Camden was Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis's most important interior garrison and logistical supply depot. Camden was a small but strategically located crossroads town by the Wateree River and Catawba Indian Trail and was about 115 miles northwest of Charleston. Cornwallis was left with the task of capturing the rest of South Carolina. Over the next few months, Camden became an important base of operations for the British army.
The town of Camden was central to controlling the back country of South Carolina because of its crossroads location. The threatening situation in the Carolinas alarmed Congress and Gen. George Washington. Measures were taken to protect the distressed section.
On July 25, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates arrived at Brig. Gen. Johann Baron de Kalb's Patriot camp on the Deep River in North Carolina. Gates decided to advance to the nearest British outpost at Camden, which had a 1,000-man garrison, commanded by Lt. Col. Francis Rawdon.
On July 27, the Patriots set out for Camden. Gates had chosen a direct march to Camden through difficult, swampy terrain against the advice of his officers, who were familiar with the area. They had recommended a route that would have started out west, then turned south. It was more indirect, but was through Patriot-friendly regions, which meant they could collect some desperately needed food and supplies. The route Gates chose was more difficult, but it was through unfriendly territory.
Gates also weakened his force during this time by sending 400 men to assist Col. Thomas Sumter, who had requested reinforcements to conduct his own raids. Gates' original strategy was to use Maj. Gen. Francis Marion and Sumter to cut off Camden's supply lines from the south. This action would leave Camden vulnerable and force the British to evacuate their garrison without a fight. Gates had counted on Cornwallis remaining in Charleston. Rawdon advanced from Camden to meet the Patriots and took a position on a creek, northeast of the town. Upon Gates’ approach, Rawdon fell back to Camden.
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On August 3 , Gates joined up with 2,000 North Carolina militia, commanded by Col. James Calwell. This doubled the army to a force of 4,100 men. A few days later, Gates was joined by 700 Virginia miliamen. For some reason, Gates convinced himself that he had a total of 7,000 men. Moreover, he discounted a warning that many of the men were sick. An old -time ritual was for the men to get a rum ration, thinking that this made for a smooth functioning army. Not having any rum with him, Gates gave the men some molassas as a substitute. The molassas and bad food created a sudden epidemic of dysentary among the troops. Gates had found the journey south difficult and the anticipated supplies for his army had not turned up along the route. The men had ended up eating green apples and unripened peaches.
On August 14, after learning of the approach of Gates and his army, Cornwallis returned from Charleston with 1,000 regulars to rejoin his troops in Camden Instead of waiting for Gates to attck him at Camden, Cornwallis decided to go on the offensive. He made a night advance which collided with the Patriots, who were also advancing to make an assault.
On August 16, around 2:00 A.M., advance cavalry elements of the opposing armies stumbled into one another on the old Waxhaws Road about 5 miles north of Camden. Both sides pulled back to await dawn's daylight. When Gates discovered that he was facing Cornwallis and an experienced British force, he decided that it was too late to retreat and prepared for combat. The battlefield hemmed into a narrow front by the swamps along Gum Creek.
Gates formed his men, but he made a fatal decision. The right wing was comprised of 900 Maryland and Delaware infantry, commanded by de Kalb. Gates placed on the left wing some 2,500 untried North Carolina and Virginia militia and a handful of cavalry and other light infantry behind them. There were also 7 artillery pieces throughout the line. This formation placed the least reliable troops in front of the best British Regulars. About 200 yards behind the front line, Gates stayed with the reserve, which was comprised of 3 small Maryland regiments straddling the road.
When the British appeared on the field, Cornwallis formed his army on either side of the Waxhaws Road. He placed Rawdon on the left wing, opposite of de Kalb. Cornwallis then placed Lt. Col. James Webster on the right wing, opposite the inexperienced Patriot militia. Col. Banastre Tarleton's Legion and cavalry was placed in reserve. Four artillery pieces were placed in the center of his line.
The British opened the battle by using their right wing to attack the Patriot left wing. In the face of an aggressive British bayonet charge, the militia fled before the British could even reach them. The Virginians broke and ran. Only one company of militia managed to get off a few shots before fleeing. The pell-mell panic quickly spread to the North Carolina militia and they also fled, breaking through the Maryland Continentals. Seeing the wholesale panic of his entire left wing, Gates mounted a horse and took to the road with his militia, leaving the battle under control of his subordinate officers. In only a matter of minutes, the entire left wing of the Patriot force had evaporated.
While the rout was taking place on the left flank, de Kalb's right flank was attacking after receiving the order from Gates. The Continentals twice repulsed Rawdon's troops and then launched a counterattack. The Continental counterattack was successful and the Rawdon's line was nearly broken. Cornwallis saw the action and was forced to ride into the action and steady his men. Meanwhile, instead of pursuing the fleeing militia, Webster wheeled to the left and continued his charge as a flanking movement against de Kalb.
