The Road to Waxhaws: British Moves after the Capture of Charleston

Lieutenant General Henry Clinton, New York Public Library

With the Charleston in British hands, Clinton believed that all he had to do was establish outposts in South Carolina stationed with British regulars. This be believed would put down what was left of the rebellion in the state. These posts assisted the recruitment and training of the thousands of Loyalist troops he believed would now rally around the King’s Colors. To take the best advantage of his Regular troops, Clinton determined to establish three major outposts in the South Carolina backcountry. Clinton established these posts at Augusta (Georgia), Ninety-Six, and Camden. While these posts were to be centers for the British army, the local Loyalist militias were to serve as the pacification forces in South Carolina while the main British force was freed up for larger strategic goals. 

To recruit, enlist, and train the large, expected influx of Loyalist militia, Clinton named Maj. Patrick Ferguson as Inspector of Militia. Ferguson was ordered to enlist younger men, preferably unmarried, into companies that would form battalions. He was instructed to recruit from Georgia to North Carolina and offer short enlistments if necessary. Clinton believed that having the colonists maintain their own law and order (via Great Britain’s authority) would cause less apprehension with those that were mostly undecided about to whom they should throw their support, the Patriots or the British. 

By mid-May, the British army set out for their destinations in the back country. Clinton’s second in command, Lieut. Gen. Charles Lord Cornwallis, marched to Camden while Ferguson moved to Ninety-Six. Without much resistance, Clinton’s plan to conquer South Carolina was working perfectly. Patriot leaders scrambled to find ways to organize their resistance. The only organized Continental force remaining in South Carolina was a small force of Virginians under Col. Abraham Buford that was on its way to Charleston when the city surrendered. Ordered by Brig. Gen Isaac Huger to reverse course and make his way north toward Hillsborough, North Carolina. There along with the North Carolina militia, he could be the core of American defense in North Carolina.  

On May 27, Cornwallis ordered Lieut. Col. Banastre Tarleton with 300 of his dragoons and mounted infantry in pursuit of Buford. Tarleton’s British Legion was mostly composed of Loyalist recruits, so many in his force were from America. Tarleton pushed him men and horses hard, many horses falling out along the way. Buford was aware of a possible British pursuit but underestimated the speed in which Tarleton closed the gap. On May 29, Tarleton caught up with Buford in a region near the South and North Carolina border called the “Waxhaws.”  

Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, New York Public Library

The events that took place next are still debated today. Tarleton under a flag of truce tried to get Buford to surrender. Writing to Buford, Tarleton wrote “Resistance being vain, to prevent the effusion of human blood, I make offers which can never be repeated.” Tarleton was already creating an image of himself as an aggressive and brutal fighter. Buford, however, refused, replying, “I reject your proposals, and shall defend myself to the last extremity.” With that, Buford continued his march north towards North Carolina as did Tarleton’s pursuit. Around 3:00 p.m. the lead elements of Tarleton’s force wiped out Buford’s small rearguard, forcing Buford to stop and deal with Tarleton.  

Buford decided to create a single battle line east of the Rocky River Road. Tarleton, ever the aggressive commander, ordered his horsemen to charge the Virginians. Here, Buford made what would be a devastating blunder. He ordered his men to not fire until the British cavalry was within ten yards of the American line. This would not allow the Americans a chance to fire another volley before the British charge was upon them. The Virginians fired, taking out some of the British dragoons and horses (Tarleton himself became briefly trapped under his horse), but most charged through Buford’s line, wielding their sabers and cutting down the Virginians. Total chaos ensued, and many of Buford’s men attempted to flee. Some tried to surrender by throwing their arms to the ground, but American accounts state that the British were offering “no quarter” and killing everyone that tried to surrender. Other accounts report that Buford sent a white flag to Tarleton, but probably because he was injured, it was never received, and the fighting continued. Accounts differ widely between the Americans and British on the fighting, but the fact cannot be argued that Buford’s command was destroyed. 

Waxhaws Grave and Monument, photo and flags courtesy of the author

American casualties were estimated at 350, 113 men killed, 147 wounded, 50 captured, and 2 six-pound artillery pieces and 26 wagons captured. Buford himself was able to escape the field. Tarleton only suffered 5 killed and 12 wounded, a complete victory. What has become known as “Buford’s Massacre” was not referred to as a massacre at all in many period accounts. Tarleton himself blamed the “slaughter” on the fact that his men thought he was killed in the battle and sought revenge. The disparity in numbers and the reports of indiscriminate British slaughter of Americans led to the creation of “Tarleton’s Quarter.” Patriot leaders quickly pounced on this and began to spread stories about Tarleton’s brutal tactics. This proved to be a public relations coup for the Patriot cause, as it energized their side and led to a more robust recruitment of militia and partisan forces to take on the British who now faced no organized opposition in South Carolina or Georgia.

Stay Tuned for the Emerging Revolutionary War Series newest book releases “To the Last Extremity: The Battles for Charleston, 1776-1782” by Mark Maloy and “All That Can Be Expected: The Battle of Camden and the British High Tide in the South, August 16, 1780” by Rob Orrison and Mark Wilcox to learn more abou the 1780 Southern Campaign. Both releases are published by Savas Beatie Publshing:

Rev War Revelry Tackles the Myth of the Battle of Waxhaws

The Battle of Waxhaws, fought on May 29, 1780, was a lopsided British victory by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s British cavalry over American Colonel Abraham Buford’s Continental forces in Waxhaws South Carolina. Buford lost 316 of 350 men with the British losing less than 20. Known popularly as “Buford’s Massacre,” Continental leaders used the battle as a propaganda tool against the Crown forces in the south. But, was it really a massacre?

Join us as we welcome historian and author Dr. Jim Piecuch as we discuss his research and theory about the Battle of Waxhaws and its aftermath. Dr. Piecuch has written several books on the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution including his book “Blood Be Upon Your Head: Tarleton and the Myth of Buford’s Massacre.” This Rev War Revelry will be pre-recorded and posted on May 28th at 7pm. Grab a drink and a good seat and enjoy this great presentation on one of the most controversial battles of the American Revolution.