Portrait of Horatio Gates by Gilbert Stuart. Image Source: Wikimedia.
June 1780. General Benjamin Lincoln has surrendered Charleston to the British commander, General Henry Clinton. For the new nation, the war in the South appears on the brink of being lost. Congress sends General Horatio Gates — the Hero of Saratoga — to replace Lincoln, and turn the tide.
Gates goes south — bold and arrogant – believing he will have the same success as he had at Saragota. He gathers his army and marches to Camden on the night of August 15th. At Camden, General Lord Charles Cornwallis has established a key outpost, critical to the British maintaining control of the state.
Learning Gates is marching to Camden, Cornwallis gathers his army and marches toward him, intending to attack on the 16th. As both armies move into position on the night of the 15th, they run into each other. There is a brief fight, and both sides withdraw and prepare to do battle in the morning.
The sun rises and the two armies assemble on the battlefield. Gates makes a critical mistake. On his left flank are inexperienced militia forces — directly across from the most experienced soldiers Cornwallis has with him. Cornwallis sees the mistake and moves to take advantage, ordering his men to use bayonets and advance on the militia.
Fearing for their lives, the militia turn and run. Although the right of the American line fights valiantly, the line eventually collapses and the British overwhelm them. In the fighting, a French officer aiding serving in the American army, General Johann de Kalb, is killed.
Gates, who was supposed to lead the Americans to victory, turns his horse and runs from the battle. He abandons his men, his officers, and his entire army and rides north for three days. He covers 200 miles and stops at Hillsborough, North Carolina. It is the end of his military command, and his reputation as a hero is tarnished. He is no longer just the Hero of Saratoga — he is also the Coward of Camden.
The British crush the Americans, inflicting heavy casualties, capturing supplies — and all of the artillery. When Congress learns of the defeat — and the conduct of Gates — Nathanael Greene is put in charge of the Southern Department.
The Road to Camden Begins
The roots of the Battle of Camden can be traced to the failure of the British to strike a decisive victory in the North, especially after the defeat at Saratoga. General Sir Henry Clinton and officials in Britain decide to take the fight to the South. They anticipate a high turnout from Loyalists — British supporters — and expect them to take up arms against their friends, neighbors, and even family.
Lincoln Surrenders Charleston
The British also expect help from Native American Indian allies. With that, Clinton went south to Charleston and laid siege to the city. On April 14, British forces led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton win the Battle of Monck’s Corner, cutting off the last hope for Major General Benjamin Lincoln and the American forces in Charleston.
Lincoln surrenders on May 12. The British take 5,000 Americans as prisoners-of-war and capture valuable munitions.
Clinton returns to New York City, leaving Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis in command. He orders Cornwallis to hold Charleston and Savannah, Georgia. Cornwallis also decides to assert British authority in the South Carolina Backcountry.
Massacre at Waxhaws
Cornwallis learns that a small group of Americans is heading to Charleston, unaware Lincoln has surrendered. He sent Tarleton after Colonel Abraham Buford and his men. Tarleton attacks at Waxhaws and crushes Buford. The reports of the battle are confusing, but rumors spread that Tarleton and his men massacred the Americans — even those who surrendered and begged for mercy.
The defeat at Waxhaws leaves one American army in the South — under the command of Major General Baron de Kalb. He has more than 1,000 men with him, and they are experienced Continental soldiers from Maryland and Delaware. De Kalb is on his way to Charleston when Lincoln surrenders. He stops in North Carolina and waits for new orders from General George Washington.
Gates on the Move
Congress appoints Gates to replace Lincoln in the South, even before Charleston is surrendered. Washington disagrees. He has issues with Gates, and prefers Major General Nathanael Greene. Greene is a man who Washington trusts. Gates is not.
Gates rides south around June 13. He joins de Kalb at Deep River on July 25 and takes command. The army is in tatters. The men are short on supplies and exhausted. Ignoring the conditions, Gates orders them to prepare to march.
His target is the British outpost at Camden, a strategic location important to controlling the South Carolina Backcountry. Gates goes against the recommendations of the officers who know the area and chooses to march through swampy, difficult terrain.
The Swamp Fox Joins the March to Camden
Francis Marion, who escaped from Charleston, has gathered men and harassed British forces in South Carolina. He has earned the nickname “The Swamp Fox” for his ability to strike and then disappear into the swamps. Around July 27, Marion and his men join Gates. Soon after, Gates sends Marion out to scout the British movements.
Gates Makes Critical Mistakes
Inexplicably, Gates decides Lieutenant Colonel William Washington and his cavalry are of no use and sends them away. Further weakening his army, he sends 400 men to help Thomas Sumter, who is conducting raids on British supply lines. Perhaps his gravest error, at least prior to the battle, is thinking Cornwallis will stay in Charleston and will leave the Camden garrison, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Rawdon.
Gates and Cornwallis Head to Camden
Gates is wrong. When Cornwallis finds out he is headed to Camden he assembles his army and marches in that direction on August 9. By the 13th, he is in Camden. On the night of the 15th, he marches in the direction of Rugeley’s Mill, where he plans to attack Gates on the 16th.
