[May 29, 2021] Can a century’s old brutal leadership provide us with critical lessons today? In an award-winning movie, The Patriot starring Mel Gibson, the story is told of events in the Revolutionary War. British Colonel Banastre Tarleton provided surprising successful battlefield leadership but also failed ultimately in his leadership role.
As told in the movie, the story was a composite of events in the border area of North and South Carolina. The vicious British Colonel is a depiction of Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton. Tarleton was assigned the mission of wiping out Patriots in this area.
“The Americans were totally unprepared for battle, and beheld the coming of the furious horsemen with the wildest terror. Beneath that headlong charge, led by Tarleton himself, the ground trembled, and the militia sent up a cry of terror that echoed dreadfully along the plain.”1
At one point in the Battle of Waxhaws, Tarleton’s soldiers defeated a group of 350 militiamen. They surrendered. In those days, to give quarter meant that those who surrendered were treated as prisoners of war, fed, and taken to a prison camp. But not for Tarleton. He massacred them and became known throughout the area as Tarleton’s quarter, which meant no quarter.
“Riding backward and forward over the mangled companies, Tarleton glutted his eyes on the terrible spectacle, and cheered on his men to their work. The prayer for mercy was music to his ears; and his haughty eye grew more bright, more intensely thrilling, as he saw the blood of the helpless oozing among the parched sands.”1
During the massacre, Tarleton was supported by Tories or those loyal to the King. The Continentals lost 113 men, and 203 were captured. British losses totaled 19 men. It was a lopsided victory for the British. Although they were routed, the loss became a propaganda victory for the Continentals. Wavering civilians in the Carolinas were terrified of Tarleton and their Loyalist neighbors but prepared to rally to the Patriot cause.
“Tarleton’s quarter” became a rallying cry for the Patriots. The tactically brilliant Tarleton had made a significant strategic error with his mistreatment of prisoners. This tragic event filled the Continentals with both terror and fire in their hearts. Subsequently, there was retaliation.
British Colonel Tarleton failed on a number of key leadership traits. Yes, he could inspire his men and his courage was without question, yet he was overly confident, arrogant, and he had a defective understanding of what terror can do to a civilian population.
Under the leadership of General Thomas Sumter, the Patriot militia quickly returned the terror in kind with their own brutal raids on Carolina loyalists. Carolinians went on to fight a bloody civil war in which they killed their own with far greater force than any British outsider sent to assist them.
The Battle of Waxhaws was fought on May 29, 1780, during the American Revolution (1775-1783) and was one of several defeats in the South that summer.