Knight, John. War at Saber Point: Banastre Tarleton and the British Legion. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2020.
One of the best ways to clear up myths is to take a 360-degree view of the subject. In his new book on Banastre Tarleton, John Knight takes a crack at de-mythizing one of the American Revolution’s most misinterpreted figures. Previous historians portray Tarleton as a brutish thug who wantonly pillaged civilians and murdered soldiers after their surrender. Knight is uniquely positioned to look at the life of Tarleton from both a British and a Rebel perspective. A Britisher by birth, he is an expert on American history and divides his time between the two countries. More than just perspective, Knight incorporates manuscripts and records, including Tarleton family papers from British archives to supplement American sources. His command of British scholarship adds new insights.
Knight demonstrates that Tarleton’s brutal reputation emanated from the civil war nature of the American Rebellion, with both sides vilifying the other. He describes the abilities and zeal that Tarleton and his Legion exhibited in opposing the Revolutionaries. Each side engaged in over-the-top propaganda to rally the populace to their side. From this start, historians have depicted the British Major as “Bloody Ban.” Popular culture further cements this negative character through Nazi-like atrocities in the film The Patriot starring Mel Gibson. Knight conclusively proves that nothing occurred like the film’s church burning and that Tarleton acted as a professional soldier while campaigning in America.
The book’s second focus is on the British Legion, a unit of American Loyalists fighting under Tarleton’s leadership. Consisting of mounted cavalry and infantry soldiers, the Legion was one of the most effective formations on either side. The American story of Loyalism is recounted, and Knight provides a fulsome narrative. Poignantly, he describes the Legion’s post-war tribulations and exile.
While many strengths invite readers, Knight’s portrayals of secondary figures do not always represent the latest scholarship. For example, in describing Rebel Maj. Gen. Charles Lee cites biographies written by Edward Langworthy and Henry Bunbury. Lee’s later biographers have shown these works to be flawed. Despite this minor quibble, the main story is compelling and one that readers on both sides of the Atlantic will find new insights. I highly recommend War at Saber Point to both casual and professional readers of the American Revolution. It is a refreshing contrast from books written from American perspectives and avoids re-telling false but fabled characterizations of a talented military officer.