Welcome back to my 14-part series on the life of Banastre Tarleton during the American Revolution! If you missed earlier installments, click the links below and read those chapters first.
This particular chapter was co-researched and co-written by both myself and Michael E. Carter, M.A.
1. Meet the Tarleton Family
2. Road to Revolution
3. "I'll Cut off General Lee's Head!"
4. Theater in Theatre
5: Legion Rising
There were many famous units which fought in the American Revolution for the British, but perhaps the infamous was the British Legion. The reputation this unique division acquired during the war forever cemented them into the hearts and minds of Americans as the worst of villains. Their aggressive tactics and superb horsemanship made the Legion the both the most relentless and the most reviled. Even today the Legion’s activities in Virginia and the Carolinas spark anger and disgust. Most of their exploits exist in tales which closely resemble folklore rather than fact. However, in Nova Scotia, where the Legion settled after the war and many of their descendants still reside, their story has nearly disappeared entirely. Perhaps this is because, as the old adage says, history is written by the victors. Perhaps it is because the British Legion has been so demonized in American history books that many have chosen to just accept these interpretations and tales as fact and prefer to forget the Legion ever existed. Regardless, the British Legion, and the man who led it, deserve to have their story told from a different, less-biased, perspective.
The British Legion, which later became known as Tarleton’s Legion, acted as the spearhead of every attack, the rearguard in every retreat, and spies for General Cornwallis. They were integral to the Southern Campaign, but their history begins in the summer of 1778 during the British campaign in the north. After Sir Henry Clinton received his orders to leave Philadelphia and withdraw to New York, a regiment called the Queen’s Rangers began to take shape. Camped alongside the Harlem River, the regiment was led by the 26-year-old John Graves Simcoe. Simcoe trained his regiment to adapt to the conditions in the colonies, opted for a green uniform to blend in better, and equipped them to act as calvary, infantry, and artillery all rolled into one. Tarleton, during this time, was also camped along the Harlem River, observing Simcoe’s training of his Queen’s Rangers. Two years younger than Simcoe, Tarleton found the older officer intriguing. Simcoe felt the same. The young officers’ shared ambition and energy drew them to one another, a relationship that likely shaped Tarleton’s own personal decisions regarding his future Legion.
The British Legion was a combined unit of Provincial cavalry and infantry, commissioned and raised by Lord William Cathcart in 1778. Cathcart was part of a new, younger generation, to include Simcoe and Tarleton, which craved command but were hindered by the slow promotion process of the British Army. In July of 1778, Cathcart proposed his idea of raising a Loyalist corps of infantry and cavalry to Sir Henry Clinton. Cathcart recommended his friend, Banastre Tarleton, command the cavalry. After serving the previous two campaigns as a volunteer attachment to the 16th Light Dragoons and as a major-of-brigade to the British cavalry in Philadelphia, the prospect of commanding his own unique unit thrilled Banastre. It was clear that both Tarleton and Cathcart found themselves to be more than the average subordinate and Sir Henry Clinton’s response to Cathcart’s proposition confirmed this fact. He hastened the process of forming the Legion by using a cadre of corps from previously-formed Provincial units. Cathcart’s infantry came from Caledonian Volunteers, Royal American Reformees, and Roman Catholic Volunteers, while Tarleton’s cavalry consisted of the two troops of Philadelphia Light Dragoons and an independent troop created by David Kinloch in New York.
Early on in the Revolution, the Legion consisted of four infantry companies with three cavalry troops, with 333 men in total. During the winter of 1778-1779, the unit’s actions on Long Island provided an early look into what they would become. During this time, various records revealed that the Legion prioritized supply acquisition, but they also revealed potential disciplinary issues within the unit, issues that would later define the unit as a whole. In November of 1778, an account record kept by the Society of Smithtown included a claim for the Society for a total of 127 pounds 18 shillings 4 pence for 6396 feet of boards at 20 pounds 9 shillings per thousand taken from a Presbyterian church. The note stated: “The above boards were of the best pine and taken for the use of the Government by Colonel Tarleton and Major Cochran.” What these materials were used for is uncertain, but they were likely utilized in the building of winter fortifications at Jericho or acquired for shipment to support the troops in New York. Seth Norton, a forage master for the British Army, frequently complained about the Legion’s conduct. He complained about the amount of material the Legion took and expanded on his complaints by stating: “two or three days they were at Wolver Hollow about four miles from this, taking all kinds of Forage without granting receipts…they return the next day and they have at Jericho, including the Plain Hay more Forage than the number of horses now they ought to consume this season.” The precise location of the British Legion’s post at Jericho remains unknown, but the force was present and active in Long Island during the 1778-1779 winter season, as indicated by numerous documents and accounts of their foraging efforts. They were a brand-new unit, eager to prove themselves. Their leaders were also young, new, and ambitious. The Legion therefore went to great lengths to prove their usefulness for the British cause.
