I’m currently completing my final history dissertation at University, an in-depth assessment of atrocities during the American Revolution. In particular I’m looking at a British officer who goes by the name of Banastre Tarleton. Ban has been my # 1 favourite historical figure for years now, so much so that the first novel I ever completed featured him as a central character. Recently, buried as I am in non-fiction research, I couldn’t help but take some time off to do some HistFic (and blog about the experience here and here). The objective of Sabre Dawn, a true story about one of Ban’s many skirmishes, was to be as historically accurate as possible whilst still maintaining the momentum of a modern, fictionalised retelling. The eventual fates of the characters as well as the actual historical account which inspired these events have been added at the bottom;
Just west of Monck’s Corner, SC
April 14th 1780
The negro’s name was Ezra. Or so he said. Ban watched as Major Cochran repeated his last question.
“I donts recall, massa,” the negro replied, just as he had the first time the bluff Scot had asked him.
“We’ve got them, Tarleton,” said the second Scotsman in the room. He was using the light of the hearth to leaf through a sheaf of papers taken from the ragged coat at his feet, face tight with controlled excitement. “Just like at Little Egg Harbour. God help them.”
Ban said nothing, eyes still on the captured slave. The advance guard had stumbled across him as he scrambled off the roadway into the nearest hedge, nearly riding him down in the darkness. When Ban had first seen him his eyes had been wide and white with fear, but the man’s expression had since lapsed into one of stoic indifference. It was one the Lieutenant Colonel had seen before, on the faces of the poor men, women and children who had filled the holds of his father’s slave ships.
A man with nothing had nothing to lose, Ban thought. So why not give him something? He fished in the pocket of his tight green jacket, and held out a few dollars.
A flicker of uncertainty broke through Ezra’s stolid facade.
“Go on,” Ban urged, taking the man’s calloused hand and pressing the coins into them. “You won’t be harmed. If you carry on down the road you’ll find an encampment of the King’s men. Tell them Colonel Tarleton sent you, because you furnished him with the rebel’s dispositions at the Corner. You’ll be free. Not just from us, but from your master as well.”
He could see from the uncertainty creeping back into the man’s eyes that his words had found traction. Freedom. Not just the freedom offered and espoused by the American rebels – freedom for slave-owners and plantation-masters – but real, unadulterated, tangible freedom.
“How many?” Major Cochran asked again.
“I thinks four or five hundred, massa,” Ezra said, looking not the Major but at Ban. Ferguson, the man with the letters, glanced up.
“Cavalry,” he said, the word a warning. “Not just rebel militia. Pulaski’s Legion are with them. The men from Little Egg Harbour.”
“They ran then, did they not?” Ban said, this tone arrogant.
“Not the Legion,” Ferguson corrected. “The militia did, but not Pulaski’s.”
“Where are their cavalry?” Ban asked Ezra. “The horsemen?”
“This side of de’ riva, massa,” Ezra said, the words coming freely now. Fear was finally leaving the man, so close was his freedom. “They was dispersin’ for de’ night when I left with de’ letters. For Charles-town, massa.”
“And what about the militia?” Ban pressed. “Where we they?”
“Other side of de’ riva,” Ezra said. “Across de’ bridge. Biggin bridge is called.”
“Christ.” The word escaped Ferguson’s mouth as a breathless whisper. Even a cautious older officer like him realised the implications of the situation. The enemy’s corps was divided and seemingly oblivious to the six hundred British and Loyalist soldiers bearing down on them.
“We go at once,” Tarleton said. “I will lead the advance guard and drive in their piquets. Major Cochran, once we have penetrated the enemy encampment you are to take the infantry and storm the bridge. Use the bayonet. Speed is everything. Ferguson, your corps is to follow with all haste. If any difficulties develop, deploy your men as you see fit.”
“What of him,” Cochran said, nodding at Ezra as though he were deaf and dumb.
“He’s free to go, with His Majesty’s thanks” Ban said, nodding at the former slave. It was strange to see them here, half a world away, at the other end of the transaction that had made the Tarleton family one of the wealthiest in Liverpool. He found himself wondering whether, if by some outrageous twist of fate, this man had been shipped across the Atlantic in the fetid depths of one of the late John Tarleton’s merchantmen vessels.
