Robert D. Bass:
The Green Dragoon

review by Holley Calmes

Holley, Ban and Bandit

Holley (pictured right with Ban and Bandit):

I recently had the pleasure of touring a Revolutionary War battlefield in Pennsylvania. The Visitors' Center had a nice exhibition hosted by a knowledgeable young man, a park employee. As we talked, he showed great respect for Pat Ferguson, and indeed the museum had a reproduction Ferguson rifle on display. However, when I mentioned that another one of my favorite characters was Banastre Tarleton, a look of revulsion crossed the young man's face. "I hate him!" he said with passion. "Why?" I asked. "Besides the fact that Tarleton was ruthless, that portrait of him is so arrogant it makes me mad!" was the young man's reply.

I explained that, first, Tarleton didn't commit any more atrocities than Patriots William Washington or William Campbell. And second, the pose was dictated by the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, planned largely to hide Tarleton's right hand which was missing two fingers. The only response I got from the park employee was satisfaction that such a revolting man had suffered a disfiguring wound.

Why does Tarleton evoke such strong feelings in so many students of the Revolutionary War, particularly on the Patriot side? And it is that Reynolds' portrait which disturbs many; e.g. Dr. John Buchanan, whose The Road to Guilford Courthouse, reflects an almost hysterical dislike of Tarleton, dwelling on the portrait. Some people find Tarleton's 'arrogance' (or was it simply youthful panache?) something to be hated. The fact that Tarleton was unusually successful in his military career doesn't help, either.

Tarleton is the subject of so much Patriot propaganda that he is remembered for the myth and the atrocities, alleged and real. There is much more to the man than that, and the best place to find a glimpse of this entertaining personality is in his only biography, Robert D. Bass' The Green Dragoon.

Dr. Bass was Professor of History, English and Government at Annapolis. His other Revolutionary War histories include one of Francis Marion and one of Fort Ninety-Six. After completing the manuscript for Green Dragoon in 1956, he "turned up" Sir Banastre's personal papers, untouched since the General's death in 1833. (I would sincerely like to know how that happened!) So Bass started over, completing a book which would eventually reach 454 pages of text in exhausting detail. It became a joint history of Tarleton and of his mistress of 15 years, the actress/poet/novelist Mary Robinson. If Tarleton ever had a competitor for colorful behavior, it was Mary.

It is not an easy read. It bogs down in the wartime letters and dispatches, many of which revolve around Tarleton's family refusing to pay his gambling debts. This slows down the war narrative, but it is certainly thorough. There are many colorful parts, and I always want to jump ahead to them. This is a mistake. Although it is often laborious reading, Green Dragoon is a worthy history of the Revolution in the South particularly.

Green Dragoon begins with a breathless description of Tarleton breaking a wild black stallion. This episode presumably happened in North Carolina as witnessed by a Loyalist remembering it from his youth. It was taken from an 1861 biography of Andrew Jackson (now there was a ruthless man!). It is perhaps the only fragment of the book I doubt. Written in adulation, Tarleton comes across as a British Fabio [cover-boy on US paperback bodice-rippers] complete with firebreathing steed, "immense spurs", and enough chutzpah for the whole British Army. It is a lot of fun, though. This first chapter, a swashbuckling introduction, introduces the reader to the main subject through the campaign and surrender at Yorktown.

From there Bass takes us back into Banastre's childhood and rakish youth. He alternates chapters of Tarleton's progress through the Revolutionary War with that of Mary Robinson who was "born into a life of tempest and tears". And so the chapters are intertwined until at last Ban and Mary are intertwined literally - in a 15-year romance which sees them cavort about London, Paris, Germany. Gambling, fighting, breaking up - until she published such passionate poetry intended for him that he can't help but come back to her. Why hasn't there been a movie made about these two?

Read Green Dragoon and you'll find that Butcher Tarleton was also many, many other things. For one, he was a true jock, a noted athlete at Oxford, a feared swordsman and horseman during the war. After his return to England he made preposterous bets on accomplishing physical deeds. For example, he bet that he could run 100 yards with another person on his back faster than someone else could trot their favorite horse twice the distance. He raced his own small stable of horses and became a professional gambler for a time. His once enemy turned friend, the Duc du Lauzun, shared Mary Robinson with him briefly. The Duc and Tarleton were both present at a dinner for 12 in Paris the moment that Princess Lamballe's head was carried beneath their windows. Within a year, Tarleton was the only one of the 12 left alive. He and Mary escaped France one day before the revolutionary authorities issued an edict to arrest all Englishmen in France. He later befriended wartime opponents Lafayette and Kosciusko. Tarleton arranged for the Polish hero to be presented with a ceremonial sword during a trip to England.

The 'Butcher of the Carolinas' was pretty soft sometimes. After Mary Robinson lost the use of her legs following her tragic miscarriage, Tarleton would carry her to and from her box at the theater in his arms. It was the talk of London. And anyone who can read the delightful letter he wrote his sister Bridget (p. 172) and not take a shine to the boy has absolutely no heart. Especially since this was written immediately after he lost the 2 fingers at Guilford Courthouse.

These little nuggets of characterization are sprinkled throughout Green Dragoon, making it possible to find real people beneath the barrage of facts. In fact, Mrs. Robinson's tumultuous life and later fame as a writer are every bit as engrossing as Tarleton's. She was a friend to William Taylor Coleridge and Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary wrote a feminist tract titled Thoughts on the Condition of Women and on the Injustice of Mental Subordination. Yet she was also a friend of Marie Antoinette, bringing Paris fashions back to a scandalized London. In all, Ban and Mary were a pair made in romance novel heaven. Had there been Prozac in the 18th century, these two might have continued their affair until the end of her fragile life. However, at last they parted. Tarleton went on to better things. Those who already despise him will hate him even more to know that he straightened out his gambling addiction, married a pretty heiress 22 years his junior, became a General and a Knight of the Bath, lived as a country squire in one of Shropshire's most luscious villages, and died in his own bed of old age at 78.

Tarleton and Mary Robinson were certainly not perfect, but it is often their flaws which make them so interesting. Reading Green Dragoon, one realizes that as well as being, possibly, a fiend, Tarleton was also a witty, rascally character. Mary was a member of the demimonde, but she was also smart as a whip.

Tarleton has been an intellectual pal of mine for some time. I must say he only improves with age - thanks to Bass. I like to visit Tarleton and to continually re-experience this colorful person by mining the pages of Green Dragoon. It isn't a perfect book. It drags sometimes and offers '50s euphemisms for some of the basic human experiences. It waxes embarrassingly sweet when it tries to convey what these two people were thinking and feeling. But we do get a broad, thorough and very human picture of two extraordinary people who reflected Revolutionary and Regency times with spirit and stupidity, brilliance and pathos.

I am hoping that some day someone else will rediscover Tarleton's extremely marketable personality and deliver the goods on him again. If this mythical author does appear, they need only stick to the facts unearthed by Bass - which are much more engrossing than fiction.

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