Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton

Originally published in Meriwether Connections,the quarterly newsletter of The Meriwether Society, Inc.Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Jan.-Mar. 2005, and No. 2, Apr.–Jun. 2005

British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarletonand the American Revolution:Drama on the Plantations of Charlottesville

Stephen Meriwether Long

Three plantations of Albemarle County’s Meriwether and Lewis families were the stage of some events of The Revolutionary War in June 1781. Castle Hill, Belvoir, and The Farm all were paid visits by the British Legion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, on a raiding mission intent on capturing members of the Virginia legislature, including then Governor Thomas Jefferson, who were scheduled to meet in Charlottesville. Even just decades after these events, it was said, “Many a marvelous legend has passed through as many editions as mouths, respecting this invasion.” To help distinguish between the facts and myths surrounding this celebrated chapter of Charlottesville history,[1] it might help to know of the background of Banastre Tarleton. These are the events of the American Revolution that lead up to the historic encounters at the Charlottesville area homes.

I. Tarleton and the War

Banastre Tarleton (pronounced Bannister--like the rails along a staircase--Tarl-ton) was born in Liverpool, England August 21, 1754, the son of a wealthy merchant family. Shortly after his father died, his mother bought him a commission as a Cornet in the King’s Cavalry, and he soon volunteered for service in America, where he arrived in May 1776.[2] Described as a well-proportioned and muscular man of 5’-6”, red-headed, with fine manners and charm, he quickly made a name for himself with his “daring and enterprise” in action, playing a part in capturing Southern Commander Major General Charles Lee, Washington’s second in command. Tarleton was made a Captain, and in July 1778 before age 24 was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, in charge of the newly-formed British Legion.[3] Consisting of well-trained cavalry with some supporting infantry, The British Legion was built of mainly loyalists from New York and Pennsylvania, who wore green jackets to distinguish them as a Tory regiment, and became known as The Green Dragoons.

As the War turned Southward in hopes the British would find more loyalists there, the Legion moved with it. As a predominantly cavalry unit, they were often used to “clean up” after a battle, chasing down retreating troops. They were instrumental in the second siege of Charleston, South Carolina in 1780, showing great resourcefulness and effectively cutting off supply lines[4] to the beleaguered city, securing the British victory. There, the surrounded Americans surrendered a force of 5,500 patriots,[5]almost the entire Southern portion of the Continental Army—a devastating loss.

Later the British received word of a Virginia regiment in retreat from their assignment to Charleston. Tarleton was dispatched and in trying to close a 10 day lead, drove his vanguard in pursuit 105 miles in 54 hours “at a pace that killed horses and exhausted men.”[6] An officer was sent ahead under a flag of truce, exaggerating their numbers to intimidate the Patriots to surrender or delay them with deliberation.[7] Possibly sensing a trap, the Virginia leader declined defiantly and continued. Then on May 29, 1780 at Waxhaws, South Carolina, the British column attacked, badly chopped up the Virginians’ rear guard,[8] and descended on the main line so swiftly they broke up the battalion. In the resulting confusion, there are varying accounts of what happened next. According to the well-documented Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Tarleton charged the posted patriot colors, just as the white flag was being raised.[9] Then, confirmed by his own account, Tarleton’s horse was then shot from under him; his men saw their leader downed, then for at least 15 minutes the excited but overzealous British Legion continued attacking the confused Virginians,[10] many in a surrendering posture, who were bayoneted upon the ground. Word of the slaughter got out, and Tarleton’s nicknames developed. “Tarleton’s Quarter” came to signify “no quarter” (meaning “no mercy” to a surrendering opponent, or “no prisoners”), and became a rallying cry for Patriotic recruitment throughout the South. General Cornwallis never seriously questioned the tactics, utilizing the British Legion as shock troops to demoralize patriot resistance.[11]

