The British Legion was the name given to a British provincial regiment established during the American Revolutionary War and composed of Loyalist American infantry and cavalry. "Legion" was an 18th-century term for a military unit the size of a regiment but consisting of infantry and cavalry, or infantry, cavalry, and artillery, all under one command, to make it more flexible for scouting or irregular operations than a regiment that consisted of infantry or cavalry alone. It was colloquially known as Tarleton's Raiders, after the man who led most of its day-to-day activity, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton.
This unit was raised in New York in July 1778, by Sir Henry Clinton, in order to merge several small Loyalist units into a single force, a "legion" that combined infantry and cavalry forces and a battery of "flying" (light and fast moving) artillery. The infantry consisted of the Caledonian Volunteers (a partially mounted and partially foot unit, raised in Philadelphia in late 1777 and early 1778), Ritzema's Royal American Reformers, the West Jersey Volunteers, and some members of the Roman Catholic Volunteers. The cavalry combined, in whole or in part, elements of Captain Kinloch's independent troop of New York Dragoons, the Philadelphia Light Dragoons, Emmerich's Chasseurs, the Prince of Wales' American Volunteers, and the 16th Light Dragoons. The regiment was commanded by Lord William Cathcart as colonel; Banastre Tarleton was commissioned as lieutenant colonel. Once the unit left New York, Tarleton took full operational command. The Legion's peak operational strength was approximately 250 cavalry and 200 infantry.
The Legion in the Carolinas
Elements of the Legion fought at the siege of Savannah in 1779. The Legion as a whole was part of the British force that besieged and captured Charleston in 1780. The regiment participated in many battles in Clinton's South Carolina campaign, defeating General Isaac Huger and Lieutenant William Washington at Monck's Corner, dispersing another American force at Lenud's Ferry, and routing a column under the hapless Colonel Abraham Buford at the controversial Waxhaw massacre.
During 1780, the Legion received reinforcements in the form of more drafts from Emmerich's Chausseurs and the Prince of Wales' American Volunteers, and the permanent attachment of the Bucks County Dragoons.
After Lord Cornwallis took command of the southern Crown forces, the Legion participated in his defeat of General Horatio Gates at the Battle of Camden, nearly caught Thomas Sumter at Fishing Creek, were hit by a surprise attack at Wahab's Plantation, and pinned a rebel force at Charlotte, North Carolina, until the remainder of the British force could come up.
Throughout the autumn of 1780, the Legion took part in anti-guerrilla operations, attempting to hunt down Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter and engaging in combat at Fishdam Ford and Blackstock's. The Legion seized and destroyed property in punitive attempts to suppress support for the guerrillas.
In January 1781, the Legion was part of the force under Tarleton defeated by Daniel Morgan at the Battle of Cowpens. The regiment suffered heavily in this action, particularly its infantry arm. After Cowpens, the remaining Legion infantry either transferred to the cavalry or joined the garrison of Charleston. From this point forward, the active British Legion was a cavalry force only.
The Legion was taken onto the American Establishment on March 7, 1781, as the 5th American Regiment. This made them an official part of the British Army, rather than provincial (local) troops.
On the 15th of March, the regiment fought at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.
The Legion in the Virginia Campaign
As Cornwallis shifted his communications to the Chesapeake and abandoned the Carolinas for Virginia, the British Legion cavalry under Tarleton raided ahead of the British army, nearly capturing Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia General Assembly at Charlottesville. The Legion again engaged in widespread destruction to punish rebel sympathizers and deny material support to the Continental Army and government. In July 1781 occurred the skirmish Francisco's Fight between Peter Francisco and several of Tarleton's Raiders.
When Cornwallis occupied Yorktown, the Legion was posted across the York River at Gloucester, fought a skirmish with French troops there, and surrendered to the French at the conclusion of the siege. Lord Cornwallis sought terms of surrender that would have ensured no reprisals against the Loyalists in his army, but Washington refused to agree to them. Some of the men of the Legion were evacuated, sent with Cornwallis' dispatches to New York after the surrender. Some officers were paroled. Some enlisted men, and at least four officers who volunteered to stay with their troopers, were sent to a prison camp in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The End of the Legion
On December 25, 1782, the regiment was taken onto the British Establishment, suggesting that there may have been some thought to maintain the regiment as part of the postwar Army. The infantry of the Legion still in Charleston, and such of the regiment as had escaped to New York, were eventually evacuated to Nova Scotia in 1783. Some officers transferred to other regiments of the British Army. The British Legion was disbanded on October 10, 1783. Most of those discharged settled in Nova Scotia.
- "Oatmeal for the Foxhounds" website, http://www.banastretarleton.org
- Thomas H. Raddall, Tarleton's Legion, Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, 1949, http://www.mersey.ca/tarletonslegion.html
- "The King's Men: Loyalist Military Units in the American Revolution", http://www.webcitation.org/query?url=http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Delphi/4171/kingsmen_03.htm&date=2009-10-25+05:57:57
- Babits, page 46, “British Legion Infantry strength at Cowpens was between 200 and 271 enlisted men”. However, this statement is referenced to a note on pages 175–176, which says, “The British Legion infantry at Cowpens is usually considered to have had about 200–250 men, but returns for the 25 December 1780 muster show only 175. Totals obtained by Cornwallis, dated 15 January, show that the whole legion had 451 men, but approximately 250 were dragoons”. There would therefore appear to be no evidence for putting the total strength of the five British Legion Light Infantry companies at more than 200.
- From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South, Henry Lumpkin, Paragon House, 1981.
- British Legion Biographical Sketches, Cavalry Officers, Donald J. Gara, reprinted at the On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies, http://www.royalprovincial.com/military/rhist/britlegn/blcav1.htm
- Encyclopaedia of British Provincial, and German Army Units 1775-1783, Phillip Katcher, Stackpole Books, 1973, ISBN 0-8117-0542-0 p.83
- Christopher Ward, The War of the Revolution: Volume Two, The Macmillan Company, 1952, p.894-895
- British Legion Biographical Sketches, Infantry Officers, Donald J. Gara, reprinted at the On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies, http://www.royalprovincial.com/military/rhist/britlegn/blinf1.htm
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