September 16, 2023 at 12:40 a.m.
This is another in our series of articles from the SAR & DAR leading up to the celebration of America's 250th birthday in 2026.
Battle of Camden
By Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter
Following the British defeat at Saratoga in 1777, and the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, the French entered the American Revolutionary War in June 1778, followed by the Spanish in June 1779. With the war at a stalemate in the north, the British decided to renew their "southern strategy" to win back their rebellious North American colonies. The strategy relied on the Loyalists joining forces with British regulars to roll northward through North Carolina and Virginia, besieging the rebels in the north on all sides. This campaign repeated the successful December 1778 Capture of Savannah, with Sir Henry Clinton's successful Siege of Charleston in May 1780. British forces then campaigned in the Back Country, capturing the key towns of Georgetown, Cheraw, Camden, Ninety Six, and Augusta. Clinton returned to New York on June 5th, after the southern remnants of the Continental Army were defeated in May at the Battle of Waxhaws, tasking Lord Cornwallis with the pacification of the remaining portions of the state.
The Patriot resistance remaining in South Carolina consisted of militia under commanders such as Thomas Sumter, William Davie, and Francis Marion. Washington sent Continental Army regiments south, consisting of the Maryland Line and Delaware Line, under the temporary command of Major General Jean, Baron de Kalb. Departing New Jersey on April 16th, they arrived at the Buffalo Ford on the Deep River, 30 miles south of Greensboro, in July. Horatio Gates, the "Hero of Saratoga" arrived in camp on July 25th, to take command. Two days later, Gates ordered his army to take the direct road to Camden, against the advice of his officers, including Otho Holland Williams. Williams noted the country they were marching through "was by nature barren, abounding with sandy plains, intersected by swamps, and very thinly inhabited," and what few inhabitants they might come across were most likely hostile. All of the troops had been short of food since arrival at the Deep River.
On August 7th, Gates was joined by 2,100 North Carolina militiamen under the command of General Richard Caswell. At Rugeley's Mill, 15 miles north of Camden, 700 Virginia Militia under the command of General Edward Stevens joined Gates' "Grand Army". In addition, Gates had Armand's Legion. However, at this stage, Gates no longer had the help of Marion's or Sumter's men, and in fact had sent 400 of his Continentals to help Sumter with a planned attack on a British supply convoy. Gates also refused the help of Col. William Washington's cavalry. Apparently, Gates planned on building defensive works 5.5 miles north of Camden in an effort to force British abandonment of that important town. Gates told his aide Thomas Pinckney he had no intention of attacking the British with an army consisting mostly of militia.
Camden was garrisoned by about 1,000 men under Lord Rawdon. General Cornwallis, alerted to Gates' movement on August 9th, marched from Charleston with reinforcements, arriving at Camden on August 13th, increasing the effective British troop strength to 2,239 men.
Gates ordered a night march to commence at 10:00 p.m. on August 15th, despite his army of 3,052, of which two-thirds were militia, having never maneuvered together. Unfortunately, their evening meal acted as a purgative while they marched, with Armand's horse in the lead. On a collision course was Cornwallis' army, also on a 10:00 p.m. night march, with Tarleton's dragoons in the lead. A short period of confusion ensued when the two forces collided around 2:00 a.m., but both sides soon separated, not wanting a night battle.
Gates formed up before first light. On his right flank he placed Mordecai Gist's 2nd Maryland Brigade (three regiments) and the Delaware Regiment, with Baron de Kalb in overall command of the right wing. On his left flank, he placed Caswell's 1,800 North Carolina militia; to the left of them were Stevens' 700 Virginians, and behind the Virginians were 120 men of Armand's Legion. Gates and staff stayed behind the reserve force, Smallwood's 1st Maryland Regiment, about 200 yards behind the battle line. Thus, the total number of Continentals on the field numbered 900. Gates placed seven guns along the line, manned by about 100 men. Also present, their disposition unknown, were 70 mounted volunteer South Carolinians. Gates' formation, though a typical British practice of the time, placed his weakest troops against the most experienced British regiments, while his best troops would face only the weaker elements of the British forces.
Cornwallis had roughly 2,239 men, including Loyalist militia and Volunteers of Ireland. Cornwallis also had the infamous and highly experienced Tarleton's Legion, who were formidable in a pursuit situation. Cornwallis formed his army into two brigades. On the right was Lt. Col James Webster, facing the inexperienced militia with the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers and the 33rd Regiment of Foot. Lord Rawdon was in command of the left, facing the Continental Infantry with the Irish Volunteers, Banastre Tarleton's infantry and the Loyalist troops. In reserve, Cornwallis had two battalions of the 71st Regiment of Foot and Tarleton's cavalry force. He also placed four guns in the British center. As Gates had done, Cornwallis placed his more experienced units on the right flank, and his less experienced units on the left flank.
Gates ordered Stevens and de Kalb to attack, while Cornwallis issued the same order to Webster. The 800 strong 33rd Fusiliers advanced with bayonets towards the 2,500 soldiers in the Virginia and North Carolina militia. The militia, however, had never used bayonets before. The American left wing collapsed as the Virginians and then the North Carolinians fled. The Virginians fled so fast that they suffered only three wounded. The North Carolinians fled all the way back to Hillsborough, North Carolina.
The British casualties were 69 killed, 245 wounded and 11 missing. Hugh Rankin says, "of the known dead, 162 were Continentals, 12 were South Carolina militiamen, 3 were Virginia militiamen and 63 were North Carolina militiamen". David Ramsay says, "290 American wounded prisoners were carried into Camden after this action. Of this number, 206 were Continentals, 82 were North Carolina militia and 2 were Virginia militia. The resistance made by each corps may to some degree be estimated from the number of wounded. The Americans lost the whole of their artillery - 8 field pieces, upwards of 200 wagons and the greatest part of their baggage." A letter from Cornwallis to Lord George Germain, dated 21 August 1780, says that his army took "about one thousand Prisoners, many of whom wounded" on August 18th. The website Documentary History of the Battle of Camden, 16 August 1780 details on its Officer Casualties at Camden page the fates of 48 Continental officers at Camden: 5 were killed, 4 died of wounds, 4 were wounded without being captured, 11 were wounded and captured and 24 were captured without being wounded. These ratios would suggest that many of the Americans wounded in the battle escaped capture.
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