The recent 2000 film The Patriot[12] with Mel Gibson has as its main antagonist a character based on Banastre Tarleton, called William Tavington. His skirmishes with the South Carolina militia are dramatized. Some of Tarleton’s other tactics like burning plantations are also portrayed in the film, as well as his treating as spies those who aided the Patriots.[13] Although in all fairness, it should be stated that this film and history, written by the victors, have been pretty hard on Tarleton. He deserves credit for being a mannerly, well-trained tactician, and effective cavalry leader, but one who erred with his own impulsiveness. He and his Legion’s actions certainly earned him at least some of his ruthless reputation, but there is no evidence they were violent to civilians like in the film.[14] In the course of a confusing and perilous battle, the British Legion were perhaps guilty of acts to enemy soldiers, though, that would later be perceived as a massacre. Unfortunately, Patriots used propaganda and exaggeration of these events for their own purposes, and at times mirrored in their actions similar violations: the failing to provide quarter, and comparatively harassing fellow Americans who were Tory loyalists.[15] The Patriot deals with the issue in a scene of a chaotic skirmish where surrendering British are shot by militia. A reverend and a young soldier are shocked and implore, “We are better men than that!” to his father, their leader (Mel Gibson), who tries to order his men to provide due quarter. Gibson’s character was based on Francis Marion, a survivor of gruesome missions in the French and Indian War, who as a guerrilla leader during the Revolutionary War, had mixed but remarkable successes disrupting the occupying British operations. It was Tarleton who provided Marion’s nickname when he could not track down Marion in the swamps of South Carolina in November 1780. Tarleton is reported to have frustratingly exclaimed the Devil himself couldn’t catch “this damned old Fox!” Francis Marion became thereafter known as “The Swamp Fox.”[16]

Tarleton’s military style of quick, relentless movement and head-on lightning attacks[17] got him into trouble the morning of January 17, 1781, at the Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina, where the rolling terrain allowed the Patriots to lure the British Legion into a trap. Front militia lines were set to fire just a couple of rounds and then staged a retreat from the main field. Thinking they were routing the less-organized militia, the British charged and soon found themselves face to face with a solid Continental Army line and flanked on both sides by the Patriot cavalry and militia. They had 12 men killed while the British lost 800 men, including many tired and unfed overnight marchers who surrendered in the unpredictable battle. Tarleton tried to reorganize his cavalry unsuccessfully, then had a dramatic swordfight on horseback with Continental Lt. Colonel William Washington (a cousin of General George Washington), who managed to parry with a broken saber. Tarleton fired the last shot of the battle wounding his foe’s horse,[18] and then barely escaped. He was blamed by some for the loss, which signified a turning point for the Revolutionary War in the South.

II. to Virginia: Castle Hill & Belvoir

Moving north, armies met again at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina on March 15, 1781.[19] Under General Cornwallis, Lt. Col. Tarleton commanded smaller forces. He took a bullet in his right hand, and lost the 1st two fingers of that hand. The battle was a Pyrrhic victory for the British, who won the field but sustained heavy losses. Tarleton was likely practicing his saber use with his left hand for some time afterward.[20] Commander Charles, Lord Cornwallis then turned his attention toward Virginia, the richest and most populous American province, which had been the least touched by the War up to that point.[21] As they moved their armies in April and May, Cornwallis ordered a moratorium on looting, pillaging, and disturbing of inhabitants upon pain of death, which may have proved significant for native Virginians. In a small skirmish on one of their raids across the James River, The Green Dragoons captured some Patriot letters, one from the Marquis de Lafayette to Governor Thomas Jefferson, which described a scheduled meeting of the Virginia General Assembly at Charlottesville. On daybreak of June 3rd, 1781, the 26-year-old British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton was dispatched with a band of 250 men to capture the Virginia leaders.[22]

In Charlottesville the General Assembly had met briefly, after having left Richmond on concerns of their safety. The group included the great orator Patrick Henry (“give me liberty or give me death!”) and four signers of the Declaration of Independence: Thomas Jefferson (its author), Richard Henry Lee, General Thomas Nelson, Jr., and Speaker of the House Benjamin Harrison (the ancestor of two Presidents). Also there was the representative from Fayette County, Kentucky (then a part of Virginia), trailblazer Daniel Boone.[23] On May 28th, the first day a quorum was present for the reconvened Assembly,[24] Governor Jefferson wrote George Washington pleading he bring the Continental Army to Virginia to bolster the weary patriots, “That your appearance among them I say would restore full confidence of salvation…”[25] Soon afterwards, General Washington wrote Jefferson almost apologetically, “The progress which the enemy are making in Virginia is very alarming…,” only daring to hint at his plans for the British, which would only be secured by a Naval Superiority not yet in place.[26]

