The Battle of Waxhaws and Buford’s Massacre

May 19, 1780

The Battle of Waxhaws, also known as Buford’s Massacre, ended with British forces under the command of Banastre Tarleton being accused of killing American troops after they tried to surrender. The incident rallied American opposition in the backcountry, leading to the mobilization of the Overmountain Men.

Banastrae Tarleton, Portrait, Reynolds

Banastre Tarleton. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Summary of the Battle of Waxhaws and Buford’s Massacre

The Battle of Waxhaws — also known as Buford’s Massacre — was fought between the United States and Great Britain on May 29, 1780, in the Waxhaws Region near present-day Buford, South Carolina. British forces, led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton won a decisive victory over a continent of Continentals from Virginia, under the command of Colonel Abraham Buford. Buford and his men were on their way to Charleston, which was under siege by British forces. Before Buford arrived, General Benjamin Lincoln was forced to surrender the city. As a result, Buford was ordered to return to North Carolina. He was joined by troops who escaped from Charleston and started the march north. General Charles Cornwallis sent Tarleton after Buford. On May 29, Tarleton caught up with Buford in the Waxhaws Region. The accounts of the battle are generally contradictory. What is known is the fight was short, fast, and bloody. According to some American accounts, Buford tried to surrender, but Tarleton ignored him and showed no mercy, or “no quarter.” The British unleashed a brutal attack, which ended in the brutal deaths of more than 110 Americans. In the aftermath of the British victory, militia forces collectively referred to as the Overmountain Men gathered in present-day Tennessee and American forces shouted the battle cries of, “Remember Tarleton’s Quarter!” and “Remember Waxhaws!” The brutal tactics at Waxhaws enhanced Tarleton’s reputation, contributing to his nickname, “Bloody Ban.” 

Battle of Waxhaws and Buford’s Massacre Facts

  • Date Started: The Battle of Waxhaws was fought on Monday, May 29, 1780.
  • Date Ended: The battle ended on May 29, 1780.
  • Location: It was fought in the Waxhaws Region, near present-day Buford, South Carolina.
  • Theater: The battle was part of the Southern Theater of the American Revolutionary War.
  • Campaign: It was part of the Southern Campaign of 1780.
  • Who Won: Great Britain won the Battle of Waxhaws.
  • Also Known As: The Battle of Waxhaws is also known as “Buford’s Massacre,” and “Waxhaws Massacre.”.
  • Fun Fact: Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, lived in the Waxhaws Region. After the battle, he joined the war effort — he was just 13 years old at the time.
Battle of Waxhaws, 1780, Illustration
This illustration depicts the brutal attack at the Battle of Waxhaws. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

History of the Battle of Waxhaws and Buford’s Massacre

Prior to the Battle of Waxhaws, Colonel Abraham Buford and his men were on their way to Charleston to help defend the city, which was under siege by British forces. Unfortunately, Buford was delayed, apparently due in large part to the inexperience of his officers and men. Buford’s contingent was known as the 3rd Virginia Detachment and was made up of two companies of the 2nd Virginia Regiment, 40 Virginia Light Dragoons — cavalry — and an artillery detachment with two six-pound cannons.

Siege of Charleston

Buford was under orders from General Benjamin Lincoln to take a defensive position outside of Charleston, at Lenaud’s Ferry. However, while Buford was on the march, Lincoln was forced to surrender the city to the British and General Henry Clinton on May 12. In the surrender, more than 5,000 American troops were captured, including Lincoln, William Moultrie, Charles C. Pinckney, William Woodford, and Abraham Whipple.

When Buford arrived near Charleston, he was joined by cavalry and militia forces that escaped the city. One of the men who joined him was South Carolina Governor John Rutledge. Responding to orders from General Isaac Huger, Buford left the Charleston area and started to march north to North Carolina.

General Benjamin Lincoln, Illustration
Benjamin Lincoln. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Cornwallis Takes Control in the Southern Theater

After the British took control of Charleston, Clinton placed General Charles Cornwallis in charge of the Southern Army and returned to New York City. Clinton left Cornwallis with orders to bring the southern states under British control. Preparing to bring the South Carolina backcountry under control and establish outposts, Cornwallis marched out of Charleston on May 18 and marched in the direction of Camden.