The dragoon Colonel looked within himself for pity, but had no time to find it. That nervous, almost manic energy had seized him once more. It was, he realised, the same sensation he felt when the hunting horns shrilled, and the dogs barked, noses thick with the scent of their prey.
God he missed the hunt. But God, wasn’t this even better?
“To horse, gentlemen,” he said to his officers. Dawn was approaching.
Monck’s Corner, SC
April 14th 1780
Something was keeping Billy Washington up. The big Virginian had lain for almost two hours beneath the boughs of an old mossy oak, his eyes open, looking up through the branches at the clouds veiling the moon’s face. Nights like these reminded him of home, of lying out beneath the stars in some distant corner of his family’s 1200-acre plantation, alone with his thoughts. He’d be bleary-eyed and slow when it came to the Greek texts he was expected to translate the next day, and his father would chastise him. It never bothered Washington. There was more to life than booklearning.
The camp was quiet. The fires had flickered down to embers, their red glow suffusing the humped shapes of Washington’s sleeping men. They wore their uniforms – the white of the 3rd Dragoon Regiment of the Continental Army – with their legs through the sleeves and the backs of the coats acting as a covering, the tails unbuttoned and spread. Rolled horse blankets provided pillows. In the darkness it was difficult to tell his men apart from the other units they had joined – the dark blue of the 1st Dragoons and Pulaski’s Legion. They’d mixed in together, sleeping soundly, convinced of the fact that the King’s men were miles to the south. There would be no disturbances tonight.
Washington rose, shook out his coat, and draped it over his broad shoulders.
Maybe it was the noise of the Cooper river, flowing heavy with spring rain a hundred yards away. Maybe it was the paternalistic fears he’d had ever since assuming command of the 3rd – ‘regiment’ was a very grand name for less than two hundred horsemen. Or maybe it was the unease he’d felt when General Huger had pitched camp with his militia across Biggin bridge, on the other side of the river. Huger was an earnest and experienced officer. He’d been fighting in the French and Indian War when Washington had still been learning his letters. Washington was in no position to criticise such an experienced officer, certainly not in front of his subordinates. Instead he’d offered his dragoons as piquets through the blackest hours of the night.
But even that wasn’t enough to let him sleep.
He trod carefully between his slumbering men, moving with a grace rarely found in men his size. It was the legacy of an experienced horseman, the ability to control a mount through the slightest of movements. Control was everything.
He slipped out of the encampment, boots crunching softly on the packed dirt of the road running west from the bridge. In the darkness shapes loomed weird and distorted around him – the high, thick hedges became silent cavalrymen, and the long grass twitched with crawling assailants. He shook off the disconcerting images.
A horse snorted nearby. Moments later a voice called out from the darkness, a tense, breathy whisper.
“Who goes there?”
“Easy boys,” Washington replied to the darkness’s demand, slowing his pace. “It’s just me. Colonel Washington.”
The relief was unspoken but palpable. Two shapes emerged with a rustle from the hedgerows on either side, the faint moonlight picking out their helmets and the barrels of their carbines.
“How goes it?” Washington asked the piquets – Mallery and Huck.
“Quiet night, sir,” Huck responded, hand subconsciously stroking the lock of his carbine.
“Getting tired of it?”
“A little,” Mallery allowed. “Starting to hear things.”
“Would rather be tucked up with Huger’s boys on the other side of the river, if I’m being honest sir,” Huck added.
“Just half an hour more,” Washington said. “You’re doing a fine job.”
The two young dragoons chorused their thanks. Washington stood for a moment longer, looking west, searching the darkness of the open roadway. The wind rustled the hedges and sighed through the tall grass, the whispered susurration of a deep, dark Carolinan night.
He returned to his oak tree and set his head down on his horse blanket. Two more days here, guarding the bridge, and the supply train would have reached Charlestown. It felt unnatural for a horseman to spend more than one night on the same patch of ground. That, he decided, was the half-thought that was keeping him up. No Royal force could reach them here, not without at least a day’s notice.
It was time to sleep.
