The Green Dragoon's Snuff Box
The movie moguls of Hollywood have long taken complex historical events and converted them into simplistic but entertaining films. One common element is to identify a black-hearted villain acting as the nemesis to the film’s hero who after many trials and tribulations eventually overcomes evil with good. The hugely successful film The Patriot (2000) starring Mel Gibson as the hero is no exception to this well established formula.
Gibson plays the role of a South Carolina planter, who is still haunted by his notoriously brutal past as a soldier in the French and Indian Wars. When the American Revolution comes, he chooses not to fight for the Continental Army but to remain home to protect his family. When a savage Colonel Tavington threatens their welfare and kills one of his sons, he raises a local militia to harass British forces in a guerrilla war.
Colonel Tavington is thinly based on the life of a real British officer of the period, Banastre Tarleton, who was a much more interesting and an equally controversial character.
During the spring and summer of 1778, volunteer companies were raised and recruited from Americans loyal to the Crown. This led to the organization of the British Legion with the 23 year old Tarleton as lieutenant colonel, soon in overall command. The unit was a mix of cavalry and light infantry made up of men from Pennsylvania and New York, uniformed in green, thus giving rise to the name The Green Dragoons. Tarleton's reputation would be established when he was given overall command of the cavalry in an expedition to subjugate the four southern colonies of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia in 1781.
Tarleton typically deployed his forces at a relentless pace; using slashing, surprising attacks enabling him to catch up with a Virginia unit under Col. Abraham Buford and leading to what has become known as the Waxhaws massacre. This incident forged Tarleton's reputation as a savage and ruthless leader but it must be remembered that similar atrocities were commonly perpetrated by both sides in that vicious conflict of neighbour against neighbour.
Tarleton's brutal reputation was enhanced after the Battle of Camden, South Carolina, in 1780, when his Legion was sent to pursue and cut down fleeing rebel militia units without quarter. He pursued them for twenty miles before turning back to return to the field. He was soundly defeated at the Battle of Cowpens in 1781 but undeterred he continued skirmishing until French cavalry surprised and defeated his Legion just before the British surrender at Yorktown.
The Battle of Waxhaws
The Battle of Camden
Banastre Tarleton returned to Britain the following year, charming society at all levels and being painted famously by Sir Joshua Reynolds in a portrait that appears to hide the battle injuries to his hand.
Elected to Parliament, he served seven terms as the MP for Liverpool, rising to the rank of General and elevated to a barontetcy in 1815. He died in Herefordshire in 1833 and remains a controversial character on both sides of the Atlantic to this day.
Image of the painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1782 (c) The National Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation