elk Hill plantation, on the north bank of the James River, several miles east of Point of Fork. There he would rendezvous with Tarleton and Simcoe.

Lafayette actually suspected such a move on the part of Cornwallis, but he could not prevent it. “It is possible they mean to make a Stroke towards Charlottesville,” the marquis wrote Greene on 3 June, the very day Tarleton left the British position at Hanover Court House. The large quantity of stores accumulated there, “contrary to my directions,” made Lafayette fear for the safety of the town. He had directed that stores at Charlottesville be removed to “Albermarle [sic] Old Courthouse”—the former county courthouse, near Scott’s Landing (now Scottsville), about twenty miles south of Charlottesville—where Steuben had assembled six hundred regulars. The marquis also was frustrated at his inability to halt the continuing British advance. Due to the enemy’s “cloud of light Troops it is difficult to reconnoitre,” he lamented, “as well as to counteract any rapid movements they choose to make.”

During this time of disturbance, few delegates bothered to attend sessions of the General Assembly. Not until  28 May could the reconvened assembly manage a quorum, when it probably met at the old Albemarle County courthouse. “We all fixed ourselves very comfortably, in full Assurance of being unmolested by the Enemy,” wrote one young delegate, John Breckenridge, of Botetourt County, to his mother. The traveling legislature, which included Patrick Henry, intended to elect a new governor to replace the outgoing Jefferson, whose term expired on 1 June.

Early on the morning of 3 June 1781, the confident, audacious Tarleton rode out of Cornwallis’s camp on the North Anna River, hoping to surprise the Virginia government sixty miles to the west. The British column packed a punch. Although they suffered “the utmost distress for want of arms, cloathing, boots, and indeed appointments of all kinds,” as Cornwallis told Clinton, Tarleton’s men were hardened veterans. To strengthen the legion, Cornwallis first directed Tarleton to take along a contingent of mounted infantry of the 2nd Battalion, 71st Highlanders. The officers of that battalion, however, vehemently protested this duty, as they thought Tarleton had carelessly squandered several companies of the 71st’s 1st Battalion in his defeat at Cowpens. Tarleton instead received a company of the 23rd Regiment, Royal Welch Fusiliers to ride behind his troopers and add additional firepower. The total force comprised 180 dragoons and seventy mounted infantry.

Tarleton’s column initially followed the North Anna on the south bank in Hanover County. They proceeded through Brown’s Ordinary in western Hanover at dawn, following the main road that led to the Ground Squirrel Bridge. The soldiers behaved themselves, although many fearful residents “buried their most valuable effects” to hide them from the enemy, reported Robert Honyman. Once across the South Anna River, Tarleton turned west and entered Louisa County on the road to the courthouse. The troopers rested only once, at noon, due to the heat.

