Last time, we left our story at the end of July 1780, with General Horatio Gates having taken command of the southern army in North Carolina, and almost immediately beginning to march south toward the British outpost at Camden in South Carolina.
Cornwallis Moves to Camden
Gates had taken a particularly dangerous route to Camden, through an area that was full of Tories and short on supplies. He did so in hopes of reaching the outpost at Camden, just over the South Carolina border, as quickly as possible.
|De Kalb at Camden|
“Your lordship knows, however, that provincial governors have not been always chosen in our country for the fitness and competence of their talents, and therefore will not be surprised to find me as ignorant as many of my brethren in office, or more so.”
Cornwallis was a military officer, and had little experience as a civilian leader. He was growing frustrated with the pressures of trying to run a colony. So when he got word that General Gates was leading a new Continental Army toward Camden, Cornwallis was more than happy to leave the capital and march out into the field again at the head of a column of British combat veterans.
On August 9, Cornwallis received notice in Charleston that General Gates was at the head of a new Continental Army of 5000 soldiers, plus militia, and that they were marching toward the outpost at Camden. By the following day, Cornwallis had assembled his army and was on the march. Three days later, his force entered Camden, completing a more than 100 mile march.
|Gov. Josiah Martin|
Even after Cornwallis' army arrived in Camden, British forces totaled only about 2200 men, less than half the number that the enemy supposedly had. Only a little over one-third of Cornwallis’ men were British regulars. About 15% of his force was local loyalist militia that was not considered terribly reliable. About half the force under his command were provincial regiments. But these were not militia. They were battle-hardened loyalists who had fought in many battles and skirmishes. They included Banastre Tarleton’s brigade, and others from the north who had fought in earlier campaigns.
Given the reportedly large force of the enemy, Cornwallis considered retreating with the entire force back to Charleston. He rejected that option pretty quickly though. As he noted in letters to Lord Germain, a retreat would have required him to abandon a large amount of stores, and probably about 800 sick and invalid soldiers who were convalescing at Camden. Further, if the British simply retreated back to Charleston, and gave the rebels control of all the outposts in South Carolina, they would never be able to convince the population to accept British rule. If the British did not succeed in battle, they still had a good line of retreat back to Charleston. Considering all this, Cornwallis opted to stay and fight.
Over the next couple of days, Cornwallis attempted to gain intelligence about the enemy force. He sent a local Tory to the American camp, pretending to be a local patriot who was originally from Maryland. The spy even managed to get a meeting with General Gates, at which he offered to spy for the Americans. This, of course, was a ruse. The spy collected as much information as he could about the patriot forces, then returned to Cornwallis under the pretext of going to spy for the Americans and told Cornwallis everything he had learned.
Cornwallis also sent out Tarleton’s cavalry to engage in reconnaissance. Tarleton captured several American sentries, whom he and his men interrogated in their usual rough fashion. The intelligence confirmed that the Americans probably had close to 5000 soldiers, plus another 1500 or so Virginia militia that were expected to join the enemy very soon.
Despite being heavily outnumbered, Cornwallis determined that he would engage the enemy. On the night of August 15, he began a night march to the north of Camden, hoping to surprise the Conitnentals.
The Southern Army
Meanwhile, General Gates made plans of his own to attack the British. Cornwallis’ estimate of American troop strength was a little high. But what Cornwallis didn’t know, or at least what he did not write in his reports, was that the condition of the American Army was pretty miserable. Gates had set out on his march into South Carolina with about 2000 soldiers. During the march he merged with General Caswell's Carolina militia, doubling the total size of the army.
Gates, however, did not keep his whole army together. He sent off Colonel Francis Marion’s South Carolina militia, along with a third of his field artillery, to assist in Sumter with the capture of some British supply wagons.
More perplexing, Gates left behind the cavalry under Colonel William Washington before he even began his march. Without the cavalry, the army had no one who could scout and gather intelligence. Perhaps Gates believed that Colonel Washington would retain loyalty to his distant kinsman General George Washington, and therefore wanted to prevent any potential political rivals from playing any role in the success of the battle.
This was similar to Gates’ attempts to sideline Arnold during the Saratoga campaign. But Colonel Washington was no Arnold. He did not ignore Gates and ride out anyway. He followed orders and remained behind in North Carolina. Gates’ mounted troops on the campaign would be limited to 60 dragoons led by Colonel Charles Armand, a French officer who had joined the Continental Army.
Since he had caught up with the army in late July, Gates had never done a proper review of his army. He just relied on estimates from subordinates. He thought he had an army of close to seven thousand men under his command. On the eve of battle, Continental Colonel Otho Williams performed his own count of the men available for battle.
Williams was a Continental officer in command of the Maryland line. He had joined the war back in 1776 as a lieutenant at the siege of Boston. Within a few weeks as the regiment grew and was incorporated into the Continental Army, Williams quickly rose to the rank of major. By the end of the year, Congress promoted him to colonel. However, Williams did not receive news of the promotion until after he had been taken prisoner at Fort Washington in New York. He spent more than a year as a prisoner of war, until he could be exchanged in 1778, after Saratoga.