Monck’s Corner, SC
April 14th 1780
Hooves hammered the dirt of the roadway, pounding in their efforts to keep pace with Ban’s heart. His mount was blowing hard, flanks lathered white with sweat, each laboured breath shuddering up through the cavalryman’s body.
He wasn’t so much leading his dragoons as racing them.
Behind he knew Cochran and the rest of the Legion would be following, and further back, at a slightly less breakneck pace, Ferguson and his corps. If either of the older Scotsmen found it demanding to serve under a man a decade their junior, both were far too professional to show it.
Certainly neither could fault his killer instinct. He was a predator, and tonight the prey’s scent was thick on the heavy Carolinan air.
Light in the distance caught his attention, not the faint silver glimmer of the half-hidden moon, but the bloody glow of fading embers. He sawed on the reins, a half whispered, half snarled ‘halt’ bring up the rest of the advance party behind him.
They were close.
He touched spurs gently to the flanks of his mount, easing the horse on down the roadway. The night throbbed with the heaving breaths of the labouring beasts, the clipping of their hooves as loud as hammers striking stone.
Ban’s instincts had proven him right, again. They were close. Too close.
“Who goes there?” a voice demanded from the darkness just ahead. “Halt!”
No more time for fear, no more time for caution. Damned if he ever paid heed to either. With a whisper of steel-on-leather Ban’s sabre was free, and his spurs digging once more into the sides of his mount.
“Charge!” yelled the young dragoon officer. “Charge!”
A carbine cracked, illuminating a patch of hedgerow to his left for the briefest of seconds. The sound of the ball’s passing was lost in the rush of wind and the thunder of Ban’s own heartbeat. His dragoons were on either side of him, jostling for space between the tangled hedgerows, horses shrieking. One of them slashed down at the shadowy figure who had fired at their Colonel. There was a chilling wail, cut off with grisly finality as the dragoons rode on.
Ban could see the man he presumed was the remaining rebel piquet spurring hard west towards where the glowing campfires were now tantalisingly close. An animal instinct, the hunter’s awareness, fought its way through the adrenaline pounding through Ban’s thoughts.
Speed. Speed was the key.
“On! On!” the green-coated horseman shouted, brandishing his sabre above his head. Yelling the Indian war-whoop they’d learned fighting in the northern colonies, the British Legion thundered into the rebel encampment.
~ ~ ~
Hooves. The sound woke Colonel Washington moments before the distant crack of a musket shot echoed through the night.
The Virginian was instantly on his feet, coat thrown off, scabbard and belt in one hand. His stomach was a tight knot of fear. He’d been right. God help them all, he’d been right.
The thunder of hoofbeats, shuddering up through the ground beneath him, was now audible on the night air. Men around him were stirring, groaning as they left behind slumber to find themselves in the midst of a very real nightmare. One man, startled awake, accidentally kicked the embers of his campfire. The sudden flare of light illuminated a mounted figure as he burst from the darkness of the roadway and into the camp.
“The Legion’s coming! The Legion’s coming!” the man was screaming, dragging on his reins. Helmet, pistol and sabre all gone, Washington recognised him as Huck.
There was no need to ask the fate of Mallery.
The encampment exploded instantaneously into panic. Men scrambling to their feet, reaching for boots, saddles, coats, pistols, horse blankets and sabres all at once. The hoofbeats were growing louder with each manic heartbeat.
“To horse!” Washington found himself bellowing, snatching the nearest trooper by the scruff of his shirt. “To horse!” To hell with uniforms and weapons. They were trapped on the wrong side of the river. They had to get across the bridge.
“Horses!” the big Virginian bellowed at the men nearest him, shoving them towards where the regiment’s mounts were picketed. “Make for the bridge!”
“Colonel Washington!” a voice demanded, an officer in a blue coat shouldering through the scattering mass of dragoons. It was Major Vernier, the commander of Pulaski’s Legion in the absence of their Polish leader.
“Where’s Huger?” Washington bellowed.
“I don’t know,” Vernier replied. “We need to get across the river! I’ll try to hold them off!”
“You men, support the Major!” Washington shouted a group of four passing dragoons, wearing the dark blue of Pulaski’s Legion. “The rest of you on me!”
