In a Massacre, the Seeds of a Civil War

Americans slaughtered their countrymen in the bloody Battle of Waxhaws in the woods of South Carolina

Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton.

Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton.

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It was an improbable encounter in sweltering heat. Hard-charging British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton had driven his force of nearly 270 American Tories over a hundred miles on foot and horseback in 54 hours, hoping to catch rebel soldiers heading home after their failure to rescue Charleston, S.C.

But the sudden and unexpected skirmish in woodlands in the Waxhaw area in northern South Carolina became a grisly footnote of an-other war fought during the Revolution—an American civil war. "In the South, it became common to have Americans against Americans, with communities and even families divided just as in the later Civil War in the 1860s," says John Ferling, the author of 10 books on early American history, including Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence.

After their defeat at the Battle of Saratoga in New York, the British turned to a "southern strategy" based on recruiting loyalists into provincial units—Americans often commanded by a British officer. Ties to England were stronger in the South because of a long-standing trade in tobacco and rice, as well as a British promise to let loyalists retain their slaves. At one point in 1780, there were more loyalists serving in the British Army than American patriots serving in the Continental Army.

The details of the Battle of Waxhaws, as recounted by an American witness, are still sickening 200 years later. By the time the British took Charleston in May of 1780, they believed they had nearly won the war, with American patriots on the run. Tarleton's loyalist forces caught up to the rear guard of roughly 340 northbound Virginia regulars about 3 p.m. on May 29, 1780, at a rural crossroads.

"Last extremity." Tarleton dispatched Capt. David Kinloch bearing a white, cease-fire flag to offer terms of surrender to Col. Abraham Buford. "Resistance being vain, to prevent the effusion of human blood, I make offers which can never be repeated,'' Tarleton's note told Buford. Tarleton proposed the same terms accepted by roughly 5,500 surrendering defenders of Charleston 17 days earlier.

Buford rejected the offer, vowing to "defend myself to the last extremity.'' Tarleton's bugler sounded the charge, unleashing a full-scale cavalry and infantry charge on the larger American force, which was struggling to form a defensive line. Buford's men withheld their musket fire until the thundering loyalist forces came within 10 yards of their flimsy line, but the rebels' close-range firing failed to stem the attack. With no time to reload their muskets, they could not effectively defend themselves as the sabers of the British cavalrymen slashed savagely into their heads, arms, and torsos.

"Tarleton's men just chopped them into pieces," says Ferling. Overwhelmed, many of the patriots laid down their arms and attempted to surrender.

Buford dispatched a flag of surrender toward the British lines, "expecting the usual treatment sanctioned by civilized warfare,'' an American field surgeon, Robert Brownfield, recalled. But as Tarleton prepared to receive the emissary in the confusion of battle, his horse was hit in the forehead and went down, rolling over on the British commander and giving his comrades the impression that American rebels had attacked under a flag of truce.

The Tory troops set upon the 350 Virginia soldiers with "the horrid yells of infuriated demons,'' carrying out "indiscriminate carnage never surpassed by the ruthless atrocities of the most barbarous savages,'' Brownfield wrote. Tarleton's men "went over the ground plunging their bayonets into every one that exhibited any signs of life."

In only 15 minutes, the Tories slaughtered 113 American soldiers and wounded 150. The loyalists suffered only 5 killed and 12 wounded. "The average casualty rate in Revolutionary War fighting was usually 8 or 10 percent," says Ferling. "At Waxhaws, it was 75 percent [for the Virginians], a massacre by anyone's standards."

A great partisan war began in the backwoods of the South. Rebels formed guerrilla bands that came out of the swamps and attacked British patrols and supply lines, completely changing the dynamics of the war. By the end of August, Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis, the British commander in the South, concluded that South Carolina was in total rebellion. "In the aftermath, massacres and terror were practiced more by Americans than by the British," observes Ferling. "American patriots charged into battle against American loyalists shouting 'Tarleton's quarter!' rather like 'Remember Pearl Harbor!'"