That evening, Tarleton stopped at Cuckoo, a small crossroads in eastern Louisa County, some forty miles from Charlottesville. While the soldiers rested and fed their mounts, some of the officers relaxed inside the Cuckoo Tavern. They did not go unobserved. Jack Jouett, a twenty-eight-year-old captain in the Virginia militia and an Albemarle County resident, either overheard the British discuss their intentions or surmised their hostile plans. Once he was able to detach himself inconspicuously from the area, at about 10 p.m., Jouett jumped on his mount and raced westward to warn the assembly and Jefferson. He assumed Tarleton would take the main road to Charlottesville via Louisa and Shadwell, so he opted for an overgrown, little-used trail known to locals as the Mountain Road.Tarleton continued west on the main road. He and his column reached Louisa at 11 p.m. on 3 June, rested briefly on “a plentiful plantation,” as he remembered it, and resumed the dusty march at 2 a.m. on 4 June. Before dawn, the raiders captured and burned twelve lightly guarded wagons of supplies intended for Greene’s forces in South Carolina. The British took “Horses, Saddles & bridles [and] whatever provisions they wanted, but the soldiers were restrained from taking anything else,” reported Robert Honyman. “Where ever they had an opportunity, the soldiers & inferior officers likewise, enticed and flattered the Negroes, & prevailed on vast numbers to go along with them, but they did not compel any.” Approximately six miles before reaching his objective, Tarleton detached a squad from his main force to Belvoir, home of John Walker. Here in the pre-dawn darkness, his dragoons netted Francis Kinlock, a member of the Continental Congress from South Carolina. Meanwhile, after a severe thrashing from the brush and tree limbs barely visible during his desperate ride, Jouett managed to arrive at Monticello. He awakened Jefferson, who was hosting Archibald Cary and Benjamin Harrison, the Speakers of the Senate of Virginia and the House of Delegates, and a few other members of the General Assembly. Refreshed by a glass of wine from Jefferson’s cellar, the exhausted Jouett continued his dash to Charlottesville, where he again spread the alarm.From Belvoir, Tarleton hurriedly rode on with his main body of troopers to Castle Hill, the prominent home of Dr. Thomas Walker, John’s brother. Tarleton snatched from their beds the elder Walker and houseguests Judge Peter Lyons, Colonel John Syme, Newman Brockenbrough of the Virginia legislature, and William and Robert Nelson, two brothers of Thomas Nelson Jr., a brigadier general of the Virginia militia forces. At Castle Hill, Tarleton allowed his men a brief pause for a hurried breakfast before riding on to Charlottesville. The enemy troops forced at least one of the captives, Brockenbrough, to accompany the column, but they allowed Judge Lyons to remain at Castle Hill (perhaps because his weight of 300 pounds made him difficult to transport). “As to civility,” noted Lyons, “we all received much more of it, than we expected.”Tarleton arrived at Charlottesville early on Monday, 4 June. He and his men had traveled seventy miles in one day, thus gaining “the advantage of a surprise,” Tarleton correctly thought. With little loss, his horsemen quickly defeated a poorly trained militia guard at Secretary’s Ford below the town and entered Charlottesville with little opposition. Thanks to Jouett’s warning, most members of the General Assembly already had left for Staunton over the Blue Ridge Mountains.Several delegates, however, had tarried too long loading public records in wagons, and Tarleton’s men promptly bagged them. One captive was a state militia officer and delegate from Fayette County (named the previous year for Lafayette; now part of Kentucky) named Daniel Boone. The British overtook him and a companion, both dressed in frontier hunting shirts and leggings, as they rode slowly toward Staunton. In his rustic attire, Boone initially went unrecognized as a legislator or military officer until his companion inadvertently referred to him as “captain.” Legionnaires took the pair into custody and marched them off to British headquarters. The enemy held Boone with the other prisoners overnight in a filthy coalhouse, then brought him a few days later to Cornwallis’s main camp at Elk Hill. Also among the British captives were former Lieutenant Governor Dudley Digges, three other members of the assembly, and the state printer, James Hayes, whose duties included the crucial task of printing state currency. Though no doubt considerably chagrined, they suffered little personal harm at British hands. Tarleton later boasted that he had treated “the gentlemen taken on this expedition . . . with kindness and liberality.”Although Lafayette had ordered all military stores to be removed from Charlottesville to the old Albemarle courthouse, the citizens of the town largely had  ignored his dictates. According to Cornwallis, the British destroyed one thousand muskets made in Fredericksburg, clothing, five hundred barrels of powder, and other stores. American appraisals of the ruin were much lower. William Christian, brother-in-law of Patrick Henry, said that “the damage was not great; perhaps about three  hundred guns destroyed,  and some stores, but the greatest part had got   out of town.” The losses, according to Lafayette, comprised one hundred fifty stand of arms, a small amount of powder, and county records. Tarleton’s forces also liberated about twenty British prisoners of war held in camp west of town. While his troops busied themselves in Charlottesville, the Hunting Leopard turned to the pursuit of bigger prey: Thomas Jefferson. He detached a small band of soldiers under Captain Kenneth McLeod, of the British Legion, and pointed them toward Monticello.At Jefferson’s home, the owner, his family, and his guests prepared to avoid impending capture. They ate breakfast before Cary, Harrison, and the others left to join their fellow assembly members in Charlottesville. Jefferson calmly sent his wife and other relatives to safety at Blenheim, a neighboring Albemarle plantation belonging to the Carter family, then busily sorted through his papers. An often repeated but unsubstantiated story claimed that Jefferson ordered his horse shod while he walked to Carter’s Mountain behind Monticello to view Charlottesville with his small telescope. He saw no enemy troops in town and began to return home when he realized he had forgotten his walking sword on the mountaintop. On reaching the summit, he used the telescope for another glance down into the town and saw the streets occupied with British dragoons. Jefferson quickly retreated to Monticello and hastily departed on horseback after receiving a second warning from Christopher Hudson of the Virginia militia, who described Jefferson as “perfectly tranquil and undisturbed.” Whatever the actual course of events, he did ride off only a few minutes before the arrival of McLeod and his men and joined his family at Blenheim. A disappointed Tarleton had to admit that his “attempt to secure Mr. Jefferson was ineffectual.”Although they failed in their main objective, the British soldiers obeyed Tarleton’s orders and did very little damage to Monticello. They touched nothing in the house other than a few bottles of wine. According to family tales, Jefferson’s personal valet, Martin Hemings, and another slave, Caesar, were hiding valuable silver articles under the portico when the British arrived. Caesar, trapped, hid under the floor of the portico overnight and into the following day until Tarleton’s horsemen left the mountain. McLeod supposedly deposited the key to the house with Hemings and enjoined him to let no soldiers inside. This indulgence starkly contrasted with Tarleton’s burning of many homes and barns in the Carolinas. “I did not suffer by him,” Jefferson recalled. “On the contrary he behaved very genteely with me.”

