In the autumn of 1779, the failed Franco-American invasion of Georgia saw the death of popular American general Casimir Pulaski in the American defeat at the Siege of Savannah. Sensing that they could bring the Southern Colonies back into the fold, the British invaded South Carolina in the spring of 1780. The Continental Army under Benjamin Lincoln withdrew to Charleston to secure America’s most important city in the South. Lincoln’s Southern Army was surprised and defeated at Moncke’s Corner and Lenud’s Ferry which cut Charleston off. On 12 May, 1780, Lincoln surrendered Charleston and 5000 men in arguably America’s worst defeat in the American Revolution. British Commander-in-Chief Sir Henry Clinton then cleared Patriot strongholds in Georgia and South Carolina. By mid-May, Patriot sentiment in the Southern Colonies was at its lowest, and its leaders hid from Loyalists who flocked to the British.
The only organized American force left in South Carolina was the 380 men of the 3rd Virginia Detachment under Lieutenant Colonel Abraham Buford. (He was the great uncle of Brigadier General John Buford of Gettysburg fame.) The 3rd Virginia was a composite force of men from several Virginia regiments with attached artillery. Buford’s 3rd Virginia was the advanced guard of Baron de Kalb’s relief force sent by Washington to break the Siege of Charleston. When Lincoln surrendered, the 3rd Virginia, along with some dragoons who escaped Charleston, withdrew back towards De Kalb. On 29 May, Lt Col Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion caught up to Buford at Waxhaws on the border with North Carolina.
Tarleton’s British Legion was a combined arms provincial regiment consisting of infantry, cavalry, and light artillery formed from Philadelphia and New York loyalists. The 450 strong British Legion was known for their distinctive green uniforms, and the ruthlessness and tenacity with which they fought. The infamous British Legion exemplified the idea that the American Revolution was America’s first civil war. Tarleton had defeated the Americans at Moncke’s Corner and Lenud’s Ferry, and looked to do the same to Buford at Waxhaws.
Buford couldn’t run, so he formed a battle line. Tarleton, unwilling to wait for his infantry and artillery, who were still far to the rear, charged his cavalry at Buford. The Continental’s single volley was insufficient to stop the charge and Buford’s line broke. With no way to escape the horsemen, many of the Americans surrendered, asking for “quarter”, or mercy. Recognizing the inevitable, Buford sent a white flag to Tarleton to formally surrender his force. However, before it could arrive Tarleton’s horse was shot out from under him. Tarleton’s men saw their commander go down, and became enraged. They refused Buford’s surrender and massacred any Patriots still on the field, including the prisoners. Though Tarleton was trapped beneath his horse and couldn’t restrain his men, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. The British Legion was notorious for their brutality, and Tarleton was already reprimanded for their conduct at Moncke’s Corner. As commander, Tarlton was responsible for his men’s actions, and the British Legion’s failure to protect its prisoners became known as “Tarleton’s Quarter”. Few Patriots would willingly surrender to the British in the South thereafter. One of Lord Cornwallis’ aides wrote that “the virtue of humanity was totally forgot” at Waxhaws.
In a single engagement, Tarleton and the British Legion undid years of British diplomacy, goodwill, and victory in the South. News of the Waxhaws Massacre spread like wildfire and “Tarleton’s Quarter” became its rallying cry. Volunteers and fence sitters across the Southern states flocked to the Patriot cause, and most Loyalists stayed home. In less than a month, Patriot militias and partisans sprung up throughout the Carolinas and Georgia. Tarleton’s Quarter directly resulted in the rise of Patriot leaders Thomas Sumter, Francis Marion, Andrew Pickens, and Elijah Clark, among many more, whose partisans made the South untenable for the British. News of the Waxhaws massacre brought east the “Overmountain Men”, Patriot militias west of the Appalachians, who decisively defeated the loyalist militia at King’s Mountain, ending any chance for the British in the Southern colonies.
With an unfriendly countryside in the Carolinas, Lord Cornwallis was forced north into Virginia after attempting to destroy the new Continental Army under Nathanial Greene. Cornwallis sought refuge at Yorktown.
A local of Waxhaws, Scots-Irish widow Elizabeth Jackson, was horrified at the needless bloodshed by the British on 29 May 1780, which happened practically on her doorstep. She encouraged her 16 and 13 year old sons, Robert and Andrew, to join the Patriot militia. Andrew went on to be the 7th President of the United States.