The North Carolina militia regiment that had been stationed closest to the Delware Continentals held its ground, the only militia regiment to do so. They fought well and was joined by Maryland Continentals that had been called up from reserve by de Kalb. The Marylanders fought off Webster's attack, but now only about 800 Continentals were facing at least 2,000 British regulars.
The final blow came when Cornwallis ordered Tarleton to attack the Patriot rear. Under the cavalry charge, the Patriots finally broke. Some managed to escape through the swamp and de Kalb was struck 11 times before falling. The field was taken after an hour of fighting. Tarleton pursued the fleeing Patriots for over 20 miles before finally turning back.
Gates was in 60 miles away in Charlotte, North Carolina, by that evening. About 60 Continentals rallied as a rear guard and managed to protect the retreating troops through the surrounding woods and swamps.
Gates' actions were almost immediately questioned. After Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene replaced him in December, Gates returned home to Virginia to await a inquiry into his conduct during the battle. A Congressional inquiry in 1782 cleared him of wrongdoing, accepting his claim that his reason for leaving was to reach safety so that he could rebuild his army. He would not hold another command for the rest of the war, but did return to active duty before the end of the war, serving in Gen. George Washington's command staff. Greene succeeded Gates as the new commander of the Continental forces in the South.
This loss left the American morale in the South at a low and the region firmly under British control until Geene built the Continental forces back up in early 1781. At Camden, de Kalb died 3 days after the battle.
"General Gates had joined the army but a few days which time was employed in continual marches, he was entirely unacquainted with the character of the officers or the merits of the different corps which composed his army, and was ignorant of their numbers, having never received a return untill after the orders of the 15th were issued, the regular troops wanted rest and refreshment, the whole of the militia wanted arrangement and the ordinary preparation for a battle was intirely neglected among them, in Rutherfords Brigade there was scarce a cartridge made up, and their arms were generally in bad order; the consequence of continual marching & exposure. A man must have had more than ordinary good fortune to avoid a defeat under so many unfortunate circumstances."
"Saturday, 19th. Lay at Winn's plantation. An express arrived from Camden with the agreeable news of Lord Cornwallis' attacking and totally defeating Gates' army on the morning of the 16th; twelve hundred were killed and wounded, left on the field; and one thousand prisoners, eight brass field pieces taken, being all the Rebels had in the field, several stand of colors, all their ammunition wagons, a hundred and fifty wagons of baggage, provisions, and stores of different kinds. All this with the trifling loss on our side of not more than ten officers killed and wounded, and two or three hundred non-commissioned officers and privates…”
“…Every corps was broken and dispersed; even the boggs and brush, which in some measure served to screen them from their furious pursuers, separated them from one another. Major Anderson was the only officer who fortunately rallied, as he retreated, a few men of different companies, and whose prudence and firmness afforded protection to those who joined his party on the rout. Colonel Gunby, Lieutenant Colonel Howard, Captain Kirkwood, and Captain Dobson, with a few other officers, and fifty or sixty men, formed a junction on the rout, and proceeded together. The general order for moving off the heavy baggage, &c., to Waxaws was not put in execution, as directed to be done on the preceding evening. The whole of it, consequently, fell into the hands of the enemy, as well as all that which followed the army except the waggons of the Generals Gates and De Kalb; which, being furnished with the stoutest horses, fortunately escaped under the protection of a small quarter guard. Other waggons also had got out of danger from the enemy; but the cries of the women and the wounded in the rear and the consternation of the flying troops so alarmed some of the waggoners that they cut out their teams and, taking each a horse, left the rest for the next that should come. Others were obliged to give up their horses to assist in carrying off the wounded, and the whole road, for many miles, was strewed with signals of distress, confusion and dismay…”
"Major Davie hastened to the general rendezvous at Rugeley's mill. On the fifteenth, arriving after Gates had moved, he followed the army; and marching all night, met the first part of our troops about four miles from the field of battle...he continued to advance..[and learning of Gates’ defeat]...instantly dispatched Captain Martin, attended by two dragoons, to inform Sumter of this afflicting event; to urge him to take care of his corps by immediate retreat, and to request him to repair to Charlotte, whither himself meant to proceed, and assemble...On the night following, Captain Martin reached Sumter who immediately decamped with his prisoners and booty."