MonticelloWhile Tarleton handled operations in the Charlottesville area, Simcoe’s mounted column of Loyalist cavalry captured and destroyed large quantities of valuable American supplies at Point of Fork, Steuben’s main supply point, on 5 June. While Simcoe’s men destroyed the supplies, Steuben beat a hasty and humiliating retreat south of the James. Cornwallis set up camp at Elk Hill on 7 June. Only partially successful due to the escape of most of his intended quarry, Tarleton left Charlottesville after a few days and led his column and prisoners down the Rivanna River to Elk Hill. There, Tarleton paroled most of his captives, including Daniel Boone, but he retained those whom he considered lower class—lacking wealth or position—as prisoners of war. The swift, unexpected, and destructive procession of the much-feared Tarleton and his troopers through the rolling hills of the Virginia piedmont created a chaotic situation for the region’s inhabitants and the military officers attempting to combat him. Although some members of Albemarle’s militia turned out upon word of the raid, they did not attack the British regulars in Charlottesville. Rumors of Tarleton’s movements abounded, and reliable information was in short supply. On 5 June, writing to Greene, who was no doubt anxious for intelligence from Virginia, Captain John Pryor, at Buckingham Court House, advised him of the “late operations of the Enemy.” Pryor noted that Steuben would have had no time to write. Pryor was sure that “many of the Members of the Assembly are taken at Charlottesville where the Assembly were sitting,” and that some may have “previously adjourn’d” to another site. As late as 9 June, Greene, in South Carolina, continued to urge Lafayette not to “spare any pains to remove all the public Stores out of the enemies way.” “I am exceedingly distressed to find it altogether out of my power to give you the support your situation claims and my inclinations lead to,” wrote the southern commander.  As it turned out, Lafayette was unable to report the attack on Charlottesville and Point of Fork to Greene until 18 June. He succinctly described the losses as “trifling” a few days later. “Upon the whole,” he wrote to Greene on 20 June, “our loss was not very Considerable But will Show [a] great deal in Newspapers.” Steuben lost complete contact with Lafayette for more than a month. Military operations in Virginia to counter Tarleton’s column were confused and ineffective for weeks after the British left Charlottesville. Rumors of Tarleton thundering over the Blue Ridge into Augusta County to try again to capture the assembly caused great commotion in Staunton, which the fleeing delegates had reached by 7 June.In Staunton and beyond, acrimonious debate and harsh accusations about Jefferson followed the alarm of Cornwallis’s operations. A party of delegates tried to censure Jefferson once the assembly reconvened at Staunton, for alleged derelict conduct in protecting the state during repeated British incursions. The legislature had failed to elect a new governor by the time Tarleton’s troopers rode into Charlottesville, thus adding to the confusion and leaving the commonwealth without a chief executive until the election of Brigadier General Thomas Nelson Jr. on 12 June.   A few delegates, mostly supporters of Patrick Henry, called for an inquiry into Jefferson’s conduct during the previous year, which had seen several British incursions into the state. Late in 1781, the assembly completely exonerated Jefferson. During his presidency two decades later, political enemies vigorously renewed the charges, which Jefferson bitterly remembered.