Meanwhile, the march through the swamps is brutal for the Americans. Making matters worse, much-needed supplies, especially food, never arrive. The men come across apple trees and peach trees, starving, they eat the fruit, much of which is not ripe.
Cornwallis is marching to Rugeley’s Mill, and Gates orders his men to make the final march to Camden. Once again, they eat the green fruit, but they finish their crude meal with raw molasses for dessert. The combination turns many of their stomachs sour. In order to relieve themselves, they break ranks and run off into the woods. When they return to the column, they are dehydrated and weak.
The First Encounter at Camden
Around 2:00 in the morning of the 16th, the two armies stumble into each other on the Waxhaws Road, 10 miles outside of Camden.
American cavalry, led by Colonel Charles Armand, and British cavalry, led by Tarleton, skirmish in the dark. Both sides fall back to the main columns of their respective armies.
Gates and Cornwallis are now aware of the presence of the other at Camden. They pull back and prepare for battle the next morning.
Gates Meets with His Officers
Gates finds out Cornwallis has more than 3,000 men under his command. He holds a council-of-war with his officers. Privately, de Kalb tells Gates to withdraw but does not voice that opinion during the council. The council resolves to maintain the position at Camden and engage Cornwallis. Gates insists on facing the British on open ground, in the classic military style of the time.
Preparations for the Battle of Camden
Before dawn, Gates forms his men. The core of his force — 900 Maryland and Delaware regulars under de Kalb — are on the right of the line. To the left are 1,800 North Carolina Militia and 700 Virginia militia. Colonel Charles Armand and his cavalry are in reserve behind the Virginians. Gates himself is with the reserves, about 200 yards behind the battle line.
The British move onto the field, with Rawdon on the left. He has his Volunteers of Ireland, along with Tarleton and the British Legion cavalry. Across from them are General de Kalb and the Continental Regulars.
Following European military custom, both Gates and Cornwallis had placed their most experienced troops on the right.
As a result, Lieutenant Colonel James Webster is in command of the most experienced British regiments on the right wing — directly across from the inexperienced militia forces.
It is a disaster in waiting for Gates.
The Battle of Camden Begins
The British start the battle and send the right wing against the American left, directly at Brigadier General Edward Stevens and his militia forces.
The British, under Webster, have their bayonets fixed as they move in on the militia. Stevens orders his men to fix bayonets — which most of them had never done before.
The Virginian Militia panics and runs, followed quickly by most of the North Carolina Militia. Many of them drop their weapons, leaving them on the battlefield. The British quickly rout the left side of the American line.
De Kalb Attacks
Gates orders de Kalb to attack, but de Kalb has no idea what is happening on the left. De Kalb’s view is blocked by heavy smoke from musket fire. The British attack de Kalbn’s men, but are pushed back — twice. After the second charge, de Kalb launches a counterattack.
Cornwallis and Webster Attack De Kalb
The attack is successful, and de Kalb’s men take prisoners, nearly breaking Rawdon’s line. Cornwallis rallies his men and moves in to attack de Kalb.
Webster orders his men to wheel around to the left. Instead of chasing after the American militia forces, he attacks de Kalb’s flank.
Webster is met by the remaining North Carolina Militia who did not flee with the rest. They hold their ground and engage Webster’s men. The Maryland Continentals move in from the reserve to help. They fight well, and even though they are outnumbered nearly 2-1, they turn Webster back.
The Battle of Camden Comes to An End
The Americans continue to fight, but Cornwallis has one final weapon at his disposal — Tarleton and the British Legion. He sends them in to attack the rear of the American army. They charge in on their horses, slashing and cutting with their swords. Since Gates had sent Washington and his cavalry away earlier, he had no way to counter Tarleton.
The American line breaks and the men scatter. Many of them run to the swamps to escape.
De Kalb is wounded. He falls from his horse. The British rush in and attack him. He will die three days later from 11 wounds — 3 from musket balls, and 8 from bayonets.
Tarleton chases the Americans for almost 20 miles before he gives up the chase and returns to Cornwallis.
The Coward of Camden
When Gates saw the militia flee — at the start of the battle — he went with them. Maybe he tried to rally them and take them back to the field. No one really knows. What is known is that he did not return to the battle. Later that day, he is in Charlotte, 60 miles away. By the 19th, he is in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Gates returns to his home in Virginia and is ridiculed for his actions. He will not return to active duty during the war.
Greene replaces him in December.
A Serious Blow to the American Cause in the South
Gates had 3,000 men at Camden. It is estimated that as many as 2,000 fled without firing a single shot. 800 American soldiers are captured or killed, and the British only suffer around 350 casualties.
The devastating loss is a low point for the Americans,
But it is another low point from which they will recover.
By 1781, Greene builds up the American army again and forces Cornwallis to chase him through South Carolina and North Carolina. The chase forces Cornwallis to use up supplies, and slowly reduces the number of men he has. By October, he will be trapped at Yorktown and forced to surrender.