Cornwallis Sends Tarleton After Buford

During the march, Loyalists informed Cornwallis they had seen Rutledge and he was escaping to North Carolina with Buford’s contingent. However, Buford was a week to 10 days ahead of Cornwallis. Initially, Cornwallis tried to chase after Buford but quickly realized his army was too large and could not move fast enough to close the gap. The following day, Cornwallis sent Tarleton in pursuit of Buford. Tarleton had 270 British dragoons, Loyalist cavalry, and British mounted infantry under his command. Tarleton’s force quickly closed in on Buford, covering approximately 100 miles in just over 2 days.

Tarleton Closes in on Buford

The next day, May 28, Buford found out Tarleton was after him. Near Camden, he stopped and sent Rutledge with a small contingent of men to Hillsboro. Buford then prepared to confront Tarleton.

On the 29th, Tarleton was only 20 miles away from Buford. In an effort to capture the Americans without a battle, Tarleton sent a message to Buford, demanding his surrender. Buford refused the demand, and sent a message back to Tarleton that said, “Sir, I reject your proposals, and shall defend myself to the last extremity.” When the message was on its way to Buford, Tarleton continued to march toward him, which was considered to be a violation of the rules of war at the time.

The Battle of Waxhaws Begins

That afternoon, around 3:00, Tarleton and his men caught up with the rear guard of Buford’s column. They were in the Waxhaws District, along the border of South Carolina and North Carolina. The British attacked and, according to accounts of the incident, brutally attacked the Americans with their swords. Some of the Americans were “inhumanely mangled” even after they were already wounded and could not continue to fight.

Buford stopped the main force, turned it around, and prepared to meet Tarleton and his men. The British organized their ranks into three columns and charged the American positions. 

Buford ordered his men to hold their fire until the enemy was within 30 feet. However, it turned out to be a significant mistake on Buford’s part. The shots were at such close range that they had little effect on the oncoming attack. Since most of the men in Tarleton’s force were on horses, they quickly overwhelmed and routed the Americans. However, Tarleton’s horse was shot and killed. When it fell, he was pinned under it.

Chaos on the Waxhaws Battlefield

At that point, the situation turned to complete chaos. American survivors insisted Buford sent a white flag as a sign of surrender, but the British continued their attack. However, seeing their commanding officer lying on the ground, under his horse, Tarleton’s men may have thought he had been killed.

Buford’s Massacre

American accounts of the battle insist the British ignored the attempt to surrender and the Americans were given “no quarter” — no pity or mercy. British accounts report that anyone who was wounded was treated humanely and with fairness. More than 110 Americans were killed in the fight, while only 5 British died. It was a substantial British victory and cemented Tarleton’s reputation for brutality. From then on, American forces in the Southern Theater were known to use the phrase “Remember Waxhaws!” 

The Battle of Waxhaws Ends and the Overmountain Men Mobilize

Buford was fortunate enough to escape on horseback and reported the incident to his superiors. 

When news of the Battle of Waxhaws spread, along with the rumors that Tarleton had ignored the surrender, militia forces in the western regions in areas around Watauga and Sycamore Shoals prepared to confront the British. Those militia forces, known as the Overmountain Men, went on to play a key role in the Battle of Kings Mountain in October 1780, which helped turn the tide of the war.

This painting depicts American forces, including the Overmountain Men, attacking during the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Significance of the Battle of Waxhaws

The Battle of Waxhaws is important to United States history because it led to increased hated and resistance to British forces throughout the South Carolina backcountry and as far west as present-day Tennessee. The militia forces in those areas gathered together later in the fall of 1780 and struck a decisive blow for American Cause with a significant victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Battle of Waxhaws and Buford’s Massacre
  • Date May 19, 1780
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Waxhaws, Buford's Massacre, Southern Campaign, Abraham Buford, Banastre Tarleton, Siege of Charleston
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 21, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 18, 2024