The Green Dragoons moved easily through the countryside between the North and South Anna Rivers on “a rainy dark day”.[27] The heat of the weather obliged a rest around noon to refresh the men and horses. Then they pressed on into the night,[28] and at a small crossroads in eastern Louisa County (the junction of today’s US 33 and US 522), tradition has it that their motions were then observed. About 10:00pm there at the Cuckoo Tavern, a young member of the Virginia militia, John Jouett (of Huguenot origins), watched the British cavalry sweep past along the main road. Whether they stopped is unknown; perhaps some officers entered the Tavern and Jouett overheard them talking, or maybe in watching from a window he just guessed what they were up to. A native of Charlottesville, Jouett’s father was the keeper of the Swan Tavern there, a stopping place and meeting room for many delegates to the Virginia Assembly. Figuring the British would take the main road, Jouett inconspicuously left the area, then mounted a horse said to be the finest in 7 counties, and (thoroughly familiar with the region) rode 40 miles over back roads in the middle of the night, which had nearly a full moon though it was probably overcast. He traveled through a maze of vines, brambles, and potholes, to Monticello where at 4:30am June 4 he awoke Jefferson and several prominent members of the legislature, effectively warning them. It is said he paused only briefly before continuing to Charlottesville. Jouett’s descendants say he wore the scars of brambles and branches from that ride the rest of his life.[29]

Meanwhile, Tarleton’s troops arrived at the Louisa County Courthouse at 11:00pm. They remained on a “plentiful plantation” in Louisa until 2:00am June 4, 1781, then resumed their march. Before dawn, they burned a caravan of 12 supply wagons with stores of arms and clothing headed for South Carolina.[30] Next, according to Tarleton,

Soon after daybreak, some of the principal gentlemen of Virginia, who had fled to the borders of the mountains for security, were taken out of their beds: Part were paroled, and left with their families, while others, who were suspected to be more hostile in their sentiments, were carried off. In the neighborhood of Dr. Walker’s, a member of the continental Congress was made prisoner, and the British light troops, after a halt of half an hour to refresh the horses, moved on toward Charlottesville.[31]

This was the British Legion’s encounter with parts of the lands of one of Albemarle County, Virginia’s largest landholders, Nicholas Meriwether II. His Southwest Mountain Tract properties had included what was at the time of the Revolution called Castle Hill, the estate of 4,320 acres whose ownership had been passed from Nicholas Meriwether II to his grandson [via William] Nicholas Meriwether the Younger (1714-1739), through his widow Mildred Thornton-Meriwether who shared it with her second husband Dr. Thomas Walker.[32] The physician of Peter Jefferson, Dr. Walker had made 11 visits to the early Jefferson plantation Shadwell in its ailing owner’s final days. When he died in 1757, Walker was thereafter appointed guardian of Peter’s son Thomas Jefferson,[33] and lived about 5 miles away at Castle Hill. This is where in 1781 Lt. Col. Tarleton ordered Dr. Walker and his wife to prepare breakfast for the British Legion. It is said the Walkers knew or guessed of the plan to capture Jefferson, so while Mildred Walker “ordered the cooks to be slow in preparing breakfast, Dr. Walker was busy mixing mint juleps for… Tarleton and his troops.”[34] There are rumors of alleged “confusion” in the kitchen, whereby after breakfast had been requested, two had been seized and carried off by Dragoons, then with unusual delay occurring, Tarleton had to place a guard over the kitchen to secure a third preparation for him and his officers.[35] Guests of the Walkers included Mildred’s son-in-law [by her and her first husband’s only daughter, Mildred Thornton Meriwether’s marriage to] Colonel John Syme, Judge Peter Lyons, and Newman Brockenbrough of the Virginia Legislature. They were all awakened and interrogated. Most remained, but at least the latter gentleman was forced to accompany the British Legion. Judge Lyons later said, “As to civility, we all received much more of it than we expected.”[36] Tarleton describes how he tactically reviewed various accounts of the road to Charlottesville and its protecting force. He was still at that point counting on the surprise he might gain from the approximately 70 mile distance covered that night and the previous day.[37]

