On May 29, 1780, Tarleton caught up with Buford in the Waxhaws, at a crossroads in what is now Buford, South Carolina. Governor Rutledge, alerted to Tarleton's advance, had already separated from Buford's detachment.
While waiting for his reserves to move up, Tarleton sent Captain David Kinlock forward to the rebel column, carrying a white flag, to demand Buford's surrender. In his message, Tarleton hugely exaggerated the size of his force—claiming he had 700 men—hoping to sway Buford's decision. The note also stated firmly to Buford, "Resistance being vain, to prevent the effusion of human blood, I make offers which can never be repeated", indicating that Tarleton would ask only once for Buford to surrender. Buford refused to surrender with the message: "I reject your proposals, and shall defend myself to the last extremity."
Despite this, Buford made the unwise decision to keep marching rather than prepare for battle. Tarleton's bugler sounded the charge, and the entire loyalist force set upon Buford's column. When Tarleton's attack came, Buford waited until the enemy was within ten yards to give the order to fire. This had minimal effect on the charging cavalry and resulted in a rout of the Virginians, since they had no time to reload their firearms. As Tarleton's cavalrymen tore Buford's column to pieces, many of the Americans began laying down their arms and surrendering.
What happened next is the subject of much debate. According to a Patriot eyewitness, a field surgeon named Robert Brownfield, Col. Buford raised a white flag of surrender, "expecting the usual treatment sanctioned by civilized warfare". While Buford was calling for quarter, Tarleton's horse was struck by a musket ball and fell. This gave the loyalist cavalrymen the impression that the rebels had shot at their commander while asking for mercy. Enraged, the loyalist troops charged at the Virginians. According to Brownfield, the loyalists attacked, carrying out "indiscriminate carnage...