Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Waxhaw Massacre, 29 May 1780

Upon the outbreak of war in 1775, Abraham Buford, a native of Culpeper County, Virginia, organized a company of minutemen. By May 1778 he had achieved the rank of Colonel in the Continental Army, and assumed command of the 11th Virginia Regiment in September the same year. In April 1780 Buford was reassigned to lead the 3rd Virginia Regiment southward into the Carolinas. He was to relieve General Benjamin Lincoln in Charleston while that port city continued under British siege. After Buford entered the South Carolina backcountry of the Waxhaws, however, he received news of Lincoln’s surrender to the British, and he turned his Virginia troops northward again, as ordered. 
The Waxhaws, a geographic region in the Piedmont of the Catawba River valley, was named for its earliest known inhabitants—the Waxhaw Indians. The tribe had been decimated by war and disease, and by 1715 the area was essentially uninhabited. By 1740 Scots-Irish and other immigrants had entered the land and established settlements. The fertile hunting ground of the Waxhaws spanned, after the border was eventually drawn, the North and South Carolina state lines. 
Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton was a British cavalry officer with a reputation for ruthless brutality that earned him the nicknames “Bloody Ban” and “Butcher.” On 29 May 1780 Tarleton’s force of about 130 cavalry, 100 infantry, and 40 British “Green Dragoons” overtook Colonel Buford’s 350 (or 380, per Tarleton) Virginia Continentals in the woods near Lancaster, South Carolina. As evidenced in their exchanged dispatches, Buford, at the outset, declined Tarleton’s option to surrender. Only after an early onset of heavy casualties did Buford order his troops to raise a flag of surrender. 
Buford now perceiving that further resistance was hopeless, ordered a flag to be hoisted and the arms to be grounded, expecting the usual treatment sanctioned by civilized warfare. This, however, made no part of Tarleton’s creed. His ostensible pretext, for the relentless barbarity that ensued, was, that his horse was killed under him just as the flag was raised. He affected to believe that this was done afterwards, and imputed it to treachery on the part of Buford; but, in reality, a safe opportunity was presented to gratify that thirst for blood which marked his character in every conjuncture that promised probable impunity to himself. Ensign Cruit, who advanced with the flag, was instantly cut down. Viewing this as an earnest of what they were to expect, a resumption of their arms was attempted, to sell their lives as dearly as possible; but before this was fully effected, Tarleton with his cruel myrmidons was in the midst of them, when commenced a scene of indiscriminate carnage never surpassed by the ruthless atrocities of the most barbarous savages. 
The demand for quarters, seldom refused to a vanquished foe, was at once found to be in vain; —not a man was spared—and it was the concurrent testimony of all the survivors, that for fifteen minutes after every man was prostrate. They went over the ground plunging their bayonets into every one that exhibited any signs of life, and in some instances, where several had fallen one over the other, these monsters were seen to throw off on the point of the bayonet the uppermost, to come at those beneath.
—Letter from Dr Robert Brownfield* to William Dobein James, excerpt
Local residents who had not fled tended to the casualties. The same afternoon of the battle 84 dead were buried together in a mass grave. The following day 25 more were buried in a second mass grave. The wounded were taken to nearby Waxhaws Church for care. Mrs Elizabeth Jackson served there as a nurse along with her sons, 16-year-old Robert and 13-year-old Andrew, who would carry these memories with him as a commander into the War of 1812.
“Tarleton’s Quarter” became a rallying cry among the Patriots, albeit a sarcastic one, which translated to: no quarter whatsoever. The slogan gained a motivational momentum, driving many much-needed new recruits into the partisan militia. The backcountry Scots-Irish communities were particularly responsive. Loyalist recruitment declined in inverse proportion. Loyalist desertions increased in step.
The Waxhaws battle became historically controversial. After breaking Buford’s line Tarleton’s dragoons slaughtered many partisans that reportedly had surrendered and asked for quarter, literally hacking them down and apart with their sabres. Some sources, such as partisan Surgeon’s Mate Robert Brownfield and Buford’s Adjutant Henry Bowyer, claimed that Buford raised a white flag, however belated, that was ignored by Tarleton. 
“The officers commanding platoons on Beaufort’s left, being all killed, and the command thrown into confusion, Adjutant Bowyer was ordered to advance with a flag, and to say to Tarleton, that he was willing to accept the terms offered before the action began. The Adjutant remonstrated by saying, that as the firing still continued, the execution of the order would be impracticable, exposing the bearer of the flag to the shot of both parties. Beaufort repeated his orders, in positive terms, and the Adjutant rode forward, with a handkerchief displayed on the point of his sword. When close to the British commander, he delivered Beaufort's message, but a ball at the moment striking the forehead of Tarleton’s horse, he plunged and both fell to the ground, the horse being uppermost. Extricated by his men from so perilous a position, the exasperated Colonel rose from the ground, and ordered the soldiers to despatch him. They immediately gathered round, and several cuts were made at him, which he had the good fortune to parry and avoid. By this time, Captain John Stokes and Lieut. Willison, who occupied a position opposite to that where the Adjutant was surrounded by the British Dragoons, and saw the danger impending over him, directed their platoons to fire at the group. They were well obeyed, and the bullets thrown among the party around the Adjutant, frightening the horses, gave him an opportunity of dashing through them, and effecting his escape unhurt. His horse was seriously wounded, but not sufficiently so to prevent his carrying his master to a place of security. The overwhelming force of the British then prevailed, and a dreadful massacre of the detachment followed. The rage of the British soldiers, excited by the continued fire of the Americans, while a negotiation was offered by flag, impelled them to acts of vengeance that knew no limits."
—Adjutant Henry Bowyer
Banastre Tarleton’s 1787 account set the scene for a massacre. His horse had been shot from under him during the initial volley. While Tarleton was briefly pinned beneath the horse, word rapidly, and most mistakenly, spread among his men that their commander had been killed.
“The loss of officers and men was great on the part of the Americans, owing to the dragoons so effectually breaking the infantry, and to a report amongst the cavalry, that they had lost their commanding officer, which stimulated the soldiers to a vindictive asperity not easily restrained.”
—Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton
The vengeful slaughter was not restrained. Of Colonel Buford’s approximately 350 men, 113 were killed and 203 captured, 150 of whom were so badly wounded that they were left behind. Tarleton’s casualties were 5 killed and 12 wounded. The affair became known as the Waxhaw Massacre. “Buford” would become the countersign at Kings Mountain later the same year. In January 1781, the patriot watchword for the Battle of Cowpens would be “Buford's Play.”

* Dr Robert Brownfield served as a Surgeon’s Mate in the regiment of Colonel Abraham Buford.