My Favorite Maniac: Banastre Tarleton

Anyone who has ever been to any museum at all knows that even if for some reason you want to see everything, read every little plaque about every piece of fiber that was maybe used to make an old tunic or veil, you will never succeed. You will starve to death because the security guard took your snacks and the museum cafe is criminally overpriced, or you will collapse from exhaustion while trying to pretend you are still interested in rocks. That being said, on a recent pretentious cultural trip to the National Museum of American History (part of the intimidating Smithsonian Institution), I didn’t get to see everything. However, I was able to tour an impressive exhibit called “Americans at War,” which of course included very in-depth coverage of the Revolutionary War (or, as the redcoats call it, “The American War of Independence”).

My favorite feature of these types of exhibits is the inclusion of relevant quotes from journals and letters of the time, so I was delighted to find the following slippery observation on the deplorable conditions of war camps from American physician and soldier, James Tilton:

Tilton. Ascot: Express, $179

“All matter of excrementitious matter was scattered indiscriminately throughout the camp, insomuch that you were offended by a disagreeable smell, almost everywhere without the lines.  A putrid diarrhea was the consequence.  The camp disease as it was called, became proverbial.  Many die melting as it were, and running off at the bowels.  Medicine answered little or no purpose.”

Just like summer camp! But Dr. Tilton is not the historical figure on which I’d like to focus. I would now like to turn the spotlight on my new favorite maniac. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my deviant pleasure to introduce to you 1st Baronet, Knight Grand Cross, Commandant of the British Legion,  Sir Banastre Tarleton.

It was traditional for a man of valor to purse his lips while posing for a portrait, a distinct style known as "duckface."

From Genghis Khan to David Petraeus, the annals of history are thoroughly populated by the legacies of great military figures. We’ve all heard some permutation of the tale of the fearless general who valiantly lead his troops to victory, glory, and probably dysentery. In addition to the contents of his bowels, he most likely lost an entire appendage, such as a pinky or a nose, yet was still able to turn the tide of war with the respect and authority commanded by his station. These are more than mere mortal men driven by love for king, country, comrade, or even three square meals a day. They are figures of destiny, woven from a fabric of pure fate into a muffler of the highest ethereal quality.

The praises sung of Tarleton the Legendary Liverpudlian are an eternal ballad, and it’s inevitable that I should make a fool out of myself in any attempt to do his reputation justice. Therefore, I think the prudent course of action is to let him speak for himself. Placed just below the above portrait of Tarleton at the NMAH is a plaque bearing an excerpt from one of his letters to General Cornwallis, written in his signature aloof voice:

"My Lord--I am extremely fatigued with overtaking the enemy and beating them--I summoned the Corps--they refused my terms--I have cut 170 officers and men to pieces--"

Surely a man in tights has never sounded so fierce. Most unsettling about Colonel Tarleton is the way in which he discusses brutal acts of war in such a dry, detached manner; his letters convey the feeling that the gruesome murder of many a man by musket and saber is nothing more than a messy nuisance.

Despite a lack of excessive means or weighty connections, Tarleton advanced quickly in the King’s army, proving himself through victory and various acts of cruelty; one account tells of Tarleton making himself comfortable in the home of a dead American general, forcing the widow to serve him a meal just before ordering the exhumation of her husband’s corpse.

A mature Tarleton, performing "Guess Which Finger I'm Holding Up," a favorite jest at Court.

He would later move from military conquest to political punditry, eventually becoming Member of Parliament for Liverpool, where he enjoyed aggressively promoting the slave trade and enthusiastically mocking abolitionists until succumbing to natural causes in 1833, about 170 years before being loosely portrayed by Lucius Malfoy in the Mel Gibson period piece, The Patriot. The world may have lost a soldier-gentleman of unrivaled bravery and untold grace, and Tarleton himself may have lost two fingers to a musket ball, but he is still able to tweet.

It is said that some people are born to lead. While I can neither confirm nor deny this theory, I think it is at least true that some people are born as complete sociopaths who find acceptance and encouragement of their bizarre and inappropriate behavior in the one place they can: the military. See you on the other side, Ban.

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