  [T. Nelson, Jr.]
As the assembly gathered in Staunton, militia companies of frontier riflemen from Augusta County assembled at Rockfish Gap to defend the Shenandoah Valley. From Staunton, Colonel William Davies  [pictured below] echoed a familiar refrain when he wrote to Greene, “The enemy have at length driven us over the mountains; their superiority in cavalry is so great that there is scarcely any security below.” The local militia responded to calls to arms by Virginia officers, but “at least twice as many militia are taking the field as are necessary,” Davies lamented. He feared that as soon as the harvest began and the volunteers grew tired of service, the forces would shrink to “a very small handful.” In the end, they never had to fight, for Tarleton’s troopers ventured only a few miles west of Charlottesville and never attempted to cross the Blue Ridge.

While Tarleton, Simcoe, and their hard-riding troops ravaged Virginia’s supplies and disrupted its government, Lafayette did not intervene. Lacking cavalry and still awaiting the arrival of Wayne’s Continentals, who were on the march to Virginia from York, Pennsylvania, the marquis prudently decided to receive reinforcements before aggressively attempting to oppose Cornwallis. Wayne’s regiments, in excellent spirits, reached Lafayette’s position near Raccoon Ford on the Rapidan River on 9 June. On 13 June, an American scout captured the dispatch Tarleton had written to Cornwallis reporting his raid on Charlottesville. This paper was published promptly to warn local residents of the potential danger they faced should Tarleton come their way.

At Elk Hill, Cornwallis considered sending Tarleton and the British Legion to raid the old Albemarle courthouse and pursue Steuben. His lordship abandoned this plan upon news of Wayne’s arrival and opted for a slow retirement towards Richmond. Before they left Jefferson’s property at Elk Hill, Cornwallis’s troops—in contrast to Tarleton’s troops at Monticello—burned barns filled with hay and corn, carted off cattle and sheep for their own provisions, and killed all the young horses. Jefferson wrote bitterly that Cornwallis “treated the rest of the neighborhood somewhat in the same style, but not with that spirit of total extermination with which he seemed to rage over my possessions.” The British also induced thirty of Elk Hill’s slaves to leave and accompany the army. Many of them quickly succumbed to smallpox and other camp diseases. “I  suppose,” Jefferson wrote of the British in 1788, “their whole devastations during those six months amounted to about three million sterling.” However, another Albemarle resident, Davis Ross, complained of his neighbors, “I think the Country people stole as much or more than the British destroy’d.”

With rebel skirmishers at his heels, Cornwallis and his reunited army began their march south along the north bank of the James on 15 June, with the vanguard of his forces arriving near Richmond the next day. As the long column of redcoats trudged along the dusty roads of Virginia to Yorktown, the beleaguered General Assembly in Staunton voted to honor one of the few patriot heroes of the campaign. On 15 June, the lawmakers directed Governor Nelson “to present to Captain John Jouett an elegant sword, and pair of pistols, as a memorial of the high sense, which the General assembly entertain; of his activity, and enterprize in watching the motions of the Enemy’s Cavalry on their late incursion to Charlottesville, and conveying to the Assembly timely information of their approach, whereby the designs of the Enemy were frustrated, and many valuable stores preserved.” The hero received the French-made pistols in 1783 and the sword in 1803.

Tarleton had one more escapade in store for Virginia. For sixteen days in July, he and his troops galloped in a round trip from Suffolk to Petersburg, Amelia Court House, Prince Edward Court House, Charlotte, New London, and Bedford. They stole fine horses and destroyed supplies while fending off the Virginia militia. The cavalry leader covered thirty to forty miles a day but lost many soldiers and mounts to the summer heat. In late August, he joined Cornwallis at Gloucester and Yorktown.

Tarleton’s last battle of the American Revolution came on 3 October 1781. During a skirmish at the Hook in Gloucester County, he was unhorsed and injured but escaped capture by French forces. When Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown on 19 October, Tarleton surrendered to Brigadier General Claude-Gabriel de Choisy at Gloucester. He felt in danger for his life and sought protection from French officers after his parole. American officers refused him the invitations to socialize that they extended to Cornwallis and other British officers.

Tarleton arrived in London, a hero, on 18 January 1782. His stock might have risen even higher had he captured Thomas Jefferson and the entire General Assembly of Virginia. If not for a stop at a country tavern, the happenstance presence of an alert militiaman, and the dramatic nighttime journey of Jack Jouett, Tarleton would have counted a huge coup for the British, struck a terrible blow to the morale of Virginians, and, perhaps, changed the outcome of the Revolutionary War.

Note: for a more recent article on the 1781 Charlottesville Raid, click here.  Then click on the “Newsletter” tab near the top of the welcome screen, then in the Article Archive at the left, select “Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton.”

Tarleton’s Obituary in Gentleman’s Magazine, 1833, can be found here.

