As I have previously discussed the obscure villainy of James Wilkinson , one of the most notable villains of early American history, I thought it would be fitting and balanced to provide a brief account of the contemporary villainy of a man who is hated and loathed by Americans (especially Southerners) but who remains largely unknown to his native Englishmen, a man whose contemporary fame and notoriety has managed him the curse of being remembered only by those who loath him for his corruption and evil. Some may think it rather harsh for me to say such things about a man, but once one knows of the depths of evil committed and supported by this man, one will understand exactly why he has earned his grim fate and may hopefully take steps to avoid such ill-repute themselves.
The villainy of Banastre Tarleton can best be understood when it is recognized that he is the villain of two very different movies with two very different historical points of view. He is the cold-blooded and ruthless murderer of The Patriot, whose cruelty leads him to kill even children before his timely but unhistorical demise at the Battle of Cowpens when he is slayed by Mel Gibson’s longsuffering character. In real life, of course, while Tarleton’s American Legion (made up of American Tories, it should be noted) was humbled at Cowpens, he himself was able to flee on some very fast horses from that debacle to live another day. It may not be understood, though, that Banastre Tarleton is also the villain of Amazing Grace, a man who owes his spot in Parliament to the interests of slave traders and is devoted to their corrupt and evil cause, fighting against the moral crusade of William Wilberforce and his allies with all the corruption he can manage. Here we have an interesting and remarkable reality. Banastre Tarleton was a man of such evil that he is equally loathed both by antislavery idealists as well as by Southern slaveowners for his crimes against the humanity of both slaves and their (American) masters. To be hated by both groups is a remarkable and rare achievement, but it is one that Banastre Tarleton managed while simultaneously being nearly forgotten after his death despite his fame and fortune and high status in life.
Nor is that all to the villainy of Banastre Tarleton. In real life, he was a ruthlessly efficient leader of Tories who earned his commissions through loyal service rather than through the conventional means of bribery (most officers paid for their commissions). But this hard work (which earned Tarleton a reputation for savagery in the Southern United States for his alleged massacres) was largely due to the fact that he had squandered his initial inheritance as a son of a slave trader and Liverpool mayor on booze and women and had to seek a military commission to preserve some gentlemanly sense of honor (there are shades of perfidious Wickham in his character, it would appear). He had a mistress for fifteen years he had originally seduced on a bet , and even a later legitimate marriage produced no heirs. His hopes of lasting fame in the Penninsular War were ruined when the position was instead given to the (future) Duke of Wellington, but he was politically active for a long time and died rewarded with honors and positions by a grateful British public.
Why then is he so loathed nowadays? For one, his absence of children and his greed-induced support of the slave trade (which personally profited himself and his family) led him to be viewed in a distasteful way by later moralistic Victorians, as he was clearly a man whose open corruption could only have flourished in Georgian and Regency times, or our own. In the United States, his skill as a dragoon/light cavalryman made him feared and the actions that he took to gain respect in the eyes of his superiors and increase his rank in times of warfare led him to be seen as a man without honor. Sadly, this not-entirely-accurate view (he did behave honorably to Thomas Jefferson, it should be noted) stuck thanks to some libelous stories that were invented about his own boasting over his murder of men and raping of women. Though he was clearly not an honorable gentleman, much less a Christian one, he was sufficiently ambitious to at least show a sense of regard for those whom he viewed to be gentlemen, and he was undoubtedly a corrupt man in corrupt times, but by no means unique or exemplary among his peers for his corruption.
Ironically enough, Banastre Tarleton owes his bad reputation to the fact that he served as a nemesis to two of the most prolific writing subcultures of the modern English-speaking world, the moralists who were hostile to his boozing and womanizing and slave trading as well as the southern slaveowners (and their descendents) who viewed him as the precursor to Sherman in terms of destructiveness to their immoral lifestyle. In a cruel twist of irony, it was Tarelton’s brutality against slaveowners that left him hated in the United States and his selfish greed in supporting the slave trade that left him hated in Great Britain. By alienating both sides of the 19th century English-speaking culture war between aristocratic slaveowners and moralistic abolitionists, he ensured that wherever his name was spoken it would be cursed. All of his loyal deeds of service to his nation and its army were largely forgotten after his death, as he left no heirs or allies to remind a forgetful nation of what scraps of honor existed in his character, having been denied the chance to prove his loyalty and patriotism against Napoleon, where he might have retrieved his honor through bravery against Napoleon’s generals. Instead, all Banastre left as a legacy was either oblivion or intense hatred. His assiduous work in order to gain honor and prestige backfired, and we are left with an object lesson of what bad press, overzealous ambition in times of war, and selfishness in corrupt times can do to the lasting reputation of a wealthy and powerful man whose gifts did not serve the cause of virtue. It is hard to feel sympathetic for him, though, even knowing a more balanced view of his life.