Battle of Camden

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Benjamin Alsop breathed in the thick, wet, South Carolinian air. 

It was so heavy he could almost reach out and grab it. His body was covered in sweat, and it made the scratchy wool of his uniform rub angrily against his skin. Everything was sticky. Each step forward on the march was more difficult than the last.

Of course, the weather wasn’t all that different from what he was used to back home in Virginia, but it sure seemed it. Perhaps it was the looming threat of death. Or the hunger. Or the endless marches through the woods, surrounded on all sides by the stifling heat.

Alsop and his fellow soldiers, who came from all over the former colonies, made these marches daily — covering nearly 20 miles — working their way across South Carolina.  

Alsop’s feet had been worn bare with blisters, and his whole body ached, starting below his ankles and ringing through him as if a bell had been struck and left to thrum painfully. It felt like his body was punishing him for thinking to join the militia. The decision seemed more and more foolish each day.

In between gasps of foul air, he could feel his stomach churn. Like most of the men in his regiment, he’d been suffering from a right foul bout of dysentery — likely the result of the gray, slightly furry meat and old corn meal they’d been fed a few nights before. 

The regiment’s doctor had prescribed plenty of fluids and hot oatmeal — just what one desires when it’s so hot it’s hard to breathe. 

When the men weren’t in the woods, suffering, they were cursing the man responsible for their current misery — Commander of the Southern Department of Continental Army, General Horatio Gates.

They’d been promised a glorious life. One filled with fine meats and rum, glory on the battlefield, and honor; a small compensation for the sacrifice of a soldier. 

But nearly a week into their journey, they’d seen no such feast. Gates, preaching the scarcity of supplies, encouraged the men to live off the land as they marched, which for most meant going hungry. 

When he did feed them, it was an interesting concoction of barely-cooked beef and half-baked bread. The men gorged on it as soon as it was placed in front of them, but the only thing the meal filled them with was regret.

And as for the glory, they’d yet to find an enemy to fight, adding even more to the frustration.

Bang!

Aslop’s thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the loud noise that erupted from the trees. At first, he didn’t react, mind whirring with adrenaline, trying to convince himself it was nothing threatening. Just a branch. 

But then another sounded — crack! — and then another — zthwip! — each one louder, closer, than the last.

It soon dawned on him. These were muskets — muskets were being fired — and the lead balls they bellowed at lethal speed were whistling towards him

There was no one to be seen in the thick cropping of trees. The only sign of oncoming attack was the whistles and booms that splintered the air.

Raising his rifle, he fired. Minutes flashed by, both sides doing nothing more than wasting precious lead and gunpowder. And then all at once, the two commanders simultaneously ordered a retreat, and the only sound left was Aslop’s blood rushing in his ears.

But they’d found the British. Only a few miles outside Camden. 

It was finally time to fight the war Aslop had signed up for. His heart pounded, and for a brief moment, he forgot about the wrenching pain in his stomach. 

What Was the Battle of Camden?

The Battle of Camden was an important conflict of the American Revolution, in which the British soundly defeated the American Continental Army at Camden, South Carolina on August 15, 1780.

This victory came after British success at Charleston and Savannah, and it gave the Crown nearly complete control over North and South Carolina, putting the independence movement in the South in jeopardy.

What Happened at the Battle of Camden?

At the Battle of Camden, American forces, led by General Horatio Gates, were soundly beaten — losing supplies and men — and were forced into a disorderly retreat by the British, who were led by Lord George Cornwallis.

Fighting took place in Camden as a result of a British shift in war strategy, and the rout occurred due to some misguided judgment by Continental military leaders; mainly that of Gates.

The Night Before The Battle of Camden

On August 15, 1780, at around 10pm, American troops marched down Waxhaw Road — the main path leading to Camden, South Carolina. 

Coincidently, exactly at the same time, the British general commanding troops in the South, Lord Cornwallis, left Camden with the aim of surprising Gates the next morning. 

Completely unaware of each other’s movement, the two armies marched toward battle, drawing closer with every step.

Fighting Begins

It was a huge surprise for both when at 2:30am on August 16th, their points of formations bumped into each other on the road. 

In a moment, the silence of the hot Carolina night was broken by gunfire and shouts. The two regiments were in a complete state of confusion and the British Dragoons — a specialized infantry unit — were quicker to pull themselves back into order. Calling on their training, they forced the Continentals to retreat.

It was a keen reaction from the Continentals’ flanks (the sides of the regiment’s column) that prevented the British from destroying them in the middle of the night as they retreated. 

After only fifteen minutes of combat, the night fell into silence once again; the air now filled with tension as both sides lay aware of the other’s looming presence in the darkness.

Preparing for the “Real” Battle

At this point, the true nature of both commanders was unveiled. 