In April 1781, after months of bloody fighting in the Carolinas, General Charles, Lord Cornwallis, the commander of the British military forces in the southern colonies, turned his attention northward. “Until Virginia is in a manner subdued,” wrote Cornwallis, “our hold of the Carolinas must be difficult, if not precarious.” Although his mission would end in surrender at Yorktown later that year, Cornwallis and his forces cut a swath of terror through the commonwealth, destroying vital supplies, seizing property, and nearly capturing the governor and the entire General Assembly. He owed his success in part to the most execrated British officer to serve in the colonies during the Revolution: Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Just twenty-six years old and a soldier for six of those years, the stocky, red-headed commander of the British Legion had a reputation for brutality and for giving no quarter to prisoners.  Tarleton had been born into a wealthy merchant family in Liverpool on 21 August 1754. After two years at Oxford, he enrolled in Middle Temple, England’s most prestigious law school, but proved an indifferent student. He demonstrated a propensity for gambling and womanizing and frittered away most of his inheritance by the age of twenty. In April 1775, he purchased a commission in the King’s Dragoon Guards. Bored in London, he volunteered for service in America the next year. By the fall of 1776, he was in New York with the 16th Regiment of Light Dragoons and settled into the rigors of cavalry duties. In December, he first tasted fame when he helped capture British-born Charles Lee, a major general and George Washington’s second in command, whom British military leaders considered both a traitor and the patriots’ most competent officer. In true Tarleton fashion, he later exaggerated his role in the capture. In 1778, Tarleton was promoted to lieutenant colonel and placed at the head of the newly formed British Legion, a mixed unit of Loyalist cavalry and light infantry. Raised in New York and Pennsylvania, members of this Provincial unit wore leather helmets and short green jackets. Tarleton’s rapid rise in the British service began once he departed New York in 1780 to join the Crown forces campaigning in the South. The legion accompanied their leader to Charleston, South Carolina, and throughout all of his southern campaigns.As a result of several devastating, bloody defeats Tarleton and his soldiers inflicted on patriot forces in the Carolinas, he and his men became known for their ferocity and ruthlessness. His annihilation of Colonel Abraham Buford’s Virginians at the Waxhaws, South Carolina, in May 1780, reinforced his cruel image and reinforced the opposition. Only one stain marked Tarleton’s military career in British eyes: his negligent mishandling of troops at the Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina, on 17 January 1781, which resulted in a decisive rout of the British. Two months later, at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, he received a wound to his right hand that necessitated the amputation of his index and middle fingers, but he continued to fight. An alarmed Major General Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben, the former inspector general of the Continental Army, wrote that Tarleton’s May 1781 arrival in Virginia “spread an universal terror.”Steuben was in a position to know. He had been in Virginia since late 1780, when Major General Nathanael Greene received command of the Southern Department. Steuben assembled supplies and trained soldiers for Greene. Earlier invading forces under Benedict Arnold and William Phillips had hampered Steuben’s efforts, and now Cornwallis and Tarleton were headed his way. On 15 March, Cornwallis’s British army already had defeated a larger force of American Continentals and militia under Greene at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, yet Cornwallis suffered almost twenty-five percent casualties. Badly bloodied and low on supplies and ammunition, the British general led his weary regiments down the Cape Fear River to the coast, where he occupied Wilmington, North Carolina, for nearly a month. He decided against remaining in the port town for fear that Greene would advance upon British posts in South Carolina, turn against him, and cut off his supplies. Cornwallis also claimed to have received word of Major General Phillips’s activities against the enemy in Virginia, and the prospect of success there encouraged him. “I was finally persuaded,” he wrote his commander, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton, in New York, “that, until Virginia was reduced, we could not hold the more southern provinces, and that after its reduction they would fall without much difficulty.” Virginia also was the richest, most populous province, least touched by ravaging armies up to that point in the war; hence, it made an inviting target. In Virginia, Cornwallis hoped “a successful battle may give us America,” as he had told Phillips. Clinton never approved of this move to Virginia. Instead he wanted Cornwallis to secure South Carolina and consolidate the Crown’s control there. Cornwallis disregarded Clinton’s wishes and headed north. The spring of 1781 found Virginia, not previously the scene of a major military campaign of the American Revolution, suddenly faced with a hostile invasion. Prior sorties by the Crown’s forces had in most instances been waterborne forays by limited detachments from Hampton Roads to burn military supplies, crops, and tobacco, including one devastating mission to Richmond in January led by turncoat Arnold, the newly minted British brigadier general. In fact, the General Assembly had left Williamsburg for Richmond due to such raids. With the imminent arrival of a sizable battle order of seasoned infantry and dragoons, the assembly vacated Richmond for Charlottesville on 10 May, followed a few days later by Governor Thomas Jefferson.The invaders entered Virginia south of Petersburg in early May. Cornwallis arrived from Wilmington on 20 May and united his troops with those of Phillips, who had died of fever a week before. Thus reinforced, Cornwallis confidently embarked on what would be his final American campaign.Virginia was easy plunder for an enemy that dominated the state’s waterways. Greene thought the patriots in the state were “quite inadequate to the protection of that extensive Country intersected with rivers as it is.” The raids from Hampton Roads had led a frustrated Jefferson to implore General George Washington to send troops to defend his home state. Jefferson also requested the commander’s personal presence in Virginia, wearily surmising that “the public would have more confidence in a military chief.” Washington declined, leaving his fellow Virginians to deal with the marauding redcoats.The task of defending Virginia against Tarleton, Cornwallis, and the rest of the British forces fell to the Marquis de Lafayette, a young French aristocrat voluntarily serving the American cause as a major general. Only twenty-three years old, he had received orders from the Continental Congress to command (under Greene) a semi-independent force of light infantry, assorted Virginia state troops, and militia to oppose British incursions in the Chesapeake Bay. Lafayette arrived in Richmond on 29 April to find his three thousand troops inadequate, supplies scarce, and morale low. “We Have Some Militia But are in Such a Want of arms that I dare not Venture them into action for fear of an Irreparable loss,” the marquis wrote to Brigadier General Anthony Wayne on 15 May. Lafayette was unable to prevent the junction of the armies of Phillips and Cornwallis at Petersburg on 20 May. “We cannot hope to offer great resistance . . . we lack arms,” he wrote on 22 May to the Chevalier Anne-César de La Luzerne, a fellow Frenchman serving with Washington. “If we are caught, we shall all be routed.” He could do little but delay Cornwallis and shadow his movements, avoid a pitched battle for which he was outgunned, and wait for a fortuitous opportunity to strike the British without risking his own much smaller force. “I am therefore determined to Skarmish,” the marquis wrote from Richmond to General Washington on 24 May, “But not to engage too far and particularly to take Care against their Immense and excellent Body of Horse whom the Militia fear like they would be So Many wild Beasts.” After combining with Phillips’s regiments at Petersburg, a strengthened and aggressive Cornwallis moved quickly. The British crossed the James River in boats at Westover Plantation from 24–26 May, forcing Lafayette to abandon Richmond and move north. On 28 May, Jefferson summoned “every man who possibly can, come armed with a good rifle and those who cannot must bring a good smooth Bore if they have it . . . the whole Country lies open to a most powerful Army headed by the most active, enterprising and vindictive Officer who has ever appeared in Arms against us.”


