When Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis retreated to Wilmington, he ordered Brig. Gen. Lord Francis Rawdon to defend South Carolina with a command of 9,000 British and Tory soldiers. Rawdon's primary post was in Camden, a key British base, though the British maintained outposts across the state and in Georgia. In an effort to chase down and eliminate one of the major Patriot threats, Rawdon dispatched a 900-man detachment, commanded by Col. John Watson. This detachment was half of Rawdon's Camden garrison. Tory spies kept Rawdon informed of Greene's whereabouts. When Rawdon learned that Greene was marching toward Camden, Rawdon recalled Watson and prepared to defend the important British supply center.
On April 6, Greene detached a cavalry force, commanded by Lt. Col. Harry Lee, to assist Maj. Gen. Francis Marion's raiders in the eastern part of the state. If they could capture Fort Watson, they would sever Rawdon's supply line from Charleston. Col. Andrew Pickens was sent with several hundred troops to assist Brig. Gen. Thomas Sumter's three small regiments of South Carolina Regulars in the fight with British outposts at Fort Ninety-Six and Augusta. Then, Greene began marching his remaining force toward Camden.
On April 20, Greene arrived on the outskirts of Camden. Rawdon's defenses were too strong to attack, so Greene established a base on Hobkirk's Hill to threaten the British post and sent word for his detached forces to join him. Hobkirk's Hill was a low sandy ridge 1.5 miles north of Camden. Woods and low marshy terrain flanked the sandy ridge on the east and west. The Great Road runs through the center of the battlefield from north to south along a low ridge. Pine Tree Creek and swamp lands dominated the area east below the battlefield.
The area was covered with woods, and flanked on the left by an impassable swamp located behind “Holly Hedges”. The ground toward Camden, which was 1.5 miles away, was protected by a forest and thick shrubbery; but the time given to improve the strength of the position had not been properly used. The American position ran along Hobkirk's Hill from east to west. On the east end of the ridge, Greene placed two regiments of Maryland Continentals supported by North Carolina militia on the east end, and two regiments of Virginia Continentals on the west end. He also had some cavalry under Lt. Col. William Washington.
On April 23, Lee and Marion captured Fort Watson. Watson started to moving back to rejoin Rawdon. Because of this patriot action, Watson would not reach Camden in time to assist rawdon for the battle.
On April 24, Rawdon advanced in a very narrow formation, with three regiments in the line and three regiments following in reserve. This gave him a much narrower front than the Patriots, and he was hoping that he could surprise the Americans and defeat their left wing first.
During the night, a deserter reached Camden with some important news. Greene's artillery had been withdrawn, his supplies were low, and his force had been divided. Rawdon also learned of the deployment of Greene's force. Knowing that the Patriots would never be weaker than now and despite being outnumbered, Rawdon decided to launch a surprise attack on the Patriot camp.
The only way the British could reach Greene's position on Hobkirk's Hill was to march up the Great Road/Waxhaws Road linking Camden with Waxhaws. Greene deployed his army accordingly, with them camping in battle formation. He failed to prepare adequate defensive positions or make sure his advance outposts were positioned far enough away to sound an early alarm. The woods made it possible for the British to creep within artillery range without being seen.
On April 25, just before dawn, Rawdon led 900 troops northwest from Camden toward Hobkirk's Hill. He moved his force along the swamp on the eastern side of the road. They formed for battle facing uphill and northwest with a strong front. Rawdon formed his force: three regiments were in the first line; the second line was a mobile reserve made up 50 convalescents on the left and 140 Volunteers of Ireland on the right; and the third line was comprised of 60 New York Dragoons on the left and 130 South Carolina Tories on the right. A few dozen militia were divided and placed on either flank. Two 6lb. artillery pieces moved north with Rawdon. The British advanced quietly until skirmishers opened fire on the Patriots just southeast of Hobkirk's Hill.
The initial British firing surprised the Patriot force. They were not expecting the British to attack that morning. They quickly formed into a single line of battle along the brow of the hill facing south by southeast. This line was comprised of 930 men. Brig. Gen. Issac Huger's two Virginia regiments were on the right side of the road (Lt. Col. Samuel Hawes's 1st Virginia Regiment formed the extreme right and Lt. Col. Richard Campbell’s 2nd Virginia Regiment formed the right center), and Col. Otho William's two Continental Regular Maryland regiments were on the left side (Lt. Col. Benjamin Ford's 5th Maryland Regiment occupied the extreme left and Col. John Gunby's 1st Maryland Regiment formed the left center). Behind Williams was a reserve of 250 North carolina militiamen and Col. William Washington's 85-man cavalry detachment. Before the fighting started, 3 6lb. artillery pieces unlimbered in the road facing south between the Virginia and Maryland troops.
Perceiving that the British advanced with a narrow front, Greene saw this weakness and advanced his lines. The plan was to have the center attack the British directly, the Virginia and Maryland troops would wheel respectively on the British flanks and envelope them, and the cavalry would ride around to the east and attack the British rear. When Rawdon realized what Greene was doing, Rawdon had time to extend his front by ordering up his reserves, making the British front longer than the Patriot front. This nullified Greene's plan of attack and would throw it in disarray.