On one side, there was General Cornwallis. His units were at a disadvantage, as they resided on the lower ground and had less space to maneuver. It was also his understanding that he was facing a force three times larger than it was, mostly because he was guessing its size based on their meeting in the pitch darkness. 

Despite this, Cornwallis, a case-hardened soldier, calmly prepared his men to attack at dawn.

His counterpart, General Horatio Gates, did not approach battle with the same calmness, even though he had a better starting position for his troops. Instead, he was stricken with panic, and faced down his own inability to handle the situation. 

Gates asked his fellow high-ranking soldiers for advice — probably hoping that someone would propose a retreat — but his hopes for turning and running were dashed when one of his advisors, General Edward Stevens, reminded him that “it was too late to do anything but fight.” 

In the morning, both sides formed their battle lines. 

Gates placed experienced regulars — trained, permanent soldiers — from his Maryland and Delaware Regiments on the right flank. In the center, North Carolina militiamen — less-well trained volunteers — and then, finally, he covered the left flank by still green (meaning inexperienced) militiamen from Virginia. 

The rest of the regulars, those most prepared to fight, were put behind in reserves — a mistake that would cost him the battle.

Fighting Resumes on August 16, 1780

It was Gates’ misfortune or his lack of knowledge of his enemy that led him to decide such inexperienced troops would have to face the experienced British light infantry led by Lieutenant Colonel James Webster. A choice that was a colossal mismatch, to say the least.

Whatever the reason, when the first shots were fired shortly after daybreak, the initial clash the line endured showed that the day was not going to end well for the Continentals. 

Webster and his regulars opened the battle with a swift attack against the militiamen, with highly-trained soldiers rushing in, unleashing a rain of bullets on them. 

Shocked and terrified — as this was the Vigininians’ first ever reality of battle — by the image of British soldiers dashing out from the dense fog that covered the battlefield, the shout of loud battlecries reaching their ears, the inexperienced young men threw their rifles to the ground without firing a single shot and started to run the other direction, away from the fight.

From that point on, chaos spread through the Continentals’ ranks like a torrent. The Virginians were followed by the North Carolinians, and that left only the regulars of Maryland and Delaware — those with experience of such fights —  at the right flank against the entire British force. 

Unaware, because of the thick fog, that they were left alone, the Continental regulars continued to fight. General Johann de Kalb — a French general who had been helping lead the Americans into battle and who was in charge of the remaining force — was determined to fight to the end.

Down from his horse and bleeding from several wounds, including a large gash from a sabre on his head, he personally led a counterattack. But despite his valiant effort, de Kalb ultimately fell, heavily wounded, and died a few days later in British hands.

At this point, the Continental right wing was entirely surrounded and the rest of their force was scattered. It was an easy job for British to finish them; the Battle of Camden was over in the blink of an eye.

Gates — a respected general (at the time) who had made a claim, and was well-supported, to become the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in lieu of George Washington — fled the battle with the first wave of runaways, mounting his horse and racing all the way to safety in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

From there he continued to Hillsboro, covering 200 miles in just three and a half days. Later he claimed that he had been expecting his men to meet him there — but only 700 of the 4,000 under his command actually managed to do so.

How Many People Died at the Battle of Camden?

Lord Cornwallis, at the time, claimed that between 800 and 900 Continentals left their bones on the field, while another 1,000 were taken prisoner. 

This is now disputed, with many historians saying that the number of soldiers killed was actually closer to only 300 (1). The British lost just 64 men — with another 254 wounded — but Cornwallis took this as a major loss, mostly because the men under his command were well trained and experienced, meaning they would be difficult to replace.

However, between the soldiers killed, wounded, and taken prisoner — as well as those who ran away from the battlefield — the force that had once been under Gates’ command was reduced by about half. 

To make the loss at Camden even more devastating for the American cause, the British, finding themselves on an abandoned battlefield, were able to collect the leftover Continental supplies remaining at their camp. 

There wasn’t much food, as the American soldiers were all too aware, but there were plenty of other military supplies to be taken. Almost the entire Continentals’ artillery was captured, numbering thirteen cannons that were now in British hands. 

In addition, the British also took eight brass field cannons, twenty-two wagons of ammunition, two traveling forges, six hundred and eighty fixed artillery ammunition, two thousand weapon sets, and eighty thousand musket cartridges. 

Already in debt and low on supplies, most felt at the time that the revolution against the tyrannical British Crown would not be able to recover from such a defeat. The loss of much needed supplies only made the defeat at Camden even worse.

John Marshall, who was a young captain in the Continental Army at the time, later wrote, “There never was a victory more complete, or a defeat more total.”

A Giant Tactical Mistake

The Battle of Camden was no less than a disaster for the American Revolutionary forces hoping to overthrow British rule. It was one of several important British victories in the South — after Charleston and Savannah — that made it seem as though the Americans were going to lose and be forced to face the music after having launched an open rebellion against the king, committing treason in the eyes of the Crown.