  1. Mr. Maass,

    Thanks so much for making this available! It is a good read.

    Adrian Miller

    Comment by Adrian Miller — June 5, 2006 @ 8:10 pm | Reply

  2. You are very welcome!

    Comment by John Maass — June 5, 2006 @ 8:40 pm | Reply

  3. Actually, it’s Charles, Lord Cornwallis. Cornwallis is part of his title, not his “last name”.

    Comment by Buck Bannister — June 6, 2006 @ 3:54 am | Reply

  4. Buck:
    Actually, “lord” is the title, not “Cornwallis.” JM

    Comment by John Maass — August 3, 2006 @ 10:22 pm | Reply

  5. Thank you very much for making this piece available.

    Do you know where to get a higher res picture of Reynold’s famous portrait? I’d really like to include it in my screensaver.

    Comment by Family Portraits — August 15, 2006 @ 11:25 pm | Reply

  6. I’d look for images of BT here: http://home.golden.net/~marg/bansite/btimages.html

    Regards, JM

    Comment by John Maass — August 15, 2006 @ 11:54 pm | Reply

  7. Nice blog

    Comment by Johncy — January 3, 2007 @ 8:49 am | Reply

  8. My 5-G Grandfather, Christopher Eye was in the Augusta,Va. Militia, cavalry troop, 2nd Battalion, and fought in the Yorktown campaign. Your blog really made history come alive. Thank you.

    Comment by Bill Ulle — January 22, 2007 @ 11:20 pm | Reply

  9. To all those above who have said thanks:

    You are welcome!


    Comment by John Maass — January 29, 2007 @ 11:03 pm | Reply

  10. wow! i live rigth off of hook road in gloucester. very interesting story.

    Comment by amie — October 18, 2007 @ 4:44 pm | Reply

  11. […] this website there is an excellent article and wonderful photos of the structure Banastre Tarleton used as his HQ for one night in June 1781 during his stay in Charlottesville.  This place (part of […]

    Pingback by Tarleton’s Charlottesville HQ in 1781 « A Student of History — February 12, 2008 @ 7:43 am | Reply

  12. Do you know where can I find pictures of Sir Banastre Tarleton wearing the British uniform?


    Comment by Hugo Moran — February 20, 2008 @ 9:59 pm | Reply

  13. Ty for answered me, I appreciate it. But what I’m looking for is and image were the british officcer uniform is shown, cause my kid is on a playing for his school and I’m trying to find a model to make his costume.

    Comment by Hugo Moran — February 22, 2008 @ 11:23 am | Reply

  14. Go to the website called “Oatmeal for the Foxhounds,” and click the link for images. There are plenty of them there with BT wearing a green coat and one with a red coat. Both are British officer coats!

    Here (once again) is the site: http://home.golden.net/~marg/bansite/btimages.html

    Comment by John Maass — February 22, 2008 @ 2:44 pm | Reply

  15. What a great read, possibly one of the most interesting in-sights
    I have ever read. A true British captain and one for which should
    never be forgotten.