The formation of the Legion itself was revolutionary. It demonstrated forward-thinking and innovation. This unit would act independently of the rest of the British army, but it was more or less stitched together haphazardly using both rebel turncoats and Loyalists. This resulted in a unit full of men who had very little in common regarding their backgrounds, heritage, culture, and the like. It would take an enigmatic leader willing and able to bring these men together to form a cohesive, effective unit. And it would take discipline, maturity, and experience to keep them in line.
Following the Patriot defeat at the Battle of Monmouth, Banastre Tarleton led his newly-formed British Legion in their first major action. The British were in desperate need of cavalrymen, and Tarleton was known for his expertise in all-things-equine. With limited competition for his particular skillsets, Tarleton quickly caught the eyes of those in command. On August 1, 1788, at the age of twenty-three, Tarleton was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and immediately threw himself into drilling his men hard. Just a few weeks after his promotion, Tarleton received the chance to show off what he had accomplished thus far against a unique force of Continentals.
Led by a man named Daniel Nimham, several hundred Stockbridge Native Americans lived as an American-aligned displaced group of Christian Mohican and Munsee-speaking people who recently relocated to the Hudson Highlands in New York. Nimham once visited the King of England in 1766 to try and convince the King to stop the land frauds committed against his people. He later became an officer in Washington’s army and served alongside his twenty-two-year-old son, Abraham Nimham. The two men shared command of the sixty-member Stockbridge Indian Company and were known as extraordinary woodland fighters. They assisted Washington’s army during the battle of White Plains in July of 1778 and followed the General’s command to “annoy the enemy and prevent their landing or making [any] incursion into the country.” The British, however, did not appreciate how they followed through with Washington’s command, and word of the active enemy Native American force near the edge of New York began to ruffle feathers. This reached a fever pitch in August when the Stockbridge company ambushed a Loyalist force commanded by Andreas Emmerick. This surprise attack sparked outrage among the British, especially General Clinton and John Graves Simcoe. Clinton rallied five hundred under Simcoe’s command. The Queen’s Rangers, alongside Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion, then began to plan a revenge attack against the Native American force.
The battle between the Queen’s Rangers, British Legion and the Stockbridge Native Americans took place near Van Cortlandt Manor, a large estate located between Broadway and the Bronx River. Between the estate and the river was Mile Square Road which connected the Albany Post Road with the Mile Square in Westchester County. The ground where the battle was fought upon is still accessible today through preservation efforts and has been named the Van Cortlandt Park. The locations and physical land markers described in Simcoe’s journal are also still there and accessible to the public.
On the morning of August 31st, with the Queen’s Rangers, British Legion, and retreating Hessians, the British mounted their counterattack. They set a trap, created and led by Simcoe, Tarleton, and Emmerick, on Cortlandt’s Ridge. Unfortunately for the Stockbridge Indian Company, they fell directly into the Brit’s trap. Seeing Emmerick’s troops, the Native Americans emerged into the open, prepared to fight. At that moment, Simcoe’s infantry made their move, hitting the left flank of the Indian Company. The Native Americans were surrounded and greatly outnumbered. They attempted to fight back, utilizing hand-to-hand combat techniques. They were so effective that, according to Simcoe’s own account, they managed to pull several cavalrymen from their horses. Simcoe was wounded in this exchange, and described the Native American forces after the battle, writing that, “The Indians fought most gallantly.” Simcoe also wrote that Daniel Nimham called out to his fellow men that “he was old and would stand and die there.” Nimham was later cut down and killed by Simcoe’s orderly, Private Edward Wight. Nimham reportedly crawled off the battlefield toward a stream where his body was later found.
After Simcoe’s forces launched their attack, Tarleton unleashed his British Legion, composed of 175 horsemen. His attack broke through the Native American’s defensive line, causing them to turn and flee. Tarleton’s Legion hunted them down, killing most. The few Native Americans who survived the onslaught escaped to Tibbetts Brook. General Scott reported to General Washington later: “There are no more than 14 Indians Yet com[sic] in. Among the missing is Capt. Nimham and his father.” Simcoe’s British-Hessian-Loyalist unit lost two cavalrymen with six wounded. Estimates of the Native Americans from the Stockbridge Indian Company who were killed range from seventeen to forty, with the larger estimate likely being the most accurate.
Banastre Tarleton was among the cavalrymen who were unseated from their horses by the Native American war-fighters, according to Simcoe’s recollection of the events. This was the closest Tarleton would come to dying during the Revolutionary War. Simcoe said, “That active officer had a narrow escape; in striking at one of the fugitives, he lost his balance and fell from his horse. Luckily the Indian had no bayonet, and his musket had been discharged.” Tarleton was lucky this day, while the Americans and their Native allies were not. The skirmish itself ended the Mohican threat in the Hudson Highlands, thrilling Tarleton. Simcoe praised Tarleton in his journal, noting that Tarleton was “full of enterprise and spirit, and anxious for every opportunity to distinguish himself.” Likewise, Cornwallis later praised Tarleton and his dragoons, impressed by their success, and stated that they “sabered a great many” Native Americans on that day.
