A Hornet's Nest of Rebellion

Part One

Buford's Massacre

by Matt Aiken, HNRMC Board Member

We have an abundance of Revolutionary War history in the Greater Charlotte metro, and beyond, and as a relative newcomer to the area, I am amazed at how few people are aware of it. Our region played a critical role in the ultimate success of our effort to forge a new nation. It is undisputed that the battles that took place in our region turned the tide of the war and led to Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown.

For the greater part of the Revolution, most of the fighting was focused in the northern colonies in areas surrounding the larger cities of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. General George Washington had succesfully fought to a stalemate with the British. Although there were a few small victories at Trenton, Princeton and elsewhere, the victory at Saratoga showed the European powers that these new United States could stand face to face with the British and win. Nevertheless, this led to neither side making any real progress in the north, so the British strategy changed - to a southern strategy.

Led by British General Henry Clinton, the British navy and army began a siege of Charleston, SC in March of 1780 and ultimately defeated the much smaller American force in just over a month. American General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered his positions and forces. The British took more than 5,000 patriot soldiers prisoner. At the onset of the siege, Lieutenant Colonel Abraham Buford, commaning a force of Virginia Continentals, was ordered to bring his troops to Charleston to reinforce General Lincoln's forces. However, the defeat came so swiftly that Buford and his men never made it to Charleston. Upon defeat, Colonel Buford was given different orders. He and his troops were now to retreat back through Camden, South Carolina's second largest town at the time and gather up all the weapons and provisions they could and retreat into North Carolina. Buford's troops were not the only one's who were retreating. Upon the surrender of Charleston, a number of patriot soldiers moved west and north to evade the British. General Lord Cornwallis and his forces were dispatched to capture and/or defeat the remnants of the patriot army in South Carolina.

At the intersection of State Road 9 and State Road 522 in Lancaster County, SC, a picturesque 40 minute drive from the Southeast section of I-485 is a pivotal part of American Revolutionary War History and it's right in our backyard.

The Battle of the Waxhaws or Buford's Massacre is relatively unknown, even in our area today, as it was not a patriot victory or a large patriot defeat. However, what cannot be ignored is how this obscure battle ultimately led to the winning of our independence. There are various sources of information about this day in American History, but you can find some interesting articles here, here and here.

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Upon hearing of the orders given to Buford, Cornwallis dispatched his top cavalry officer Banastre Tarleton and a small force to stop Buford's retreat. Tarleton had already gained a reputation as a fierce soldier and he did indeed drive his soldiers at an incredible pace to catch up with Buford's troops.

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Tarleton had initially sent a scout ahead with a demand that Buford surrender. Buford initially rejected his demand but knew that Tarleton was quickly catching up to him and his men. To the peril of his troops, Buford chose to make a stand. He would turn and face Tarleton's troops in a small field in the area of South Carolina known as the Waxhaws, while some troops and all the artillery would continue to retreat north. This decision would ultimately change the course of the American Revolution.

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What happened next is still being debated by historians today, however I believe there were enough contemporaneous accounts to properly call this battle a massacre, including one from Tarleton himself. Tarleton's force was largely on horseback. As cavalry troops, he had the upper hand over the American infantry. Although there is some question as to whether the forces were of relatively equal number or whether Tarleton's force was significantly larger than Buford's force, it became clear very quickly once the battle had begun Buford's men were no match for Tarleton's force.

It was at that point that Colonel Buford raised a surrender flag. Under the rules of war, at that time, when the flag of surrender was raised, fighting ceased and surrendering troops were "given quarter". Essentially, the surrendering troops would be accepted as prisoners and would not be killed. That's not what happened here. According to accounts at the time, including Tarleton himself, his troops continued to slaughter the patriot soldiers, leaving all but 53 either dead or wounded out of a force of about 350.

Those patriots who died that day were buried, by local citizens, in a mass grave that still exists on the hallowed ground of this battlefield. I made it a point to visit the site when I moved here because I love history, knew of the battle and the impact it had. The pictures in this article are one's I took when I visited the battlefield.

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The location of the battlefield is in the south west corner of the junction of SR 9 and SR 522 in Lancaster County in the town of Buford. You can almost miss it as you drive by.

Although there is traffic in the area, the site itself has an eerie calm to it. You realize something significant happened here. You can tell that it has been visited by many and the mass grave and monuments have been cared for by generations of people who have had this story passed down to them by family members who heard the stories of the eyewitnesses.

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And that story? Throughout the region it became known that the British Army "gave no quarter" to surrendering patriot soldiers. "Bloody Ban" as Tarleton would be forever known in this area had his own definition of "giving quarter", Tarleton's Quarter, which meant none at all. This tipped the scale in the southern colonies, which had been more loyalist leaning, or at the least, apathetic to either side, and brought many people over to the patriot side. The Scots-Irish who had settled the back country of the Carolinas and the mountains began to remember why they left Britain and didn't appreciate the new British encroachment. Buford's massacre would inspire and motivate people to not only join the Continental Army, but to create their own patriot militias to fight the British in the southern colonies more than any other single event.

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This one battle and its outcome would change the course of the American Revolution with patriot victories in major battles along the North Carolina/South Carolina border and patriots consistently thwarting the goals of the British Southern Strategy, which ultimately would lead to the defeat of Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown, Virginia just over a year later.

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Coming Soon - Part 2, The Battle of Camden