Buford's massacre

South Carolina  |  May 29, 1780

The Battle of Waxhaws was a dreadful defeat for the Patriots. Continental forces in the South, however, turned this stinging loss into a propaganda victory, stirring up anti-British sentiment throughout the colonies.

On May 12th, 1780, Charleston fell to the British under the command of Sir Henry Clinton. A column of reinforcements consisting of 380 troops under the command of Colonel Abraham Buford failed to reach the city before its fall and withdrew. This force, known as the Third Virginia Detachment, consisted of two companies of the 2nd Virginia Regiment, 40 Virginia Light Dragoons, and two six-pound cannons. 

With plans to return to New York, Clinton transferred command to his deputy, Lt. Gen. Charles, Lord Cornwallis in command of the Southern Army. Cornwallis learned of Buford’s presence and sent a force under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton in purusit. Tarleton commanded 230 men of his British Legion and 40 members of the 17th Light Dragoons. Tarleton also brought along a three pound cannon.

Even though the Americans were a week ahead of Tarleton, the aggressive British commander moved his men 150 miles at a rapid pace, catching up with Buford on the afternoon of May 29th, 1780. The area in which the two forces caught sight of each other lies along the border of North and South Carolina, in an area called the Waxhaws.

Tarleton sent ahead a message to Buford, demanding the Patriots surrender. Buford resfused and then ordered all of his heavy baggage and weapons to continue moving northward.  This included his artillery, which would not play a role in the battle. Buford formed a battle line in an open field across the route of march, his infantry in a single line with orders not to fire until the British approached within 10 yards.

Approaching Buford's position, Tarleton divided his force into three attacking columns. He deployed 60 British Legion dragoons as well as about the same number of mounted infantry to the right, with the intention of having the mounted infantry dismount and pour fire upon the Americans, pinning them down. At the same time, he formed a center column of his elite troops, the regular soldiers of the 17th Light Dragoons, as well as 40 Legion dragoons, to charge straight towards the American center under the covering fire of the Loyalists to their right. The left column was led by Tarleton himself and consisted of 30 handpicked men of the Legion, ready to sweep the American right flank and drive for their baggage and reserves. Tarleton kept his single cannon in reserve with the remaining Legion Dragoons.

The British attack commenced as soon as all of their troops were in position. With Colonel Buford’s order to refrain from firing, the Patriot was overrun by the speed and aggressiveness of the British mounted attack. The three columns broke through the positions and began cutting down soldiers left and right. Many American survivors of the battle claimed that their comrades were massacred while trying to surrender.

Just as quickly as it had begun, the Battle of Waxhaws was over. British casualties were slight, with 5 killed and 14 wounded. The Americans lost 113 men killed and 203 wounded. Colonel Buford managed to escape from the slaughter. He reported what he saw on the battlefield to Patriot officials and the effect was electrifying. The Battle of Waxhaws became known as “Buford’s Massacre” and Tarleton, already known as an aggressive commander, was condemned as a butcher.

There is much debate as to whether or not these killings took place. The British reported that all wounded of both sides were treated fairly as was custom of the day. While today historians debate the truth behind the claims of the killing of prisoners, the effect in 1780 was dramatic. As the British advanced further into North Carolina, men from all over the South took up arms in order to defeat the butchers of Waxhaws. Men from across the Appalachians, the “Overmountain Men” would take up arms and defeat a Loyalist force at the Battle of King’s Mountain in October, 1780. There they attacked the Loyalist position with cries of “Remember Waxhaws!” Resistance to the British campaign in the South continued to intensify, and in October, 1781, the British Army in the south would finally meet its fate around the Virginia port of Yorktown.

All battles of the Southern Theater 1780 - 1783 Campaign

Rev War  |  Battle
South Carolina  |  Feb 11 - May 12, 1780
Result: British Victory
Est. Casualties: 5,764
American: 5,506
British: 258
Rev War  |  Battle
Lenud's Ferry
Berkeley County, SC  |  May 6, 1780
Result: British Victory
Est. Casualties: 41
American: 41
Rev War  |  Battle
South Carolina  |  May 29, 1780
Result: British Victory
Est. Casualties: 333
American: 316
British: 17
Rev War  |  Battle
Williamson's Plantation
South Carolina  |  Jul 12, 1780
Result: American Victory
Est. Casualties: 96
American: 1
British: 95
Rev War  |  Battle
Rocky Mount
Fairfield County, South Carolina  |  Jul 30, 1780
Result: British Victory
Est. Casualties: 32
American: 12
British: 20
Rev War  |  Battle
South Carolina  |  Aug 16, 1780
Result: British Victory
Est. Casualties: 2,224
American: 1,900
British: 324
Rev War  |  Battle
Musgrove Mill
South Carolina  |  Aug 19, 1780
Result: American Victory
Est. Casualties: 149
American: 16
British: 133
Rev War  |  Battle
Kings Mountain
South Carolina  |  Oct 7, 1780
Result: American Victory
Est. Casualties: 1,211
American: 90
British: 1,121
Rev War  |  Battle
Blackstock's Plantation
Union, SC  |  Nov 20, 1780
Result: American Victory
American: 7
British: 192
Rev War  |  Battle
Rugeley's Mill
South Carolina  |  Dec 4, 1780
Result: American Victory
Rev War  |  Battle
Hammond's Store
Laurens County, South Carolina  |  Dec 30, 1780
Result: American Victory
Est. Casualties: 150
British: 150
Rev War  |  Battle
South Carolina  |  Jan 17, 1781
Result: American Victory
Est. Casualties: 1,017
American: 149
British: 868
Rev War  |  Battle
Guilford Courthouse
North Carolina  |  Mar 15, 1781
Result: British Victory
Est. Casualties: 1,842
American: 1,310
British: 532
Rev War  |  Battle
Siege of Fort Watson
Summerton, South Carolina  |  Apr 15 - 23, 1781
Result: Inconclusive
Est. Casualties: 116
American: 2
British: 114
Rev War  |  Battle
Hobkirk's Hill
South Carolina  |  Apr 25, 1781
Result: British Victory
Est. Casualties: 532
American: 271
British: 261
Rev War  |  Battle
Ninety Six
South Carolina  |  May 22 - Jun 19, 1781
Result: British Victory
Est. Casualties: 232
American: 147
British: 85
Rev War  |  Battle
Parker's Ferry
Colleton County, SC  |  Aug 30, 1781
Result: American Victory
Est. Casualties: 209
American: 4
British: 205
Rev War  |  Battle
Eutaw Springs
South Carolina  |  Sep 8, 1781
Result: British Victory
Est. Casualties: 1,461
American: 579
British: 882
Rev War  |  Battle
Dills Bluff
James Island, SC  |  Nov 14, 1782
Result: British Victory
Est. Casualties: 15
American: 10
British: 5

Related Battles

Lancaster, SC | May 29, 1780
Result: British Victory
Forces Engaged
Estimated Casualties