Sunday, November 27, 2022

ARP260 Fishing Creek & Musgrove Mill


In our last episode, the patriots suffered a severe blow in the south.  Months after losing a large army of 5000 men under General Benjamin Lincoln in Charleston, they lost a second army, nearly as large, under the command of General Horatio Gates at Camden.  British forces now seemed to be solidly in control of Georgia and South Carolina, and were preparing to move into North Carolina, with no army to challenge them.

Fishing Creek

Before moving into North Carolina though, Cornwallis still hoped to tie up a few loose ends in South Carolina.  Before Camden, General Gates had deployed South Carolina militia General Thomas Sumter, along with several companies of Continentals, to disrupt the enemy. Back in Episode 256, I mentioned that Sumter had captured a wagon train of British supplies at Wateree Ferry.  He had captured fifty British supply wagons, Three hundred head of cattle, and 250 British and loyalist prisoners.

Banastre Tarleton
Banastre Tarleton had spent the rest of the day and night after Camden, riding down fleeing rebels and killing them.  He made it a few miles north of the battlefield, when he received orders to move his cavalry to the west, toward the Catawba River.  With his usual speed, Tarleton reached his goal the next day, near Rocky Mount.  Tarleton’s scouts confirmed the presence of Sumter’s force across the river.  

Sumter had been eluding forces under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson and Colonel George Turnbull,  and had managed to escape from them.  He became aware that Tarleton’s force was shadowing him from the other side of the river, but was not nearly large enough to take on his 800 soldiers.

The two armies moved up the Catawba river to a point where Fishing Creek entered into the river.  Marching the hot August sun of South Carolina took its toll on both armies.  Tarleton’s infantry could not keep up.  Tarleton took sixty of his infantry by doubling up on his horses, and left the rest behind.  

Sumter, upon reaching Fishing Creek on August 17, gave his army some much needed rest.  Thinking their position secure, the men stacked their arms and established a camp.  The men fed and watered their horses, and did their best to get some rest in the shade.  Many soldiers took the opportunity to bathe in the river.  Many of the soldiers were refreshing themselves from the rum that they had captured from the wagon train.  Sumter himself simply climbed under a wagon to get some sleep in the shade.

Sumter did send out sentries.  A short time later, he heard gunshots, but was told his soldiers were firing at cattle.  With that, he went back to sleep.

As it turned out, the firing was his sentries firing on Tarleton’s advance guard.  The American sentries killed one of the dragoons.  His comrades then rode down the two shooters and cut them to pieces with their sabers.  Tarleton dismounted his 60 infantrymen and had them proceed forward along with his 100 men still on horseback.  

They arrived in sight of the camp, finding the Americans completely unaware of their presence.  Being outnumbered by about 5-1 did not discourage Tarleton from immediately organizing into a line of battle and charging the camp.

As Tarleton had experienced before, the element of surprise was more important than the relative size of the forces.  Most of the patriots were not close enough to reach their guns.  Most fled into the woods, or were cut down by Tarleton’s men who, according to their standard procedure, gave no quarter.  

A few small units were able to reach their guns and fight back.  One patriot cannon got off a single shot before being overrun.  Those who stood and fought were quickly overwhelmed and killed.

Many of the continentals were caught skinny-dipping in the river.  The loyalists promised them good treatment if they swam ashore and surrendered.  The Continentals complied.  As soon as the prisoners were back on land, the loyalists set upon the men, cutting them down with bayonets and sabers.

General Sumter, like the rest of his army, had almost no time to react.  He had removed most of his clothes before lying down to rest in order to get some relief from the summer heat.  When Tarleton’s loyalists attacked, he barely had time to run into the woods, barefoot and half naked.

He managed to find one of his captains, who was mounted.  They then managed to catch another horse that had fled the battle.  Sumter then rode the horse bareback all the way to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he arrived safely two days later.