However, while the battle was a disaster on the day of fighting, largely due to Gates’ poor tactics, it never had much of a chance to succeed in the first place due to the events that took place over the weeks leading up to the battle. 

In fact, it had started months back on June 13, 1780, when General Horatio Gates, a hero of the 1778 Battle of Saratoga — a resounding American victory that changed the course of the war — was rewarded for his success by being named the commander of the Southern Department of the Continental Army, which at the time consisted of only around 1,200 regular soldiers who were half-starved and exhausted from fighting in the South.

Eager to prove himself, Gates took what he called his “Grand Army” — that was actually quite un-grand at the time — and marched it through South Carolina, covering some 120 miles in two weeks, hoping to engage the British Army wherever he could find it. 

However, Gates’ decision to march so soon and so aggressively turned out to be a terrible idea. The men suffered greatly, not only from the heat and humidity, but also from the lack of food. They trudged through swamps and ate what they could find — which was mostly green corn (a challenge for even the toughest digestive systems).

To motivate the men, Gates promised them that rations and other supplies were on the way. But this was a lie, and it further degraded troop morale.

As a result, when his army reached Camden in August of 1780, his force was no match for the British Army, even though he had managed to swell his ranks to more than 4,000 by convincing local supporters of the Revolution in the Carolina backwoods to join his ranks. 

This gave him more than double the force commanded by Cornwallis, but it didn’t matter. The condition of the troops’ health and their unwillingness meant that no one wanted to fight, and the battle proved this to be true. 

If those who supported Gates had known what was going to happen, they likely would have never given him such responsibility. But they did, and in doing so, they put the fate of the entire Revolution in danger.

Why Did the Battle of Camden Happen?

The Battle of Camden occurred thanks, in part, to the British decision to focus their efforts on the South following their defeat in 1778 at the Battle of Saratoga, which forced the Northern war into a stalemate and caused the French to jump into the fray. 

Fighting occurred in Camden slightly by chance and because of some over-ambitious leadership mainly on the part of General Horatio Gates.

To understand a bit more about why the battle happened when it did, it’s important to know more about the story of the American Revolution leading up to the Battle of Camden.

Revolution Rolling Down South

In the first three years of the Revolution — from 1775 to 1778 — the South was out of the main theater of the war. Cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were the hotspots for rebellion, and the more populous North was generally more eager in its dissent towards the British Crown. 

In the South, the smaller population — counting only those who were free, as around half the people there at the time were slaves — supported the Revolution far less, especially in the more aristocratic East. 

However, throughout the swamps and forests of the backwoods South, as well as among the small farmers who felt excluded from the privileges of the upper class and big landowners, there still brewed discontent and support for revolution.

After 1778 everything changed. 

The Americans won a decisive victory — the Battle of Saratoga — in upstate New York, and this not only reduced the size and effectiveness of the British Army in the North, it gave the Rebels hope that they could win. 

The victory also attracted international attention to the American cause. Specifically, thanks to an enduring diplomatic campaign led by Benjamin Franklin, the Americans gained a powerful ally — the King of France. 

France and England had stood as long-time adversaries for hundreds of years, and the French were eager to support a cause that would see British power struggle — especially in the Americas, where European nations were looking to dominate land and extract resources and wealth.

With the French on their side, the British realized the war in the North had become at best a stalemate and at worst a defeat. As a result, the British Crown had to change its strategy towards one that was focused on protecting the remaining assets it had in America. 

And due to their close proximity to their colonies in the Caribbean — as well as the belief that Southerners were more loyal to the Crown — the British moved their armies to the South and began waging war there. 

The British general in charge of this, George Clinton, was tasked with conquering Southern capitals one by one; a move that, if successful, would put the entire South under British control. 

In response, Revolutionary leaders, mainly the Continental Congress and its commander-in-chief, George Washington, sent troops and supplies to the South, and individual militias formed to fight the British and defend the Revolution.

Initially, this plan seemed to work for the British. Charleston, the capital of South Carolina, fell in 1779, and so did Savannah, the capital of Georgia. 

After these victories, British forces moved away from the capitals and into the backwoods South, hoping to recruit loyalists and conquer the land. The difficult terrain — and surprising amount of support for the Revolution — made this far more difficult than they were expecting it to be. 

Yet the British continued to have successes, one of the most significant being the Battle of Camden, which made victory for the rebellious Continentals seem far out of reach in 1780 — five years after the beginning of the war.

Horatio Gates’ Ambition 

Another big reason for why the Battle of Camden took place can be summed up with a single name: Horatio Gates. 

Congress was aware, by 1779 — even before the fall of Charleston — that things were not going their way, and they sought a change in leadership to alter their luck. 