So Williams was an experienced officer. His report that the army had just over 3000 men, did not seem to phase Gates. The general still believed that he was facing only the Camden Garrison under Lord Rawdon, which had only around 1000 men. Gates’ response to learning he had only 3000 men was that it would be enough for his purposes.
Another issue was that the men were still in terrible condition. They had marched more than 100 miles on starvation rations and without enough water. The men were starving and exhausted. To give them some energy, they received a meal that consisted of improperly cooked bread, fresh beef, and molasses mixed into a mush. The result was that most of the army got a terrible case of the runs. Men had to drop out of ranks throughout the night march before the battle to deal with terrible cases of diarrhea.
Even so, Gates planned to go ahead with the march south toward Camden. He issued orders on August 15 that the army would march at 10:00 PM, the same time General Cornwallis was marching north from Camden in search of the enemy.
Contact with the Enemy
At about 2:00 AM, Tarleton’s battalion, which was leading the British column, ran into Armand’s dragoons, at the lead of the American column. The surprised and outnumbered American horseman began to retreat. The British pursued, but halted after running into Virginia infantry that had formed a defensive line.
Both armies were now aware of the presence of the other. They backed off and waited until dawn for further action. Both sides had taken a few prisoners, from which they hoped to gain intelligence about the enemy. The Americans learned from British prisoners that Cornwallis had 3000 regulars ready to attack only a few hundred yards in front of them. While this was an overstatement of their numbers, it was the first time the Americans learned that they were facing an army under General Cornwallis, not just a small garrison at Camden under Lord Rawdon.
When Williams reported this news to General Gates, he said “The general’s astonishment could not be concealed.” Gates realized he was no longer leading a surprise raid against a British outpost. He was facing General Cornwallis himself, along with the army he brought from Charleston. Gates called a council of war, informed them that they were facing a much larger army than expected, and asked his officers “Gentlemen, What is best to be done?”
There was a long silence. General de Kalb had commented before the council to some of his fellow officers that retreat was the best option, but he said nothing at the council. General Edward Stevens of the Virginia militia finally said “Gentlemen, is it too late now to do anything but fight?” Without further discussion, the council disbanded and the officers returned to their regiments to prepare for battle.
Gates deployed his army for battle. On the right, he placed his best soldiers, the Continental regiments under General de Kalb. These were the Maryland and Delaware lines that de Kalb had brought south months ago. De Kalb had originally led about 1400 Continentals, but by the night of the battle, disease and desertions had depleted his ranks, and Gates kept the First Maryland Regiment under General Smallwood in reserve, so that there were only about 900 continentals on the front line.
|Battle lines at Camden|
General Gates himself set up command well behind the reserves. As he had at other battles, Gates remained too far from the front lines to see what was happening, and would rely on messengers to inform him of events as they unfolded.
On the British side, Lord Rawdon lined up his loyalist militia on the British left, which would face the American right, the Continentals under de Kalb. In the center, four British artillery pieces threatened to blunt any direct attack. On the British right, facing the militia, Cornwallis deployed the bulk of his army, including most of his regulars and experienced provincials, under the immediate command of Lieutenant Colonel James Webster, a very capable officer who was serving as a general in America.
Swamps covered both sides of the field, preventing either army from attempting any flanking maneuver. The only way forward was a frontal assault.
At dawn, the British marched forward, flags flying and fife and drum corps announcing their approach. The American Colonel Otho Williams rode back to inform General Gates. The American commander gave no orders in reply, but seemed content to await the British attack from the defensive lines hastily set up overnight. Williams, however, suggested an American attack by the Virginia militia before the British could form their lines. Gates, approved saying “Let it be done.” Gates then also ordered the American right under de Kalb to advance forward as well.
|Rawdon Attacks American Right|
As soon as the fleeing Virginians caused the American left flank to evaporate, most of the North Carolina militia who made up the center of the line also turned and ran for their lives. The frightened militia ran past the Continentals who were being held in reserve, and just kept going. Most of the field officers joined the panicked escape. The Commander of the Virginians, General Stevens, later wrote in a letter to Governor Jefferson about the retreat of the Virginia line: “picture it as bad as you possibly can and it will not be as bad as it really is.”
On the American right, however, a very different battle was unfolding. General de Kalb’s Continentals repulsed two enemy assaults, then ordered his own counter-attack with bayonets against the enemy lines. The British retreat was only stemmed by General Cornwallis’ personal arrival, where his calm leadership rallied the troops.
Meanwhile, British Colonel Webster opted not to send his men after the fleeing American militia. Instead, he pivoted his men to the left and struck the remaining Americans who had stayed in the field. His forces first met with the one North Carolina militia regiment that had been deployed next to the Continentals and which had remained in the field. The British regulars plowed into them. This regiment held their ground and fell in brutal hand-to-hand combat with the enemy.