Of the roughly 800 Americans present at the battle of Fishing Creek, 150 were killed and another 300 captured. The rest, like Sumter, scattered into the woods where they hid from the attackers.  Tarleton’s loyalist recovered 250 of their comrades whom the Americans were taking to prison camps.  They also captured back the wagon train that Sumter had seized several days early, along with two pieces of artillery, 800 horses, and over 1000 rifles and muskets.  Of Tarleton’s attacking force of 160, he reported the loss of only nine men.

The loss of Sumter’s army only two days after the loss of the main Continental Army at Camden solidified even more British control of South Carolina.

Musgrove Mill

As the patriot military in the eastern part of the state crumbled, the militia to the west was still active.  I mentioned in earlier episodes that Elijah Clarke of Georgia had moved into South Carolina with his small band of militia after numerous fights with the British in Georgia.  He had teamed up with Isaac Shelby who had moved down from North Carolina with his militia companies.

Elijah Clarke

Both men here hardened warriors, with years of experience both fighting with Indian tribes on the frontier and with loyalist militia in the brutal irregular warfare that made up most of the fighting along the western frontier.  I had briefly mentioned Shelby’s role in the Chickamauga campaign of 1779.  At that time, he had been a captain of the Virginia militia.  Shelby lived right on the Virginia - North Carolina border, where the state line was not entirely clear.  Shelby was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1779 and took a commission as a major of militia from Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson.  The following year, North Carolina Governor Richard Caswell granted him a position as magistrate and a commission as colonel of militia.

In early 1780, Shelby was in Kentucky surveying lands when he heard about the defeat at Charleston.  He returned to North Carolina where he took command of a militia regiment of about 300 men and moved into British-occupied South Carolina.  There, he met up with Elijah Clark, who had his Georgians, along with some local South Carolina militia. 

In late July, the men had assembled a force of 600 men, who laid siege to a loyalist force at Thicketty Fort.  Despite some impressive defenses, Shelby managed to convince the loyalist commander to surrender without a shot fired.  The patriots captured 93 prisoners, along with 250 muskets and a large supply of ammunition.

Following that success, the men teamed up with more South Carolina Militia under the command of James Williams.  Colonel Williams lived in South Carolina near Fort Ninety-Six, which had become the British base of operations under British Major Patrick Ferguson.

This informally assembled militia army set its sites on a Tory outpost of 200 loyalists, about thirty miles north of the main British outpost at Fort Ninety-Six.  The enemy was about forty miles from their position and surrounded by locals who supported the loyalists.  To keep the element of surprise, the patriots opted to take 200 mounted militia on an all-night ride in hopes of surprising the enemy.  Such a ride would exhaust their horses, but would allow them to reach the enemy before the enemy knew they were in the area.

The force left just after dusk on August 17, the day after the battle of Camden.  They had not yet received word of the American loss at Camden though.  Despite a long, exhausting, and difficult night march, the force arrived within a half mile of the enemy camp by dawn on the 18th.  The Americans sent out a patrol to reconnoiter the loyalist camp.  The patrol ran into a loyalist patrol. The two parties exchanged fire.  A couple of the loyalists escaped and returned to camp with news of the presence of the enemy.  

Then, a local patriot arrived in camp with more information.  The 200 local loyalist militia had received reinforcements the night before, including 200 battle-hardened loyalist provincials from New York and New Jersey, as well as another 100 mounted South Carolina militia.

The patriots had lost the element of surprise, and were outnumbered 500 to 200.  They had just ridden their horses hard all night, making it practically impossible for them to retreat.  An attack on a larger and entrenched force waiting for them also seemed foolhardy.  

Instead, the commanders adopted a common frontier tactic used by both Indians and frontier settlers, one that I’ve discussed several times in earlier episodes.

