Battle of Camden
The Battle of Camden was a military action fought near the town of Camden in South Carolina on August 16, 1780, in the American Revolutionary War. The first battle in the South since the British occupation of Charleston earlier in the year, it was a crushing defeat for the Americans, whose Continental Army under Major General Horatio Gates was routed by the British army of Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis. In the wake of Camden, the entire South was threatened with British conquest, a prospect that quickly led to Gates' removal from command and replacement by Nathanael Greene.
On May 12, 1780, the American army defending Charleston surrendered, after a protracted siege, to the newly arrived British force under Sir Henry Clinton and Cornwallis. The surrender, which included about 5,500 Continental soldiers and a large number of weapons and ammunition, temporarily eliminated any organized American military presence in the South and left the British in control of South Carolina and Georgia. Already before the surrender, though, General George Washington had sent reinforcements from his position around New York; gradually joined by some militia from Virginia and North Carolina, these units, under the command of Major General Baron Jean de Kalb, established a base at Rugeley's Mills in North Carolina in July.
Though de Kalb had a reputation as a capable commander, Congress decided to appoint Horatio Gates, winner of the Battle of Saratoga, as overall commander of the Southern Department, including the new army gathering in the Carolinas. Gates took command on July 25, with de Kalb remaining in command of the Continental troops, and at once decided to march on Camden, an important supply depot and forward outpost of the British army, then garrisoned by soldiers under General Francis, Lord Rawdon, and a probable gathering point for Cornwallis' expected invasion of North Carolina. On July 27, only two days after Gates took command, the army began its southward march.
Contrary to the advice of de Kalb and other officers, who had advised a more roundabout march through the western Carolinas (a strongly patriotic region), Gates determined on a direct route to Camden, through the swampy pine barrens to the east, a region that was also highly Loyalist in sentiment. To make matters worse, there were few supplies en route, with most of the food rations the soldiers did receive being poor in quality and inducing dysentery-like symptoms. Colonel Otho Williams, commanding some of the Maryland Continentals, described their condition just prior to the battle as "certainly much debilitated."
At 10:00 p.m. on August 15, Gates ordered a night march on Camden, though his officers warned such a movement, over unfamiliar roads in the dark, was almost sure to be detected by the British. At about 2:00 a.m., part of the American cavalry indeed made contact with British horsemen under Colonel Banastre Tarleton, with a sharp but inconclusive skirmish following. Rawdon by now had been reinforced by Cornwallis, giving the British a strength of close to 2,500 men as opposed to about 3,000 on the American side; unlike Gates' men, though, Cornwallis' soldiers were mostly veterans and in good fighting condition.
The two sides formed for battle just north of Sander's Creek, which was in turn about five miles north of Camden itself. Gates' right wing, under de Kalb, was by far the strongest part of the American line, being composed of Maryland and Delaware Continentals; the center and left were held by the untested militia from North Carolina and Virginia, under Major General Richard Caswell and Brigadier General Edward Stevens, respectively. Cornwallis placed Rawdon's troops, a mix of regulars and Tory militia, on the left, with more regular infantry under Lieutenant Colonel James Webster on the right and Highlanders in reserve.
On the advice of Colonel Williams with the Continentals, Gates ordered Stevens' Virginia militia to open the battle with an advance on the British right, hoping they could strike Webster's line before it was fully formed. Owing to their own disorganization, however, the militiamen failed to act in time, and the right flank successfully formed ranks. Cornwallis then ordered Webster to make his own advance, with a bayonet charge by the Welsh Fusiliers and the West Riding Regiment. Untrained in the use of the bayonet, and of shaky morale to begin with, Stevens' militia fled the field after some brief fighting, many even throwing away their muskets. The panic spread to Caswell's North Carolinians in the center, most of whom likewise fell back in retreat.
The Continentals on the right, meanwhile, held firm under de Kalb, wheeling left to place their backs against Gum Tree Swamp to the west and face Rawdon's soldiers, who were now attacking. The First Maryland Brigade, which initially had been held in reserve, attempted to reinforce de Kalb but was pinned down and eventually driven from the field as well; in the haze and confusion of the close-quarters battle, however, the remaining Continentals were unaware of this fact and fought on. Even after Cornwallis had committed his Highlander reserve, the Americans refused to break, repeatedly rallying and even launching several bayonet charges of their own. Only after de Kalb himself fell, with eleven separate wounds, did the morale of the Continentals break, the survivors fleeing north in the wake of the militia.
Camden was among the most lopsided victories achieved by the British during the Revolutionary War, as the casualty figures alone made clear. British losses were tabulated at 68 killed, 245 wounded, and 18 missing; American casualties are hard to determine, with multiple estimates of their total loss. Historian Hugh Rankin gives a total of 240 Continentals and militiamen killed outright, while a subsequent letter from Cornwallis claimed his army had taken about a thousand prisoners, wounded and unwounded. Even allowing for exaggeration in his report, total American casualties at Camden must have been over a thousand; in other words, at least a third of Gates' entire army.
Regardless of exact numbers, survivors of the debacle were scattered and disorganized and temporarily incapable of acting as a coherent military force. The loss of much of the American officer corps contributed to the breakdown; the most grievous loss was de Kalb, who died of his wounds two days after the battle in British custody. Most of what remained of the army eventually fell back on Charlotte, though some of the militia returned home without ever rejoining the main force.
One result of Camden was the total discrediting of Horatio Gates as a military commander. After the start of the battle, he had taken no active part in directing his units; once the left and center collapsed, he briefly tried to rally the fleeing militia before retreating himself, riding the 60 miles back to Charlotte by nightfall. Fleeing the field in his capacity as commanding general, while de Kalb's Continentals were still fighting desperately, made Gates the object of scorn and ridicule throughout the country. One of the sharpest jeers came from Alexander Hamilton, who wrote of Gates' quick rearward flight, "It does admirable credit to the activity of a man at his time of life." Owing to his political connections in the Continental Congress, Gates was able to avoid court-martial and official censure for his conduct in the campaign, but he was relieved of command and replaced by Major General Nathanael Greene, Washington's personal choice for the position. Given Greene's successes in the campaigning of 1781, this change of command can be considered the one silver lining for the Americans following Camden.