As most of the British Legion finished their breakfast, a small patrol under Captain Kinloch rode ahead to the neighboring Belvoir plantation, another part of the Nicholas Meriwether II lands that had been the home of his daughter Jane Meriwether and her husband Robert Lewis (Meriwether Lewis’ grandparents). Its approximately 1,500 acres were later inherited by their son Nicholas Lewis (the Walker’s son-in-law via their oldest daughter Mary), who then sold the lands to the Walker’s oldest son John.[38] He was a Colonel who had served as an aide to General George Washington in 1777, and had been commended by him in a letter to Patrick Henry for “confidential service.”[39] John Walker later served in the Continental Congress at Philadelphia, where he met another Congressional delegate from South Carolina, Francis Kinloch (the British Legion Captain’s cousin of the same name), who fell in love with Walker’s teenage daughter, Mildred. They were married in February 1781 atBelvoir and then lived together on the plantation. They were there when the British arrived, who early that June 4 morning captured two guests at Belvoir, brothers of Virginia General Thomas Nelson, Jr.: William and Robert Nelson. Francis Kinloch was pursued into the vineyard field by his cousin, who shouted, “Stop, cousin Frank; you know I could always beat you running.”[40] He surrendered, and thus the British Legion captured Francis Kinloch.[41]

Pieces of the Belvoir estate remain today, including the home visited by Tarleton’s patrol, sited near Grace Church of Cismont during the Revolution, now located two miles south of there and calledMaxfield. Its owner John Walker later served as a U.S. Senator, and is buried in the plantation’s family cemetery. Belvoir’s lands were inherited by descendants of Francis Kinloch, and part of it given his name, and the Kinloch plantation is also still there today.[42]

The Castle Hill plantation also remains to this day: 1,582 acres of this estate are intact, and its Colonial/Flemish brick manor house is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Colonial portion was built in 1765 by Dr. Thomas Walker, and was there at the time of the Revolution.[43] For many years an Indian Commissioner, he is said to have met with visiting Indian Chiefs at a certain spot in the garden. The place where the British troops rested is still known as Tarleton’s Wood. Among the home’s many distinguished guests have been the First U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall (an old friend of the family), and 5 men who were or would become Presidents of the U.S. It is said that in its spacious hall, Jefferson played the fiddle while Madison danced. In the words the inheritor of Castle Hill, Dr. Walker’s grandson-in-law, U.S. Senator William Cabell Rives, “For generations it has been the seat of hospitality and culture [and] Castle Hill… stands today in excellent preservation.” [44]

III. Charlottesville & Monticello

Just ahead of the British on the morning of June 4, 1781, militia rider John Jouett reached Charlottesville, an 18-year-old town described by a visitor at the time as “a courthouse, one tavern, and about a dozen houses.” He warned the Virginia Assembly members staying there about the approaching raid. They hastily convened, and arranged to reconvene in Staunton, safely across the Blue Ridge Mountains in 3 days time. Their main business of electing a new Governor, because Jefferson’s term had expired June 1, would have to wait. A then little-known Colonel Daniel Boone and some others started loading up wagons with some of the public records.[45]

Not far behind, British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton and his troops were on the way, refreshed after a quick breakfast at Castle Hill. Among them were 250 soldiers: 180 of the regular British Legion cavalry and the 17th light dragoons, plus 70 supporting mounted infantry reinforcements of the 23rdRegiment, Royal Welch Fusiliers.[46] Their reputation had spread fear among patriots around the state, like the Marquis de Lafayette and Baron Von Steuben. They both operated small forces of about 1200 and 500 men respectively at different places in Virginia at the time, and they were reluctant to provoke a major battle with Cornwallis’ numbers (about 7,200 with recent reinforcements) and the frighteningly effective and battle-tested British Legion, anticipating a rout. Lafayette wrote, “The British have so many Dragoons that it becomes impossible to stop or reconnoiter their movements.”[47]

The Green Dragoons traveled by way of the Three Notched Road, named for its identifying system of 3 notches on trees at periodic intervals, along a continuous trade route between Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.[48] On its stretch along the northeast side of the Rivanna River approaching Charlottesville, Tarleton’s horsemen headed for Secretary’s Ford. This was named for John Carter, the King’s Colonial Secretary, and located slightly downstream from the confluence of Moore’s Creek and the Rivanna.[49] Some scouts found it guarded by a posted detachment of perhaps 200 local militia, who managed to put up some scattered resistance there. The British light mounted troops charged through the water, and in winning a successful skirmish they suffered little loss. The Green Dragoons then dashed up the hill on Three Notched Road (along the general course of the present CSX railroad tracks and Main Street), and stormed into Charlottesville, directed “to continue the confusion of the Americans and apprehend, if possible, the governor and assembly.”[50]