Isaac Shelby

Knowing that the larger Tory brigade was now aware of their presence and that it would likely attack in force, the patriots sent out a group of 25 men on horseback to make contact with the enemy.  The men engaged from a distance, then retreated slowly, continuing to engage the much larger group of enemy pursuers.  The loyalists followed the Americans across the Enoree River, at a ford near Musgrove Mill and into the nearby woods, there, the attackers found themselves facing a semi-circle of patriot rifles and muskets, behind hastily-erected breast high defenses made of brush and logs that obscured their numbers.

The patriots had drawn the loyalists into an ambush.  Elijah Clarke’s Georgia militia held the left flank, James Williams’ South Carolina militia held the center, and Isaac Shelby’s North Carolina militia manned the right flank.  Clarke also held about forty of his horsemen in reserve.  

The patriots opened fire when the enemy was still seventy yards away.  The volley startled the pursuers, but did not cause them to retreat.  The loyalists still outnumbered the patriots, and were not easily discouraged.  

Loyalist Colonel Alexander Innes led a bayonet charge into Shelby’s right flank.  Most of Shelby’s men had rifles, without bayonets. While they held their lines, the patriots lines began to falter.  Clarke then ordered in his reserves.  Around this same time a rifleman managed to shoot Colonel Innes, who fell off his horse. The arrival of the reserves and the apparent death of the loyalist commander caused the attackers to falter.  Shelby saw his moment.  The experienced Indian fighter gave an Indian war cry and charged forward with his men.

The Tory’s began to fall back but did not panic and run.  They began taking heavy casualties, especially among the officers, who were prime targets for the backwoods riflemen.  Then Clarke’s left wing, who had only been firing from a distance, also joined the charge at the loyalists.  Finally, the Tories fled the field.

The entire action lasted about an hour, with the hand to hand fighting only about fifteen minutes.  The loyalists had taken terrible casualties, nearly half of the five hundred man force.  Sixty-three killed, ninety wounded, and seventy taken prisoner.  By comparison, the patriots suffered only four killed and seven wounded.

Aware that an even larger force might come after them, the Americans retreated with their prisoners back towards their main force.  British Major Patrick Ferguson sent a cavalry in pursuit, but it was not able to catch up with them.  In 48 hours, the American militia had engaged in a 40 mile night ride, then prepared for and fought a successful battle against a far superior force, then spent the rest of the day and all night riding back 60 miles while being pursued by cavalry.  

On the return ride many men had to dismount and run alongside their horses in order to give the exhausted animals some relief.  During the entire time, the men never stopped to rest or eat.  They snacked on green corn, peaches, and whatever else they carried with them.

When they finally returned to camp on August 19, the exhausted men practically fell from their saddles.  Shelby, who was no stranger to brutal Indian warfare called this fight “one of the hardest ever fought in the United States with small arms.”

The returning soldiers were greeted with the news of the loss at Camden.  They knew that the British would focus on any remaining forces of any size in the region.  The men opted to move further west over the mountains and to prepare for a likely attack from Ferguson’s loyalists.

Brutality of War

As the British army and the loyalists secured control of South Carolina, at least the inhabitants thought they could look forward to the return of some peace and order.  Anyone who thought however, was in for a rude awakening.

Just after the British victory at Camden, General Cornwallis issued standing orders that any man who had accepted parole after the capture of Charleston, and then took up arms again with the patriot militia, would not be considered a prisoner of war, but instead would be hanged as a traitor.  Not even a trial was needed.  Cornwallis decreed “instant death.”

Many men who were determined not to take up arms again also found that they could not simply be left alone.  Loyalist bands raided plantations, taking all the animals, crops, and anything of value.  Often they burned what they could not carry, leaving people with nothing. Anyone who refused to join a loyalist militia was considered a traitor, and often treated as such.

Many accounts describe these Tory raiders as men of the lower sort, who took the current instability as a chance to go after their neighbors with more land and wealth, and perhaps settle some old scores.  One early historian described them as “ignorant unprincipled banditti; to whom idleness, licentiousness, and deeds of violence were familiar.  Horse thieves and others whose crimes had exiled them from society, attached themselves to the British.”  Some of that may just be bias.  We know there were men on both sides who came from higher and lower rungs of society. But the fears among the patriots of these raiders was a major factor in their decision to act.

I also don’t want to leave you with the impression that it was the loyalists who necessarily started the brutality.  Many of the loyalist depredations were a response to even earlier depravities by the patriots.  One of the more notorious loyalist leaders from this time was William “Bloody Bill” Cunningham.  Much of his rage came from the fact that patriots partisans had murdered his crippled and epileptic brother several years earlier.  Cunningham himself had to flee to Florida, and only came back for revenge after the British invasion of South Carolina.

General Sumter offered signing bounties to men who joined his regiment. Among the bounties was the promise of slaves - one slave for ten months’ service.  He intended to make good on his promises by raiding the slaves on loyalist plantations and using his captured human plunder as payment.  Similarly, British officers and loyalists often used slaves as currency to punish their enemies and reward their friends.

The cycle of violence only continued to grow after Camden.  Patriots began executing men suspected of being loyalists.  There is one account of patriots breaking into the home of a known loyalists and shooting his two brothers while they lay in their beds, sick with smallpox.  After Tories captured Francis Marion’s nephew Gabriel, his captors unceremoniously punted a shotgun at the young man’s chest and pulled the trigger, killing him instantly.  There are numerous stories on both sides of patriots or loyalist partisans chasing down smaller groups of the enemy and mercilessly hacking to death their former neighbors without mercy.

There are also many examples of an enemy being promised decent treatment if they surrendered, then once they laid down their arms, being executed. In some cases the captors saw fit to torture their prisoners before murdering them.

James Wemyss
Major James Wemyss, is sometimes called the second most hated British officer in the south, after Colonel Banastre Tarleton.  Wemyss was a Scottish career officer in the British army.  He had served through the whole war in America, coming with the first wave of soldiers sent to Boston in 1775.  For a time, he Commanded the Queen’s Rangers in New York, before turning over command to John Graves Simcoe and taking his own command of a British regular company.

Cornwallis had directed Wemyss to visit devastation upon the South Carolina countryside, destroying the plantations of anyone who refused to serve in the loyalist militia, and executing any man who was believed to support the patriots.

During one of his raids, Wemyss was ambushed by Sumter’s partisans. He was wounded and left behind with several other wounded soldiers as the regiment retreated.  After being his capture, Sumter personally interrogated the wounded officer, and found a list of all the plantations he had destroyed and all the patriots he had executed.  In an amazing display of mercy, Sumter threw the list into a fire, saying that if any of his men had seen it, they would have executed the officer immediately.  Sumter was probably unaware at the time that Wemyss previously had sent out several squads of men who had been directed to assassinate Sumter.

Later, Wemyss would try to hunt down a known patriot leader named James Frierson.  After his wife refused to give up his location, Wemyss locked her and her four year old child in their home, then set it ablaze.  Fortunately, the woman and child were able to escape.  Wemyss also developed a penchant for burning churches.

Around this same time, Tarleton was trying to capture Francis Marion.  After no success, Tarleton ordered all the plantations in the region to be burned to the ground.  He even made a special visit to the plantation of General Richard Richardson, a militia officer who died in British custody after the surrender of Charleston. Richardson’s body had been returned to his plantation and buried in the family plot.  Tarleton dug up the corpse and began abusing it in front of Richardson’s widow and her children.  He then burned the plantation and all its buildings, after locking all the farm animals in the buildings to be consumed in the fire.

The brutality would only continue as both sides used whatever violence they could to achieve their goals.

Next time, we had even further south, as Cornwallis finds that even Georgia continues to suffer partisan attacks.