General de Kalb, by this time, had already suffered a battle wound, but continued to press his men forward. He was unaware that the militia had fled the field on the other side of the American line and that he was facing the entire British army with less than a thousand men. He sent word to bring in the Maryland reserves. The Maryland line’s General Smallwood had already fled. But his other officers remained and led the Maryland line into the battle. This slowed the attack of Webster’s regulars.
|De Kalb stands at Camden|
De Kalb finally collapsed on the field as his wounds had weakened him. His Continentals rallied around him to protect their injured commander from being killed. Finally, British cavalry under Colonel Tarleton charged through the last of the American defenders, sending the few survivors fleeing into the swamps. A few dozen men formed a rearguard at the edge of the swamp, buying their comrades a few minutes more to escape.
Cornwallis came across de Kalb in the field, and stopped his men from stripping the badly wounded general of his uniform. Cornwallis told de Kalb “I am sorry, sir, to see you, not sorry that you are vanquished, but sorry to see you so badly wounded.” De Kalb was unable to respond. Cornwallis provided de Kalb taken back to Camden where he received medical care. As far as we know, the general never regained consciousness and died a few days later.
With the Americans defeated, the British then turned toward chasing down those in retreat. The American supply wagons saw the British coming. Many of the teamsters simply cut the lines from their wagons, jumped on the horses and rode away. The small number of American cavalry, then plundered the supply wagons themselves for anything they could carry, then fled with the rest. Female camp followers and their children were left behind with the baggage, which all fell to the tender mercies of Tarleton and his British attackers.
|Tarleton at Camden|
Throughout the battle, no one received any orders from General Gates after his statement to permit the American advance just before the battle began. It’s not clear exactly when after that he decided to flee, but it was some time while the battle was still raging. Gates had been given one of the fastest race horses in America, and he made the most of it.
As he fled that day, Gates came across a company of militia horsemen under the command of William Davie, advancing toward the battle. Gates did not slow down, but shouted to them that they should also run away or be attacked by British dragoons. Before Davie could respond, Gates was already galloping northward and too far away to hear them. A short time later, Davie came across militia general Isaac Huger who asked him how far he should go in following Gates’ last orders. Davie responded, “just as far as you please, for you will never see him again.”
By the end of the day, Gates was 60 miles from the battlefield in Charlotte. Three days later, he was 180 miles away in Hillsborough, where he stopped long enough to write a report for Congress, explaining how he had attempted to rally the militia, but gave up after the Continental line fell. Clearly contrary to all other witness statements, Gates had no idea what happened on the battlefield. Gates did not remain in Hillsborough for long. He kept pushing his horse northward into Virginia, abandoning whatever remained of the southern army to fend for itself.
The American loss at Camden left the Americans with the loss of a second southern army, the British firmly in control of South Carolina, and also ended the career of General Gates.
Next time, American militia forces in the south attempt to keep the war alive without support from the Continentals.
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The Battle of Camden: https://www.carolana.com/SC/Revolution/revolution_battle_of_camden.html
Battle of Camden: https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1780/battle-of-camden
Lynch, Wayne “Winner or Runner? Gates at Camden” Journal of the American Revolution, April 8, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/04/winner-or-runner-gates-at-camden
Lynch, Wayne “Unluck or Inept? Gates at Camden” Journal of the American Revolution, May 1, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/05/unlucky-or-inept-gates-at-camden
Piecuch “Repercussions of the Battle of Camden” Journal of the American Revolution, May 20, 2013: https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/05/repercussions-of-the-battle-of-camden
(from archive.org unless noted)
McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: The Macmillan Co. 1902.
Moultrie, William, Memoirs of the American Revolution: so far as it related to the states of North and South Carolina, and Georgia, New York: D. Longworth, 1802.
Ramsay, David The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina, from a British province to an independent state, Vol. 2, Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785.
Stevens, John A. “Gates at Camden” Magazine of American History Vol. V, No. 4, October 1880.
Tarleton, Banastre A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America, London: T. Cadell 1787.
Weigley, Russell Frank The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780-1782, Columbia: Univ of South Carolina Press, 1970 (borrow only).
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Buchanan, John The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas, Wiley, 1999.
Edgar, Walter B. Partisans and Redcoats: The southern conflict that turned the tide of the American Revolution, New York: Morrow, 2001 (borrow on archive.org).
Ferling, John Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.
Lumpkin, Henry From Savannah to Yorktown: the American Revolution in the South, Univ of SC Press, 1981 (borrow on archive.org).
Piecuch, Jim The Battle of Camden: A Documentary History, History Press Library, 2006.
Smith, David Camden 1780: The Annihilation of Gates’ Grand Army, Osprey Publishing, 2016.
Swisher, James K., The Revolutionary War in the Southern Back Country, Pelican Publishing, 2008 (borrow on archive.org).
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.