About that time the former Governor had just left Monticello after seeing his family safely off via carriage toward Enniscorthy, the Coles plantation about 14 miles distant in southern Albemarle County. Jefferson had ordered his favorite riding horse to be shod and brought to the road (about where state highway 53 is today) in the valley between his mountaintop home and the nearby Carter’s Mountain [also named for Secretary John Carter who was granted these lands, part of his family’s neighboring Blenheim plantation. This area was later purchased by another Virginia leader James Monroe and called Highland, then after his death, Ashlawn.] According to a popular folktale of the time, as the British approached, Jefferson walked a ways up Carter’s Mountain to a good viewing point, and gazed from a telescope. He looked down at the streets of Charlottesville and saw nothing out of order. Jefferson started to walk away, but it is said he noticed his light walking sword had slipped from its sheath, so he returned to retrieve it, and then took another look through his telescope, this time to see the streets swarming with Dragoons, identifiable by the color of their uniforms--green for the British Legion, and red for the Fusiliers. Jefferson then mounted his horse and briskly made his escape. [The Jeffersons’ eventual destination was their family’s Poplar Forest plantation further south.][51]

After crossing the Rivanna River, a patrol of Green Dragoons under Captain Kenneth McLeod had been detached to ride up the winding road to Monticello, to capture Jefferson, and then “to remain in videtteon the lofty look-out.” However, with the help of Jouett’s early warning and the Walker family’s strategic delay, Jefferson, his family, and guests (including the Speakers of the State Senate and House, and some others) all had narrowly escaped, missing the British by just 10 minutes.[52] Jefferson later said of Tarleton’s behavior through this experience, “I did not suffer by him. On the contrary, he behaved very genteely with me… He gave strict orders to Capt. McLeod to suffer nothing to be injured.”[53] It is speculated that Jefferson’s renowned good treatment of some 4000 British and Hessian prisoners-of-war, who had been encamped near Charlottesville 1779-1780 at a place calledThe Barracks, then paroled and awaiting exchange at the time, contributed to the respect shown his plantation.[54] Monticello, its house Jefferson designed, its gardens and nearly 2,000 of its original 5,000 acres, is today owned and operated by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and on the National Register of Historic Places.[55]

Down in Charlottesville, the British were raiding the town, burning goods and seizing firearms. The numbers vary according to different sources. The British said they destroyed 1,000 muskets, 400 barrels of powder, 7 hogsheads of tobacco, and a quantity of Continental soldier’s clothing and “accoutrements”,[56] while the American estimates were much lower. Also, invaluable county legal records were destroyed, that are still missing from 1748-1781, burned on the Courthouse green.[57]About 20 prisoners, remnants from the neighborhood of The Barracks prisoner-of-war camp on the West side of town, were liberated.[58]

Seven members of the Virginia Assembly were secured, including former Lieutenant Governor Dudley Diggs, Brigadier General Charles Scott, three other members of the Assembly (possibly taken at Castle Hill or Belvoir), and Public Printer James Hayes (in charge of printing the state’s currency). It is said several officers and men were killed, wounded, or taken.[59] The Gilmer house (probably on Main or Jefferson Street[60]) was the host of one Assembly member who was shot on horseback as he tried to escape, and then was carried off by the British. His hostess was a daughter of Dr. Thomas Walker, a Mrs. Lucy Walker-Gilmer. With her husband absent, she determined to help their injured guest, and with a maiden sister they made their way through the streets of the village perilously filled with troopers to find Lt. Col. Tarleton. Impressed with their courage, he sent his own surgeon to the fallen man’s aid, then restored him to Mrs. Gilmer’s care.[61] [This Gilmer family later bought and moved to the Pen Park plantation, whose lands survive today as a major public Charlottesville park along the Rivanna River north of Meadow Creek.] Elsewhere in Charlottesville, a British officer overtook Daniel Boone, dressed inconspicuously in frontier hunting shirts and leggings, with John Jouett walking away. The former was questioned and dismissed, then the latter. According to Boone family tradition, as their relative walked away, Jouett (probably exhausted and/or still full of adrenaline) absentmindedly called out Colonel Daniel Boone’s rank and name so that he could catch up with him. The British officer overheard and promptly arrested Boone.[62] Although this overall experience was not without violence, these captured prisoners (though undoubtedly inconvenienced) met with little harm. Tarleton wrote, “the gentlemen taken on this expedition were treated with kindness and liberality.” [63]