Few men obeyed. All eyes were turned east towards where, crashing from the darkness like the Furies of Ancient Greece, the British Legion arrived.
~ ~ ~
Tarleton slashed down once, aiming for the flesh on the back of the man’s neck, between his blue collar and the flowing crest of his dragoon helmet. He felt a meaty thump dragging his arm back, but was carried past before he could witness the effect of his vicious stroke.
He didn’t need to in order to know the man’s fate. Another was before him, white dragoon uniform half on, half off, trying to turn and face Ban even as he stumbled towards the moon-lit waters of the Cooper river.
This one had forgotten his helmet.
Ban chopped through his left shoulder, the razored edge of his sabre given terrible strength by the momentum of his hurtling steed. The man screamed, until the blade sawed down through his windpipe.
Ban’s chest was heaving, the heavy southern air rasping through his lungs. He pulled his horse up short, turned in a tight circle, the anxious beast pawing the ground as he looked around. The heart of the rebel camp this side of the Cooper had descended into complete chaos, startled, panicked rebels scampering left, right and centre like a surprised warren of rabbits. The advance column of the British Legion, Ban at it’s head, had pierced the chaos as a solid phalanx of man, steel and horseflesh, and was only now beginning to disintegrate as individual riders set off in pursuit of the enemy. A pistol shot rang out and Ban saw one of his dragoons pitched from the saddle, landing with a crunch of broken bone. The man who’d shot him went down beneath a swinging sabre before he had a chance to even reach for a fresh cartridge.
The animalistic urge to slash, stab and kill thrilled through Ban’s veins, but he suppressed it. He didn’t have the luxury of losing himself to the hunt. There was more to killing rebels than simply riding them down.
A commanding voice a few yards to his right seemed to confirm his thoughts. An officer in the blue of Pulaski’s Legion was marshalling his countrymen, brandishing a sabre in the direction of the main body of loyalist cavalry as they burst into the scene. Six or seven Continental dragoons already stood at the Major’s side and, seeing a flicker of order amidst the chaos, more began to run towards them.
Beyond them, hard on the banks of the Cooper, two dozen or so rebels had reached their horses and were hastily mounting, some without saddles. A big man in the white of the 3rd Continental Light Dragoons was pointing towards the bridge, less than a hundred yards away.
Their one means of escape. And beyond it, the rebel militia, surely now alerted and forming for battle.
They had to end this quickly.
“Major Cochran!” Ban shouted, looking around for the commander of his infantry. The Scots officer had ridden with the main body of horsemen, and had now dismounted the Legion’s light troops and formed them in two ranks, files open, on the edge of the swirling melee. He’d been looking to Ban, waiting for confirmation of the orders he had already anticipated.
“Storm the bridge!” Ban shouted. “Drive off the militia! Use the bayonet!”
Cochran needed no further advice.
“Fix bayonets!” he barked, drawing his sabre. “On me!”
As the infantry moved off, Ban turned his horse back to where Pulaski’s Legion was rallying at the heart of their encampment. Blood from his sabre had dripped down onto his hand, making his palm wet and the guard slippery. He cuffed it clean and spurred forward, shouting for any dragoons who could hear him to follow.
Monck’s Corner, SC
April 14th 1780
The British Legion infantry charged. Three or four rifles split the night, their flashes illuminating a scene of chaos on the far bank as formless and panicked as the one on the opposite side of the Cooper.
A single Legion infantryman went down, hand going to his wounded shoulder. The rest charged on, yelling like Indian braves, their bayonets gleaming silver in the moonlight.
The militia ran. Settled in and with their rifles loaded, they could have made the Legion pay in blood for every step they took, but startled, half-clothed and faced by a shrieking enemy that had sprung upon them from out of the night’s darkness, there was no hope of them holding. Cochran was the first man to reach the east bank. He shouted at his men to keep going, to spring the rebels from around the timber meeting house that they’d made into their headquarters.
On the west bank Washington swore, spat, and swore again. The Legion had gained the bridge before he’d been able to get his handful of men across. The militia were lost. He had no idea where Huger or Pulaski were – presumably already fled. There was only one hope of escape now.