There is only one confirmed contemporary depiction of a Stockbridge companyman. A Hessian captain named Johann von Ewald sketched in his journal based on his on observation and entitled it: “An Indian of the Stockbridge Tribe”. In his writings, he would affirm that they, like their American allies, fought bravely but no Indian received quarter. He named Nimham among the dead, titling him a chief, before describing his examination of the fallen indigenous – his wording. He referred to their well-built bodies being distinct among the dead of European descent and commented that their faces seemed to indicate that they “perished with resolution” before making a comparison to his Germanic ancestors who fought under Arminius, a Roman office turned rebel chieftain who emerged as a German national hero. In doing so, he connected the men of Stockbridge, American Indians, to the history of ancient Europe.
Finally, he described their appearance further including dress and armament. Their shirt and a long pair of trousers were “coarse linen” paired with deerskin shoes and a hat made of bast, the inner fibers of a tree. Each of the Stockbridge fighters were armed with a long gun, described as either a musket or rifle, as well as a quiver with approximately twenty arrows, although not named, they are presumably had means in which to shoot those arrows. Extra detail was given to a short battle axe, perhaps a tomahawk, given how von Ewald added “they knew how to throw very skillfully”. Lastly, he noted rings in their nose and ears as well as how their hair was styled: “[O]nly the hair of the crown remained standing in a circle the size of a dollar-piece, the remainder being shaved off bare”. Ironically, it is thanks to this enemy mercenary that Americans have any idea of what these heroic revolutionary allies looked like.
After Tarleton, Simcoe and Emmerick’s forces pulled their lines back to Kingsbridge, the local residents searched through the battlefield for survivors. The few wounded survivors were taken to nearby homes to receive treatment for their injuries. Days after the battle, the residents began to notice that their dogs were behaving oddly. They followed their dogs and discovered, to their horror, the remains of Nimham, most of which had been devoured by the dogs, along with the bodies of several of his fellows. The residents took the remains and interred them in a plot called Indian Field. They placed stones over their graves to prevent other animals from desecrating their bodies. Approximately eighteen Stockbridge Native Americans are said to be buried there alongside other Native American warriors.
Thomas H. Randall, “Tarleton’s Legion.” Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, 1949. http://www.merseyheritage.ca/tarletonslegion.html.
Todd W. Braisted, “Review: War at Saber Point: Banastre Tarleton and the British Legion,” People, Reviews, The War Years (1775-1783). May 10, 2021. https://allthingsliberty.com/2021/05/review-war-at-saber-point-banastre-tarleton-and-the-british-legion/.
State of particular Companies of the Provincial Corps for a General Muster &ca Feby. 1779,” Dreer Collection, Misc. Mss No. 11, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
David M. Griffin, “Oatmeal for the Foxhounds: Tarleton in Jericho,” Conflict & War, The War Years (1775-1783). January 31, 2018. https://allthingsliberty.com/2018/01/oatmeal-foxhounds-tarleton-jericho/.
Blydenburgh Manuscript: inhabitants of Smithtown v. King George III, transcribed from the original document residing at the Smithtown Historical Society, Smithtown, NY, 1783.
Seth Norton Papers, Connecticut State Library, Revolutionary War papers, 1775.
Robert Bass, The Green Dragoon: The Lives of Banastre Tarleton & Mary Robinson, 1957
John Knight, The War at Saber Point: Banastre Tarleton and the British Legion, 2020
Richard S. Walling, “Death in the Bronx: The Stockbridge Indian Massacre,” AmericanRevolution.org. https://www.americanrevolution.org/ind3.php.
Laurence M. Hauptman, “The Road to Kingsbridge: Daniel Nimham and the Stockbridge Indian Company in the American Revolution,” Magazine of Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall 2017. https://www.americanindianmagazine.org/story/road-kingsbridge-daniel-nimham-and-stockbridge-indian-company-american-revolution.
John Graves Simcoe, Simcoe’s Military Journal, 80-86.
Robert S. Grumet, The Nimhams of the Colonial Hudson Valley, 1667- 1783, Hudson Valley Regional Review (September 1992), 9.2.
Information obtained from an email interview conducted by Michael Carter. M.A. requesting information on my behalf from the Kingsbridge Historical Society President Nick Dembrowski.
Johann von Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Jorunal, trans. Joseph P. Tustin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 145-148.
I am an independent author and historian seeking to uplift the stories of the lesser-known heroes and heroines of the American Revolution, alongside modern-day heroes and heroines who have served in the U.S. military and continue their service through their historical work.