    Good work and well done.

    Comment by Mark Farnell — March 11, 2008 @ 5:18 am | Reply

  16. […] from Richmond to Charlottesville and back on the trail (for the most part) of Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton’s June 1781 raid to disturb the Va. Assembly and to capture Va. Gov. Thomas Jefferson.  Although BT failed to […]

    Pingback by Tarleton Tour ‘08 « A Student of History — June 9, 2008 @ 7:09 am | Reply

  17. Very informative. Since today is July 4th, I just watched a very long show about The Revolutionary War where he was mentioned in considerable detail. Great site.

    Comment by Mary Anne Curel — July 4, 2008 @ 7:49 pm | Reply

  18. If there had been more men like Tarleton I’m sure the U.K would have easily have won the rebellion in the colonies.Basically it was an English civil war and basically it was decided by the French

    Comment by Gary — March 16, 2009 @ 5:18 am | Reply

    • Or more men like Tarleton would have further aroused the populace of America to fight. One does not know….

      Comment by John Maass — March 3, 2011 @ 9:10 am | Reply

  19. I love to know about history. This is a wonderful post. I am very glad to read this..

    Comment by Lawyers Bellbrook — November 19, 2009 @ 12:02 pm | Reply

  20. I am looking for information about Banastre Tarleton in eastern NC. There are several NC Historical roadside markers that indicate raids by him and his men(e.g. the Battle of Peacock’s Bridge near present day Stantonsburg, NC)

    Comment by JP Walters — January 20, 2010 @ 10:08 am | Reply

  21. Dear JP Walters:

    Where have you looked so far?


    Comment by John Maass — January 21, 2010 @ 7:28 am | Reply

  22. Dear Mr. Maass,
    I’m writing a novel about the last year of the revolutionary war, and here in Germany it is hard to find information to this period of history; in fact, Robert Bass’ “The green Dragoon” was my introduction as ‘Tarletonian’. To read your fine article about Tarleton’s raid gave me perfect new aspects to my story and encourages me to go on researching. Thank you!

    Comment by Rita Altmeyer — October 7, 2010 @ 1:58 pm | Reply

    • If you would like a copy of the article in the magazine, I can send you one.

      Comment by John Maass — October 7, 2010 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

  23. Greetings John Maass,

    Do you have copies of your article on Banestre Tarleton available for sale?
    I would like to have a hardcopy. Are you by chance also a Tarleton?
    My grandfather, Gilbert Tarleton, had a copy of The Green Dragoon that had belonged to his father,
    Robert Tarleton of Mobile Alabama. The family lost it along the way but just now I googled and found it in paperback.

    Many thanks. Your article looks fabulous. I had never seen the small oval brown eyed portrait before…I know the big dashing Reynolds painting in which I imagined blue eyes…

    Comment by Ippy Patterson — November 11, 2010 @ 8:16 am | Reply

  24. […] British troops came to our doorstep but the valley itself was never invaded.  A surge of Virginia rifleman held back Banastre Tarleton and his dogs of war at Rockfish Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I came across an interesting article on that and other events surrounding British General Banastre Tarleton:  https://fusilier.wordpress.com/banastre-tarleton-article-2000/ […]

    Pingback by Why American Historicals are ‘More Deeply Stirring to my Blood’ | One Writer's Way — March 2, 2012 @ 9:41 am | Reply

  25. […] To Disturb the Assembly: Tarleton’s Charlottesville Raid and the British Invasion of Virginia,… Maass, John R. “To Disturb the Assembly: Tarleton’s Charlottesville Raid and the British Invasion of Virginia, 1781.”. Virginia Cavalcade, Autumn 2000. Republished at “A Student of History” website by Dr. John Maass, PhD. […]

    Pingback by The Midnight Ride of Jack Jouett - June 3, 1781 - Today in American Revolution History — June 3, 2019 @ 4:22 am | Reply

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