They decided to send General Horatio Gates to save the day in the South, largely because he was known as a hero of the Battle of Saratoga. Congress believed he would be able to secure another huge victory and awaken some much needed enthusiasm for the Revolution there. 

A retired major of the British army and a veteran of the Seven Years War, Horatio Gates was a great advocate of the colonists’ cause. When the Revolution started, he’d offered his services to Congress and became the Adjutant General of the Continental Army — which was basically the second in command — in the rank of Brigadier General. 

In August 1777, he was given a field command as the Commander of the Northern Department. Shortly after, Gates earned his fame by securing the victory at the Battle of Saratoga.

General Gates, however, was far from being George Washington’s first choice to lead the Southern campaign. The two were bitter rivals, with Gates disputing Washington’s leadership since the beginning of the war and even hoping to take over his position.

Washington, on the other hand, despised Gates for this behavior and considered him a poor commander. He knew very well that at Saratoga the better part of the job was done by Gates’ field commanders, such as Benedict Arnold (who famously later defected to the British) and Benjamin Lincoln. 

However, Gates had lots of friends in Congress, and so Washington was ignored as this “lesser” general was installed as commander of the Southern Department of the Continental Army. 

After the Battle of Camden, though, any support he had was gone. Court martialed for his behavior (remember — he turned and ran from the battle at the first sign of enemy fire!), Gates was replaced by Nathaniel Greene, who was Washington’s original pick. 

Gates avoided criminal charges thanks to his political connections, and he spent the next two years out of the war. In 1782, he was recalled to lead a number of troops in the Northeast, but in 1783, after the conclusion of the Revolution, he retired from the army for good.  

What Was the Significance of the Battle of Camden?

The defeat at Camden made an already bleak situation in the South even bleaker. 

The number of enlisted men in the Continental Army reduced to one of the lowest levels of the entire war; when Nathaniel Greene took over command, he found no more than 1,500 men among his ranks, and those who were there were hungry, underpaid (or not paid at all), and discouraged from the string of defeats. Hardly the recipe Greene needed for success.

More importantly, defeat was a major blow for Revolutionary spirit in the newly-formed United States. Troops were not receiving compensation, and were exhausted and ill-fed. Men in New York were in a state of near-mutiny, and it was the general view that Washington and his army had no strength to continue the fight against the Crown. 

The fact that the South was torn by a civil war between Loyalists and Patriots was also of no help, and even those Southerners who supported the Patriots seemed to care more about the upcoming harvest than about helping the Colonies win the war. The odds of victory were simply too low for anyone to count on a victory. 

The condition which the Patriots were in at the time was accurately described by Historian George Otto Trevelyan as “a morass of trouble which seemed to have neither shore nor bottom.” 

On the other hand, Camden was probably the finest hour for British during the American Revolution. Cornwallis had opened a road to both North Carolina and Virginia, leaving the entire South within his grasp.  

And with it, the British were on the brink of a total victory. In fact, if it wasn’t for the arrival of French troops in the summer of 1780, the outcome of the war — and the entire history of the United States — would most likely be very different. 

Conclusion

As expected, Cornwallis wasted no time after Camden. He continued his campaign up north, advancing toward Virginia with ease and crushing small militias along the way. 

However, on October 7, 1780, only a few months after Camden, the Continentals stopped the British and delivered a major blow by winning the Battle of King’s Mountain. 

They followed this with another win in January of 1781 at the Battle of Cowpens, and later that year, the two sides fought at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, which — although a victory for the British — decimated their force. They had no choice but to retreat towards Yorktown, Virginia.

Soon after arriving, French ships and troops — as well as most of what remained of the Continental Army — surrounded Cornwallis and laid siege to the city. 

On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered, and although treaties weren’t signed for another two years, this battle effectively ended the American Revolution in favor of the Rebels, officially granting the United States its independence. 

When viewed this way, the Battle of Camden looks as if it was the moment of true darkness right before the dawn. It was a test of the will of the people to keep fighting for their freedom — one they passed and were rewarded for just a little more than a year later, when British troops surrendered and the fighting began to draw to a real end.

Sources

  1. Lt.Col. H. L. Landers, F. A.The battle of Camden South Carolina August 16, 1780, Washington:United States Government Printing Office, 1929. Retrieved on january 21, 2020 http://battleofcamden.org/awc-cam3.htm#AMERICAN

Bibliography and Further Reading

  • Minks, Benton. Minks, Louis. Bowman, John S.Revolutionary War. New York: Chelsea House, 2010.
  • Burg, David F. The American Revolution. New York: Facts On File, 2007
  • Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Case: The American Revolution 1763-1789. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Selesky Harold E. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 2006.
  • Lt.Col. H. L. Landers, F. A.The battle of Camden: South Carolina August 16, 1780. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1929. Retrieved on January 21, 2020 

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