IV. The Farm

Sometime this day of June 4, 1781, probably between late afternoon and sunset, Banastre Tarleton rode to The Farm, the plantation of Nicholas Lewis that was 1,000 acres between what was then the eastern edge of Charlottesville and the Rivanna River, stretching between Moore’s Creek and Meadow Creek, with some additional smaller acreage across the river. Its simple name was derived from it being the first cleared land west of the Rivanna amidst a virgin forest, and thus it made a recognizable landmark. Just a part of his great land holdings, Nicholas Meriwether II received a patent for The Farm’s lands in 1735, and by 1738 had built a home there somewhere (perhaps near the spring), where he lived until his death in 1744. [He was buried with his son David in the smaller tract across the river.][64] He bequeathed the plantation in his will to his grandson Nicholas Lewis, the son of Jane Meriwether and Robert Lewis of Belvoir. The original house burned down and was rebuilt by Nicholas Lewis in 1770, described as a 48’ x 22’ two story wooden dwelling with a view of Monticello. This and a number of other structures existed on the plantation, on the hill facing the river to the East, with an active spring down the hill 200 yards south.[65] According to Nelson Heath Meriwether, “It was a place of comfort and beauty—surrounded by a garden of roses, shrubs and fine fruit.” When Lt. Col. Tarleton rode up to the house through the rose garden, he raised his hands in admiration and exclaimed, “What a paradise!” Mrs. Lewis retorted, “Then why do you disturb it!?” With dignity and spirit, she is said to have told him that he should meet Virginia’s men in the field rather than war on her defenseless women.[66]

This was Mary Walker-Lewis, the eldest daughter of Dr. Thomas and Mildred Walker whose Castle Hill plantation had been visited by Tarleton earlier that day. This encounter earned her the nickname among her friends and neighbors, “Mrs. Paradise Lewis.” So she shared a distinction with Patriot Francis Marion (“The Swamp Fox”) of having a nickname derived from one of Banastre Tarleton’s witticisms. She was also known for her strict discipline of her household and for being an excellent nurse. During the Revolutionary War, she attended to many sick and wounded American and British soldiers in her home at The Farm, taking care of them.[67] [The contemporary film The Patriot features a similar scenario. In its dramatized events of the Revolutionary War, amidst nearby battle skirmishes, wounded soldiers from both sides are nursed at the protagonist’s plantation house, before the character based on Tarleton makes his fateful appearance.[68]] The nurse Mrs. Lewis’ husband, Nicholas Lewis, was a justice and sheriff of Albemarle County, who was presently absent serving as a Colonel in the Continental Army. His military service and character were paid tribute in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. The two were actually good friends who had met while surveying together:

Nicholas Lewis... commanded a regiment of militia in the successful expedition of 1776, against the Cherokee Indians, who, seduced by the agents of the British government to take up the hatchett against us, had committed great havoc on our southern frontier... This member of the family of Lewises, whose bravery was usefully proved on this occasion, was endeared to all who knew him by his inflexible probity, courteous disposition, benevolent heart, and engaging modesty and manners. He was the umpire of all the private differences of his county, selected always by both parties.[69]