“Into the swamps!” he shouted at his rag-tag command, dropping from the back of his borrowed mount. Horses would be no help now. He ran from the camp and towards the inviting darkness of the surrounding marshland. Tonight was a disaster, there was no denying that. But every man he saved was a man with which to strike back at the damn Tories and their British masters. Later.
Not looking back, the little band of Patriots forged into the shadowy swampland. Washington would have his revenge.
~ ~ ~
Tarleton swung his cavalry sabre, handsome face twisted into a blood-speckled rictus. The rebel horseman parried, his own counter-strike turned by a flick of the Colonel’s wrist.
Before either combatant could continue, one of Tarleton’s passing dragoons backcut with his sabre, the razored blade chopping into the Patriot’s spine. The man wailed, back arching, and toppled from the saddle.
No time for thanks. No time to even think. The next rebel, this one on foot, was fumbling with his carbine’s steel ramrod, eyes wide with panic. Ban swung his sabre and the man brought the flintlock up in a desperate parry, the wooden stock nearly cracking in two.
“Please!” the man yelled, dropping the useless weapon and stumbling back from Ban. “For God’s sake, I surrender!”
The urge to kill still burned inside the Colonel, summoned by adrenaline and the stink of blood and powder that permeated the humid night air. He lashed out, hitting the man on the head with the flat of his sword and knocking him down, stunned. There was no time to gather prisoners, not yet. They had to press their advantage.
Around him the brace of Legion cavalry continued to hack brutally into the camp’s last organized resistance; the men rallying around a Major of Pulaski’s Legion. Beyond the tight-packed melee Ban could see Major Cochran and the infantry forging into the militia on the other side of Biggin Bridge, kicking in the doors and windows of the log meeting house they’d been encamped around.
Of the white-coated rebel dragoon and his men who’d been heading for the bridge there was now no sign. Ban assumed he’d taken to the marshes.
Let them wade through filth and hide in bushes. He’d find them, this night or the next.
The rebel Major had fallen, a pistol shot to the shoulder and another to the stomach pitching him from his horse. He screamed horribly, writhing in the dust kicked up by the hooves around him.
“Surrender!” Ban shouted at the few bloody survivors, huddled around their fallen leader. “Surrender now or by God you’ll be food for my hounds!”
The sight of the grim-faced dragoons hemming them in left the rebels in no doubt about the seriousness of the Englishman’s words. They lowered their weapons. Two knelt at the side of the Major, the man still writhing.
The sound of hoofbeats made Ban twist in his saddle. Ferguson and his men had arrived, the light from the dying fires throwing the Scotsman’s strong features into sharp relief. His eyes assessed the sight quickly – the bloody corpses scattered around the camp, the wreckage of overturned and discarded equipment, the dozens of abandoned steeds being corralled by a platoon of Cochran’s infantry, the huddle of frightened rebel prisoners. The Scotsman looked at Ban and, unsmiling, nodded once.
Ban realised he was panting, like a dog fresh from the chase. He took a long, measured breath, easing it out slowly, trying to calm his rapid heartbeat. It was over.
No, his thoughts corrected him. Dawn wasn’t far off. The rebel supply train, vulnerable now that Biggin Bridge was taken, still remained to be caught.
“Major Cochran!” he bellowed.
“Sir,” the Scotsman responded, hurrying back across the bridge at the sound of his commander’s voice.
“Mount your men up. There’s no time for rest. We have work to do.”
Cochran nodded, snapping orders at his Captains to form their men. There was never time for rest. Not in the Legion. Not under Banastre Tarleton.
All characters featured in this story were real, as were the events (see here)
BANASTRE TARLETON survived the war and returned home to a hero’s welcome. He became a General and a Member of Parliament.
WILLIAM WASHINGTON gained a measure of revenge against Tarleton at the battle of Cowpens. He too survived the war and became a General.
PATRICK FERGUSON was shot and killed by rebel militia at the battle of King’s Mountain. His corps was wiped out.
MAJOR VERNIER of Pulaski’s Legion died of his wounds at the Corner.
MAJOR COCHRAN was decapitated by a cannonball at the siege of Yorktown.