Saturday, May 29, 2010

TODAY IN HISTORY: Tarleton Gives "Quarter: & Fremont Heads West

On this day in 1780, the treatment of Patriot prisoners by British Colonel Banastre Tarleton and his Loyalist troops leads to the coining of a phrase that comes to define British brutality for the rest of the War for Independence: "Tarleton's Quarter."

After the surrender of Charleston on May 12, the 3rd Virginia, commanded by Colonel Abraham Buford, was virtually the only organized Patriot formation remaining in South Carolina; British Colonel Banastre Tarleton had been given the mission to destroy any colonial resistance in the state. At Waxhaws on the North Carolina border, a cavalry charge by Tarleton's men broke the 350 remaining Patriots under Buford. Tarleton and his Tories proceeded to shoot at the Patriots after their surrender, a move that spawned the term "Tarleton's Quarter," which in the eyes of the Patriots meant a brutal death at the hands of a cowardly foe. The Continentals lost 113 killed and 203 captured in the Battle of Waxhaws; British losses totaled 19 men and 31 horses killed or wounded. Although they were routed, the loss became a propaganda victory for the Continentals: wavering Carolina civilians terrified of Tarleton and their Loyalist neighbors were now prepared to rally to the Patriot cause.

Under the leadership of Thomas Sumter, the Patriot militia quickly returned the terror in kind with their own brutal raids on Carolina loyalists. Carolinians went on to fight a bloody civil war in which they killed their own with far greater efficacy than any outsider sent to assist them.


John C. Fremont again departs from St. Louis to explore the West, having only recently returned from his first western expedition.

The son of a French father and American mother, Fremont had an unstable and nomadic childhood, and money troubles often plagued his family. He was kicked out of the College of Charleston for "consorting with a mulatto wench." As a young man, he showed an aptitude for mathematics and surveying, and in 1838, he won a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers. In 1842, he received an assignment to make a survey of the Platte River, and set out with 24 companions, including the famous guide Kit Carson. During five months of travel, Fremont crossed the South Pass in central Wyoming and explored the Wind River Mountains.

Scarcely before he had time to recover from his first expedition, Fremont was preparing to depart on his second. On this day in 1843, Fremont left St. Louis on a much more ambitious journey to explore the Oregon country. In Colorado the party met up with Carson, who had again agreed to serve as a guide. On September 6, the Fremont caught site of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, "stretching in still and solitary grandeur far beyond the limits of our vision." By early November, they arrived at Fort Vancouver, across the Columbia River from the present-day site of Portland.

Having surveyed the Oregon country, Fremont's orders were to return east via the Oregon Trail. Fremont, however, apparently decided this would be an inadequately grand approach, and decided instead to head south and cross the Sierra Nevada in the middle of the winter. The journey was awful and nearly disastrous. Fremont and his men struggled with the deep snow and bitter cold; they often got lost and ate their horses to survive. Thanks to the skill of Carson and amazing good luck with the weather, the expedition eventually emerged from the mountains and limped into Sutter's Fort on March 6, 1844. After resting for three weeks, they returned east by a route that took them through the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains of Utah.

With the help of his wife, Jessie, Fremont wrote a detailed account of his western adventures. The report made some notable errors. Fremont foolishly identified the country around the Great Salt Lake as fertile-a mistake that contributed to the Mormons decision to migrate to the area. However, Fremont's account did provide the first comprehensive scientific survey of vast areas of the West.

Fremont went on to lead two other successful expeditions to the West. His reports of these and his earlier journeys made him a national hero and he later went into politics. He lived into his early 70s, but the four western journeys he made before he was 40 remained his greatest achievements.

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