Banastre Tarleton made the Lewis home his headquarters, apparently keeping Daniel Boone (and possibly others) imprisoned in a coal storage building. [His son Nathan Boone later said, “Very likely, his father may have pretended contentment, & sung songs while in durance.”][70] Mary Walker-Lewis was hostess to these unexpected guests, and carefully preserved a chair (originally Meriwether’s), that Tarleton used during his stay which lasted through the night of June 4, 1781. The Green Dragoons camped out on the premises,[71] and Tarleton slept on the floor of the parlor wrapped in his horseman’s cloak, while a saddled horse stood at the door, as was his habit. An anecdote of this visit is described by author Henry Stephens Randall. After rising early the next morning, while Tarleton was shaving, a shot was heard from the direction of Monticello, which echoed to seem like uneven fire from several muskets. Dressed in only pantaloons, shirt, and boots, with his face still well-lathered, Tarleton quickly mounted his horse, drew his saber, and spurred fiercely in the direction of the sound of the shot, that had not then entirely faded away. He shouted to his men to mount and follow. Randall concluded, “A more soldierly man, on action, never drew a blade in battle.”[72] A gathering of local militia and heavy rains hastened the Legion’s departure to the afternoon of the 5th.The Farm was little the worse for wear from the experience, though The Green Dragoons did take a fine flock of ducks with them when they departed. Curiously, they left the flock’s veteran leader, and Mrs. Walker sent a servant to take the forlorn drake to Tarleton with her compliments, stating that as its comrades were gone, he had better take it, too. The Lt. Colonel accepted the gift with gracefully ironic thanks and a bow. Remembering this in affectionate amusement, her family gave their mother her other nickname, “Captain Molly.”[73]

Today, a historic plaque on the plantation’s only surviving building from that time, the cook house, tells the story of the British Legion’s 18 hour visit. The Cook House of The Farm, with its original chimney and walls, has been renovated to a residence by a local Architect, University of Virginia Professor Michael Bednar. Next to the Cook House is a grand manor house dating to 1826, built by John A. G. Davis who later in 1832 acquired the Lewis property, utilizing some of its buildings. [A beloved professor of law at the University of Virginia, his murder in 1840 by a student on the campus lawn sparked the creation of that institution’s Code of Honor.] The grand house was built 80’ south of the now demolished Lewis home visited by Tarleton. Over the years, the city of Charlottesville grew to completely occupy the lands that once were The Farm. The original cook house/residence, on the National Register of Historic Places, today faces Twelfth Street in the neighborhood of East Jefferson Street (a few blocks East of downtown).[74] Perhaps attesting to the beauty of the area, Charlottesville was recently named the best small city in the South and the healthiest place to live in the United States of America.[75]

Another vestige of The Farm has a story as well. The Lewis family cemetery got its start when a British soldier, actually a prisoner-of-war from The Barracks, was lent for work assignments at The Farm. He was in declining health and had been well-cared for by Mrs. Lewis. It is said he took daily walks on the hills overlooking the Rivanna River, and one day he planted a tulip poplar tree on the top of one hill. He requested that if he died in America, he be buried there, and his request was honored. Also buried there were Mary Walker-Lewis, her husband Nicholas Lewis, and their son Thomas Walker Lewis. For some time, it was a popular walking destination in Charlottesville to go visit the “British Soldier’s grave.”[76] His grave today is regrettably unmarked along with Mary Walker’s, but there is an ornate gravestone and plaque placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution commemorating Nicholas Lewis, and his son’s grave is also is noted, both now in the shade of a mature hemlock tree. More than a century after they were interred, a large public cemetery grew around the site, now called Riverview Cemetery, on Charlottesville’s southeast edge that borders the Rivanna River.

V. the Revolution is Won

After the drama and violence of the early June days and nights in 1781, life in Charlottesville gradually returned more to its routines. The most hunted General Assembly in Virginia’s history reconvened at the Old Trinity Church in Staunton with most of its members, somewhat riled by their recent harrowing experiences. Some placed blame on Jefferson for their lack of security. Their first meeting on June 7 was interrupted by a patriot militiaman intent on reporting to the Assembly a message from the Baron Von Steuben. Mistaking him for one of the British Legion, the skittish Assembly members saw him and took to their heels in flight.[77] Regaining their composure, on June 15, both houses of the Assembly voted and approved the following resolution:

Resolved, That the executive be desired to present to Captain John Jouett with an elegant sword and a pair of pistols as a memorial of the high senses which the General Assembly entertain of his activity and enterprise in watching the motions of the enemy’s cavalry on their late incursion to Charlottesville and conveying to the assembly timely information of their approach, whereby the designs of the enemy were frustrated and many valuable stores preserved.[78]

The Assembly later voted to exonerate Jefferson of any blame. A year later, Jouett traveled Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road to Kentucky, serving well as a progressive delegate in State Assemblies. On its anniversary, his heroic ride is reenacted by a modern-day relative in commemoration activities.[79]