When the battle began, the Virginians began forcing back the British left. On Greene's eastern flank, Gunby became confused and pulled his regiment back to reorganize. The British launched a bayonet charge against Grunby, which panicked the Marylanders, who were soon routed from the battlefield. On the left flank, Ford was leading his men when he was severely wounded. His regiment soon retreated in confusion without executing their orders.
On the west side of the road, Campbell's left flank was exposed and the British quickly attacked. Campbell's troops could not stand the brunt of the British attack and fled.
The British troops broke through the Patriot center, advanced to the summit of the ridge, brought their whole force into action on the best ground. This British movement sealed the fate of Greene's attack and forced him to order a general retreat for his entire command. Luckily on the right side of the road, Hawes's regiment held on long enough to prevent what could have been the destruction of Greene's army. Washington's cavalry reached the British rear and captured a number of noncombatants. When he learned that most of the army was retreating from the field, Washington ordered his men to withdraw and assist in the withdrawal. They arrived in time to save the 3 artillery pieces from capture.
The Patriots withdrew a few miles and went into camp near Camden. The American defeat at Hobkirk's Hill was blamed on Gunby. The tactical mistake he made by pulling back his men to reorganize his regiment started an unfortunate chain of events. A court of inquiry found him guilty with causing the defeat, but did not call for his removal from command.
BRITISH FORCES AT HOBKIRK HILL
Col. Francis Lord Rawdon
TOTAL STRENGTH OF RAWDON’S ARMY
AMERICAN FORCES AT HOBKIRK HILL
Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene; Brig. Gen. Isaac Huger, second in command
Johnson: The whole regular infantry of the American army, at the battle of Hobkirk’s Hill, was eight hundred and forty-three present fit for duty.
TOTAL STRENGTH OF GREENE’S ARMY
CASULATIES AND CAPTURES
In his report to Cornwallis of April 26, Rawdon said he lost 220, of which at least 38 were killed. His official return lists 258 total casualties.
Williams reported 270 casualties after the battle, nearly half of whom were listed as missing. "Many of these, according to Williams, 'had not understood the order to rally at Saunders Creek;' a third of the missing had since 'been heard of' and would soon rejoin the army, he hoped...It is not known how many returned, but Rawdon reported that a large number, whose retreat had been cut off, went into Camden and 'claimed protection as Deserters.'"
Col. Benjamin Ford was so badly wounded that his arm had to be amputated, and he died within a few days. Capt. John Smith of the 1st Maryland Regt. was wounded and taken prisoner, but was left on parole at Camden when Rawdon evacuated the town.
Kirkwood: "25th. The Enemy sallied out and drove us back.....7 [miles]."
Greene, in a letter to Sumter of May 5th, wrote: “Nothing can be more unfortunate than our repulse the other day, which was owing entirely to an order of Col Gunbies [Gunby’s], ordering the first Maryland Regiment to take a new position in the rear. This impressed the Regiment with the idea of retreat, and drew off the second regiment with it. The Enemy were all in confusion and retiring at the same time. Victory was ours if the troops had stood their ground one Minute longer, and the defeat would have given us full possession of Camden, as the enemy would not have got back into town.”
Samuel Mathis, of Camden, to William R, Davie, written on 26 June 1813: “[Greene] galloped up to Capt. John Smith and ordered him to fall into the rear and save the cannon. Smith instantly came and found the artillery men hauling off the pieces with the drag-ropes; he and his men laid hold and off they went in a trot, but had not gone far until he discovered that the British cavalry were in pursuit. He formed his men across the road, gave them a full fire at a short distance and fled with the guns as before. The volley checked the horses and threw many of the riders; but they after some time remounted and pushed on again. Smith formed his men, gave them another fire with the same effect, and proceeded as before. This he repeated several times until they had got two or three miles from the field of action. Here one of Smith’s men fired or his gun went off by accident before the word was given, which produced a scattering fire, on which the cavalry rushed in among them and cut all to pieces. They fought like-bulldogs and all were killed or taken. This took up some time, during which the artillery escaped.”
Balfour in his letter to Germain of 1 May: “Judging it necessary to strike a blow before this junction could take place, and learning that General Greene had detached to bring up his baggage and provisions, Lord Rawdon, with the most marked decision, on the morning of the 25th, marched with the greater part of his force to meet him, and about ten o'clock attacked the rebels in their camp at Hobkirk's with that spirit, which, prevailing over superior numbers and an obstinate resistance, compelled them to give way, and the pursuit was continued for three miles. To accident only they were indebted for saving their guns, which being drawn into a hollow, out of the road, were overlooked by our troops in the flush of victory and pursuit, so that their cavalry, in which they greatly exceeded us, had an opportunity of taking them off…After this defeat, General Greene retired to Rugeley's mills, twelve miles from Camden, in order to call in his troops, and receive the reinforcements; but as Lieutenant-colonel Watson, of the guards, who had been for some time detached by Lord Rawdon, with a corps of five hundred men, to cover the eastern frontiers of the province, is directed by me to join his lordship, I am in hopes he will be able speedily to accomplish this.”