- - -

Next Episode 261 Augusta Raid (Available December 11, 2022)


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Further Reading

Websites

Saberton, Ian "Cornwallis and the Autumn campaign of 1780 - His Advance from Camden to Charlotte" Journal of the American Revolution, July 18, 2017. https://allthingsliberty.com/2017/07/cornwallis-autumn-campaign-1780-advance-camden-charlotte



Lynch, Wayne “Saving South Carolina at Musgrove’s Mill” Journal of the American Revolution, January 24, 2014. https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/01/saving-south-carolina-james-williams-musgroves-mill

Free eBooks
(from archive.org unless noted)


McCrady, Edward The History of South Carolina in the Revolution, 1780-1783, New York: The Macmillan Co. 1902.  


Ramsay, David The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina, from a British province to an independent state, Vol. 2, Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785.

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. 

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000 (borrow on archive.org).

Swisher, James K., The Revolutionary War in the Southern Back Country, Pelican Publishing, 2008 (borrow on archive.org). 

Wickwire, Franklin B. Cornwallis and the War of Independence, Houghton Mifflin, 1971 (borrow on archive.org). 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

ARP259 Camden


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
British General Cornwallis had established a series of outposts throughout South Carolina in order to pacify the population and to raise loyalist militia.  Cornwallis had remained in Charleston, hoping to reestablish civilian rule as a way of winning back the hearts and minds of the people of South Carolina by returning things to normal as soon as possible.  He established a loyalist newspaper in Charleston, and called on the Royal Governor to step up and lead.  Governor Josiah Martin joined Cornwallis in Charleston, but was of little help.  After writing a proclamation for Cornwallis, Governor Martin wrote the general a letter saying that he was not a particularly competent leader:

“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.  

William Washington

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.

Otho Williams
After his return to the army, Williams built up the 6th Maryland Regiment into an effective fighting force.  He deployed south under General de Kalb in the spring of 1780, before Gates took command of the army.

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.

Lord Rawdon

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.

Battle Lines

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
To the left of the Continentals, in the center of the American lines, were the 1800 or so North Carolina militia under General Richard Caswell.  As I mentioned before Caswell was a capable politician but terribly inexperienced as a field officer.  Making up the far left of the line were about 700 Virginia militia under the command of General Edward Stevens.  Although Stevens had personally been present at Brandywine and Germantown, the militia under his command had almost no battle experience. These were recruits collected in Virginia in response to the desperate calls following the capture of the southern army under Lincoln.  The men had been given muskets with bayonets, but had no training on using the bayonet in battle.

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.

British Attack

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
From the British front lines, General Cornwallis saw the Americans begin to advance, and ordered Colonel Webster to lead the regulars into an assault against them.  The intended confrontation turned into a route almost immediately.  The Virginia militia saw the regulars advancing toward them and simply turned and fled the field at a dead run before they even came into contact with the enemy.  Most of the soldiers threw away their muskets so that they could run faster.

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
But by this time 2000 British soldiers were fighting only about 600 Americans who remained on the field.  General de Kalb had his horst shot out from under him, suffered a bayonet wound and a saber blow to the head during an hour of fighting.  Yet he continued to rally his men and try to push forward, still not aware that the rest of the army had abandoned him.

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.

Retreat

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
Precise casualty numbers are difficult thanks to the chaos after the battle, but estimates range from 700-1000 American casualties, about 250 killed and the rest wounded and taken prisoner.  Almost all of the casualties fell on the Continentals and the few militia who remained in the field. The British suffered about 70 killed, 250 wounded, and 18 reported missing.

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. 

- - -

Next Episode 260 Fishing Creek & Musgrove Mill 


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Further Reading

Websites

The Battle of Camden: https://www.carolana.com/SC/Revolution/revolution_battle_of_camden.html

Camden: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/revolutionary-war/battles/camden

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

Free eBooks
(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. 

Russell, David Lee. The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies. McFarland & Company, 2000 (borrow on archive.org).

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). 

Wickwire, Franklin B. Cornwallis and the War of Independence, Houghton Mifflin, 1971 (borrow on archive.org). 


* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.