On the other side, unsuccessful in the main goal of his mission, Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton and hisGreen Dragoons sometime June 6-9 made it back to join General Cornwallis at Point of Fork, where the Rivanna River meets the James River (near present day Columbia). He reported “the attempt to secure Mr. Jefferson was ineffectual.” Their main prisoners from the raid were then paroled, including Daniel Boone.[80] Over the next few months, the British forces then shifted into a defensive posture near Yorktown, Virginia. The French fleet arrived to block a possible British escape from Chesapeake Bay, and in early September 1781 General George Washington’s army had made it to Virginia on land to surround Cornwallis with a combined force of about 18,000 and siege his base at Yorktown. On October 17th, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered and the Revolutionary War had been won by America.[81]

Tarleton was coolly treated, and not invited to participate in the subsequent social interaction between British and Patriot officers. It is said there may have been an attempt on his life. Cornwallis stuck by him, though, and back in Great Britain, hungry for a hero and some redemption of the long War, Banastre Tarleton was greeted enthusiastically. He found himself among the best social circles, and was a friend of the young Prince of Wales. Some years later a London newspaper published articles blaming Tarleton for the British loss at the Battle of Cowpens. In response, he wrote his book, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America. Tarleton indiscreetly put blame on Cornwallis, and lost his friendship, and wore out his welcome in some social circles as well. A risk-taker by nature, he also at times wrestled with gambling debts. However, his home town elected him to seven terms in Parliament.[82]

What can we make of Banastre Tarleton today? A contemporary American might see him sort of like a well-drawn villain of an Ian Fleming novel: intelligent, subtly menacing, and the instigator of a far more interesting plot that we might have otherwise conceived, one in which we are fortunately shown to eventually triumph. It is Henry Stephens Randall, though, who best seems to sum up the controversial, rakish, enigmatic talent of Tarleton, with a bit of Victorian flair:

Tarleton was his [General Cornwallis’] hunting leopard, glossy, beautifully mottled, but swift and fell—when roused by resistance, ferocious… Few were the commanders opposed to him whom he did not at one time or another surprise—and among them were Colonel Washington, Sumpter, and some others… Tarleton was a man of imposing, and when necessary, dignified manners—his conversation that of a soldier and well bred man of the world… he knew how to be studiously courteous to a foe. We cannot convince ourselves that he was cruel by nature, or took any pleasure in the atrocities committed by his band. We take him to have been one of those smooth, hard, unfeeling men, often met with… who are not easily overcome by human distress—who, with the decisive promptitude of their energetic natures, do what they regard as necessary to their end…[83]

Banastre Tarleton was promoted to General, was created a baronet, and knighted. He married but died childless on January 25, 1833.

Epilogue: Cloverfields

There are many other family stories of experiences during the American Revolution. Many Meriwethers bravely served their fledgling country during these fateful times. One more story at least should be told here, about the owner of The Farm’s brother, William Lewis. He was an officer in the Virginia Military Continental Line. His rank varies with a number of sources, but he seems to have been at least a Lieutenant in the Revolutionary Army in 1776.[84] He was the 3rd signer of the Albemarle County Declaration of Independence on April 21st, 1779.[85] Later that year on November 12, he was on leave from the Continental Army to visit his wife and children, including a 5-year-old Meriwether Lewis, at their home in Locust Hill. Along the way at Secretary’s Ford near Charlottesville, he tried to cross the flood-swollen Rivanna River, and his horse was swept away and drowned. William Lewis swam ashore, then hiked to a closer destination, Cloverfields, the childhood home of his wife Lucy Meriwether. It would have been the nearest of a series of family plantations, includingBelvoir and Castle Hill along the Southwest Mountains, that had once all been the land of his grandfather Nicholas Meriwether II. [Though most have been dispersed in ownership, Cloverfields is still today owned by descendants of the Meriwether family.] Lewis made it to the plantation, but contracted pneumonia and died two days later. He was interred there, and a marker was erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the 1930’s.[86] Edward C. Mead said of the CloverfieldsCemetery,

Here sleep undisturbed on their native ground those noble men and women who lived in the exciting times of the Revolution and saw the wild country emerge into a ‘new nation’, and, with hearts glowing with love and patriotism, gently sank to rest, beloved by all those around them… It is now kept sacred, and forms a valuable guide-post to the historian in his search for the early characters in Virginia history.[87]

The End

@copyright 2005 Stephen Meriwether Long

Copyright 2015