Of all the loyalists who fought in the War of the American Revolution none were more famous in their day than those who formed the British Legion, generally known as Tarleton’s Legion. By all accounts, British and American, this was the best led, the most enduring, the most dashing, the most relentless, and on the whole the most successful of the Loyalist regiments, and for all these reasons it was the one most feared and hated by rebels. To this day in the Carolinas and Virginia the exploits of Tarleton’s Legion are folklore, and American histories still devote much invective to the memory of that celebrated corps: yet here in Nova Scotia, where the surviving remnant of Tarleton’s Legion came and settled after the war, and where many of their descendants remain, their story has dropped almost into oblivion.
Now the story of British arms in the War of the American Revolution is not an edifying one. In general it is a story of blundering and ineptitude – a war of lost opportunities, as the Loyalists always maintained – but at least one chapter of it will shine forever as an example of British military skill, courage and endurance in the face of great odds. That is the story of Cornwallis and his gallant little army in the South. Tarleton’s Legion formed part of that army – was in fact its spearhead in every attack, the rearguard in every retreat, and throughout the campaign the eyes and ears of Cornwallis himself.
The history of Tarleton’s Legion begins in the gloomy summer of 1778. The great British campaign in the north, so grandly conceived, so miserably executed, had ended the previous autumn in the surrender of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga. France, after long supplying the rebels with arms and stores in secret, had come into the open and declared war. There was every prospect that Spain would follow suit, as indeed she did.
The Legion transports arrived at Shelburne with the rest of the troops, mostly regulars, consigned to that place, on or after September 23rd. At Shelburne they found a desperate situation, a raw-new town in the edge of the forest, swarming with 10,000 refugees, most of them still without a decent roof over their heads, and all clamoring for the attention of the commissaries and surveyors. The weather had turned cold, and there was a Nova Scotia winter to be faced. As a temporary refuge Shelburne offered little to the late-coming troops. As a permanent location it was impossible, because the best of the land had been taken up months before by the refugee civilians; indeed, the government surveyors, Marston and Morris, at their wits’ end to find space for the growing mob of claimants, had adopted the desperate expedient of laying out “farms” in the wilderness along a projected road across country to Annapolis.
Faced with a choice of evils, some of Tarleton’s Legion disembarked at Shelburne, and in the following summer we find 24 of them, with 15 women and children, included in General Campbell’s muster of the Shelburne settlers. But the rest of the corps sought something better, a place of their own, where they could settle as a group and stick together in peace as they had in war. On October 5th and 6th, the government surveyors, Marston and Morris, dined together aboard H.M.S. Cyclops in Shelburne harbor, and on the 7th Morris set out in a boat for Port Mouton, 40 miles to the eastward. They or some higher authority had made a wild decision. Tarleton’s Legion was to be alloted lands at Port Mouton and to be dumped ashore there forthwith, men, women and children, to get themselves housed as best they could.
The remnant of the corps followed close on Morris’ heels; for on October 10th, 1783, we find Simeon Perkins of Liverpool recording in his diary, “A ship with part of the English Legion is arrived at Port Mutton.”
- The description above is excerpted from a paper by Thomas H. Raddall in the late 1940s, and published in the Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society in 1949. The paper is primarily about the Guysboro settlement at Port Mouton, not about the Legion during the war. As a result the unit’s description is probably somewhat exaggerated. With all of the research which has been done since the 1940’s and based on his own experience and research, Gavin Watt notes “it was an accomplished unit – although it ‘enjoyed’ a terrible reputation for brutality – but its military record was a long way off from that of the Queen’s Rangers for example, which was probably the very best unit in the British Army during the war.
- The story of Tarleton’s Legion during the war, and its disbursement, settlement and subsequent trials is described in a paper written by Thomas H. Raddall in the late 1940s, and published in the Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society in 1949. It remains, by far, the most comprehensive research document concerning the Guysboro settlement at Port Mouton. The electronic version was created by the Mersey Heritage Society in 2001 for posting on the Society’s web site, with the kind permission of Dalhousie University. To read the paper along with several appendices listing the officers and men etc., visit http://www.mersey.ca/tarletonslegion.html.
- More documents at The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies: Loyalist Regiments
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