tarleton helmet

Ban's Banner - the Mystery of the Tarleton Portrait and the British Legion's Flags

If there’s one thing that’s always puzzled and perplexed historians studying Tarleton, it’s the nature and identity of the flag seen flying behind him in his famous Joshua Reynolds portrait of 1782. This feeds into a larger debate on whether the British Legion carried flags, and if so what did they look like?

The latter question is relatively easy to answer. Records show the Legion didn’t possess regimental colours like a British Army line regiment. As light troops flags would have been an unnecessary encumbrance, and considering many line regiment even left their colours in storage on campaign, the likelyhood of the Legion carrying flags is nil. However, matters are more ambiguous concerning the mounted dragoon wing of the unit. Cavalry outfits commonly carried small flags called guidons, The 17th Light Dragoons, attached to the Legion, would certainly have had them, and it seems reasonable to assume the Legion cavalry would have possessed a few. Whether they were actually carried into combat we cannot know, but their existence is at least plausible. 

But what would the flags of Tarleton’s Legion have looked like? There is a single flag in Reynold’s famous painting of Tarleton fluttering proudly behind the Green Dragoon. Whilst the design is indistinct and faded, enhancements reveal three definite features - a stylized “L” with a laurel wreath, surmounted by a crown, and with an eagle in the upper flagstaff quadrant. I’ve removed the colour from the rest of the flag to bring these features into focus.

Traditionally, historians have claimed the flag (like the ones he’s standing on in the painting) are “stock images” used by Reynolds, generic emblems of heroism and glory that don’t actually bear any particular significance. Such a view seems plausible, and is the one backed by most art students and critics. However, it is interesting to note that flags, stock or otherwise, don’t appear in a single other Reynolds portrait, not even the dozens of military ones. Billowing, black smoke clouds are a common background feature, but generic flags? Never.

Even more interesting are the flag’s symbols. They have baffled those attempting to identify them - the “L” could obviously stand for “Legion,” but the British Legion weren’t the only “Legion” in the Crown’s service, and likewise there were numerous Patriot “Legions.” The L alone hardly seems like a good, distinctive signifier for Tarleton’s corps. 

Some historians propose that the flag represents a captured banner once belonging to Lauzan’s Legion, an American force that Tarleton clashed with on several occasions. They say this idea is reinforced by the eagle’s presence - an American symbol if ever there was one. But such a hypothesis seems to have been shot out of the water when considering that the “L” is surmounted by an, admittedly indistinct, crown (other prints of the painting show it more clearly). Such an emblem would have been the last one to adorn revolutionary, republican banners.

Which brings us back to the eagle. I’ve been wondering to what extent it really was an solely revolutionary symbol. As an emblem of the USA it didn’t appear until 1782, however there were a few uses of it in America beforehand, such as its adoption on the seal of New York in 1778. The print below, from the early 1790s, shows a eagle that is stylistically almost identical to the one on Tarleton’s flag.

And which unit was raised, in New York, in 1778? The British Legion.

Could it be possible that the eagle was used by the British Legion when it was considered to be a general American symbol, and not one yet monopolized by the revolutionaries (bearing in mind the Legion was made up purely of American loyalists)? 

Let’s return to the painting. Tarleton stands atop a number of captured flags. They definitely appear to be American - one has stripes reminiscent of the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons guidon captured by Tarleton. So if the one flying proudly behind him is just another prize, why its prominent position and distinguishing features? There’s another interesting matter. Behind Tarleton is a British Legion trooper. Note that his uniform, correctly, doesn’t include gold lace or a feathered addition to his helmet, unlike Tarleton’s. Presumably Reynolds would have asked for clarity on these matters before painting him. It’s hardly a stretch of the imagination to believe he could also have asked Tarleton, with whom he’d have had hours of contact, for details on his Legion’s flag. 

For me, the clincher comes back to the mysterious, seemingly too-nondescript “L.” We’ve always assumed, due to lack of evidence, that the Legion bore the generic Loyalist crest of “RP” for “Royal Provincials” on their buttons and saddle cloths. However, archaeological digs at Gloucester Point, a former Legion encampment, have unearthed a number of artifacts, including a cap badge - a stylized “L” identical to the one seen on the flag in Tarleton’s portrait. 

As we’ve mentioned, there were multiple “Legions” on both sides, however in terms of Crown forces the British Legion was by far the most active, far-riding and recognizable. They were, for many, THE Legion, regardless of the existence of others. The lone “L” seems to support this idea. Personally, I feel there’s enough evidence to suggest that the flag in the Reynolds portrait isn’t a generic banner or a captured colour, but is correctly representative of the Legion cavalry’s guidons. Dare I say it? Case closed!