Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton of the 17th Light Dragoons commanded the British forces at the Battle of Cowpens. Tarleton was not unknown to the American soldiers at Cowpens, having earlier established a reputation as a ruthless battlefield commander when his forces refused to accept the surrender of American troops at the Battle of Waxhaws. Many Americans were killed with bayonets or sabers after having laid down their weapons. As a result, Tarleton earned the nicknames “Bloody Ban” and “The Butcher.”
However, there are contradictory accounts as to whether Tarleton was directly responsible for the massacre or if his troops acted on their own, believing Tarleton had been shot from his horse. Nevertheless, the perceived ruthlessness of Tarleton enraged South Carolinians and inspired many backcountry residents to take up arms against the British.
Born to a wealthy family in Liverpool, England on August 21, 1754, Tarleton was educated at the Middle Temple in London and later attended Oxford University. In 1775 he purchased a commission as an officer in the 1st Dragoon Guards. Purchasing a commission was a common practice in the British military at the time. By 1780 he had worked his way up to Lieutenant Colonel based on his own merits. Tarleton participated in several major battles during the course of the Revolutionary War and was present at Yorktown when Charles Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington.
Following the war he rose to the rank of General, served in the House of Commons, and was knighted as Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath. Tarleton died on January 15, 1833, at the age of 78.