The Battle of Waxhaws is the name of a battle that took place during the American Revolution on May 29, 1780, in Lancaster, South Carolina, between a Patriot force led by Abraham Buford and a mainly Loyalist force led by Banastre Tarleton. After reports of Tarleton ignoring the surrender of Buford's troops, the American colonists began to call the battle "The Waxhaw Massacre".
Colonel Abraham Buford led a force of between 350 and 380 Virginian Continentals - the 3rd Virginia Detachment (composed of the 7th Virginia Regiment, two companies of the 2nd Virginia Regiment and an artillery detachment with two six-pounders) - to assist the Patriot forces in the Siege of Charleston. Before arriving, they learned that the city had already been captured by the British, and they turned back to Virginia.
However, British Colonel Banastre Tarleton heard that South Carolina's Patriot Governor John Rutledge was traveling with Buford. Anxious to capture Rutledge, Tarleton pursued with a force of roughly 150-230 men, consisting of around 130 Legion dragoons, 100 Mounted British Legion infantry, and a three-pounder cannon. In the event, only an advance force of 60 dragoons from the 17th Light Dragoons and the British Legion cavalry, 60 mounted infantry from the British Legion, and an additional flanking force of 30 British Legion dragoons and some infantry actually engaged in the main attack.
While waiting for his reserves to move up, Tarleton sent Captain David Kinlock forward to the rebel column, carrying a white flag, to demand Buford's surrender. In his message, Tarleton hugely exaggerated the size of his force—claiming he had 700 men—hoping to sway Buford's decision. The note also stated firmly to Buford, "Resistance being vain, to prevent the effusion of human blood, I make offers which can never be repeated", indicating that Tarleton would ask only once for Buford to surrender. Buford refused to surrender with the message: "I reject your proposals, and shall defend myself to the last extremity."
Despite this, Buford made the unwise decision to keep marching rather than prepare for battle. Tarleton's bugler sounded the charge, and the entire loyalist force set upon Buford's column. When Tarleton's attack came, Buford waited until the enemy was within ten yards to give the order to fire. This had minimal effect on the charging cavalry and resulted in a rout of the Virginians, since they had no time to reload their firearms. As Tarleton's cavalrymen tore Buford's column to pieces, many of the Americans began laying down their arms and surrendering.
What happened next is the subject of much debate. According to a Patriot eyewitness, a field surgeon named Robert Brownfield, Col. Buford raised a white flag of surrender, "expecting the usual treatment sanctioned by civilized warfare". While Buford was calling for quarter, Tarleton's horse was struck by a musket ball and fell. This gave the loyalist cavalrymen the impression that the rebels had shot at their commander while asking for mercy. Enraged, the loyalist troops charged at the Virginians. According to Brownfield, the loyalists attacked, carrying out "indiscriminate carnage never surpassed by the most ruthless atrocities of the most barbarous savages". Tarleton's men stabbed the wounded where they lay.
According to Tarleton's after battle report, the American rebels lost 113 men killed, 147 wounded and released on parole, and the 2 six pounders and 26 wagons captured. The British lost 5 killed, 12 wounded, with 11 horses killed and 19 horses wounded.
The battle has always been controversial, since after breaking Buford's line Tarleton's men slaughtered many of the Virginians who surrendered, hacking them down with their sabres. Some sources, such as Buford's Adjutant Henry Bowyer and Surgeon's Mate Robert Brownfield, claim that Buford belatedly raised a white flag but was ignored by Tarleton. In Tarleton's own account, he virtually admits the massacre, stating that his horse had been shot from under him during the initial charge and his men, thinking him dead, engaged in "a vindictive asperity not easily restrained."
Records of the Moravians in Salem, N.C. indicate that at least one American soldier picked up his musket and fired it at Tarleton after the American had already surrendered.
Before the massacre, popular opinion held that the Southern states were lost to the Patriot cause and would remain loyal to Britain. The reports of the battle, however, may have changed the direction of the war in the South. Many who might have stayed neutral flocked to the Patriots, and "Tarleton's Quarter!" and "Remember Buford" became rallying cries for the Whigs. The massacre was also directly responsible for the over-mountain men (from what is now Tennessee) forming a volunteer force that utterly destroyed Major Patrick Ferguson's command at Kings Mountain, South Carolina.
In the 2000 movie The Patriot, Mel Gibson's character's oldest son Gabriel is wounded at the battle. This happens just before he returns to the Martin plantation and is not seen on screen. However, Gabriel incorrectly states; "Gates ordered us to march straight at the British regulars". Gates was not present at Waxhaws, and the American column marched away from the regulars at Waxhaws, not at them.