“They [the militia] ran at first like a torrent, and afterwards spread through the woods in every direction. Lord Rawdon began the action on the left with no less vigour and spirit than Webster had done on the right; but here, and in the center, against part of Webster's division, the contest was more obstinately maintained by the Americans, whole artillery did considerable execution. Their left flank was, however, exposed by the flight of the militia; and the light-infantry and twenty-third regiment, who had been opposed to the fugitives, instead of pursuing them, wheeled to the left and came upon the flank of the continentals, who, after a brave resistance for near three quarters of an hour, were thrown into total confusion, and forced to give way in all quarters. Their rout was completed by the cavalry, who continued the pursuit to Hanging Rock, twenty-two miles from the field of action…
[After the battle] Instant death was again denounced against those who, having taken protections from the British government, should afterwards join the enemy; and , to impress them with an idea that this punishment would be hereafter rigorously inflicted, some few of the most hardened of the militia, who had been taken in general Gates's army with arms in their hands, and protections in their pockets, were actually executed. But perfidy, it seems, was not confined to the lower ranks of men: By letters found upon some of the officers of general Gates's army, it was discovered that even persons of superior rank, prisoners upon parole in Charlestown, had held an improper correspondence with their friends in the country. In consequence of this discovery, those persons, and some others, against whom there were strong circumstances of suspicion, were at first put on board the prison-ships, and afterwards sent to St. Augustine, in East Florida, where paroles were again allowed to them but under such restrictions as their recent conduct rendered necessary.”
Overall Command: Lord Charles Cornwallis
Key: Rank and file/Officers, NCOs, supernumeraries, musicians total. Otherwise troop strength given is Rank and File total.
Right Brigade: Commanding Officer: Colonel Webster
Light Infantry: 129/148, Capt. Charles Campbell
23rd Foot: 261/292, Lieut. Col. James Webster
33rd Foot: 209/238, Lieut. Col. James Webster
2 artillery guns
Left Brigade: Commanding Officer: Lord Rawdon
Royal North Carolina regiment: 233/267, Lieut. Col. John Hamilton
Volunteers of Ireland: 253/303, Col. Lord Francis Rawdon
British Legion: 157/180 cavalry, 106/126 infantry, Lieut. Col. Banastre Tarleton (The British Legion infantry, under Capt. Patrick Stewart, formed part of Rawdon’s Division, while the cavalry under Tarleton was deployed near the Reserve with discretion to act as opportunity arose)
North Carolina Volunteers [militia]: 300/322, Lieut. Col. Samuel Bryan
2 artillery guns
Reserve: Commanding Officer: Fraser
Two battalions of 71st Highlanders: Lieut. Col. Alexander McDonald
Right Flank; 2nd Maryland Brigade (Consisting of the Delaware Regt. and he 2nd, 4th and 6th Maryland Regiments): Commanding Officer: Brig. Gen. Mordacai Gist (Total for the 2nd Maryland: 300-400 Rank and File)
TOTAL for the combined 1st and 2nd Maryland Brigade: 1,052/781
Centre Flank; North Carolina Militia: Commanding Officer: Maj. Gen. Richard Caswell
These included men from the following North Carolina counties: Franklin, Halifax, Chatham, Lincoln, Cabarrus, Anson, Rowan, Wilkes, Cumberland, Bute, Craven, Surry, Guilford, Caswell, Wake, Orange, Mecklenburg, Northhampton, Jones.
Butler’s Brigade: 600, Brig. Gen. John Butler
Gregory’s Brigade: 600, Brig. Gen. Isaac Gregory
Rutherford’s Brigade: 600, Brig. Gen. Griffith Rutherford
2 artillery guns
Left Flank; Virginia Militia Brigade: 700 men: Commanding Officer: Brig. Gen. Edward Stevens
These included men from the following Virginia counties: Bedford, Amherst, Dinwiddie, James City County, Louisa, Amelia, Spotsylvania, Henry, Pittsylvania, Charlotte, Lunenberg, Goochland, Chesterfield, Caroline, Northumberland, Montgomery, Culpepper.
One troop of South Carolina volunteer mounted infantry: 70, Maj. Thomas Pinckney
Armand’s Legion: 60 cavalry, 60 infantry, Col. Charles Armand
1st Continental Artillery [Virginia]: 100, Col. Charles Harrison, Capt. Anthony Singleton
Virginia State Troops [acting as light infantry]: 100, Lieut. Col. Charles Porterfield
TOTAL AMERICAN STRENGTH: 4,100/3,052
CASULATIES AND CAPTURES
“Return of the killed, wounded, and missing, of the troops under the command of Lieutenant-general Earl Cornwallis, in the battle fought near Camden, South Carolina, on the 16th of August, 1780.
Total British Casualties: 324 (68 killed, 245 wounded, 11 missing.)
Tarleton: Americans lost 2,070 men (70 officers and 2,000 rank and file.)
Stedman: “Between eight and nine hundred of the enemy were killed in the action, and in the pursuit, and about one thousand made prisoners, many of whom were wounded.”
Otho Williams gives the combined losses for the Continentals of killed, wounded, and missing, in both Camden and Fishing Creek, as 872, or 711 Rank and File.
American losses as given by Rankin: 800-900 killed, 1,000 prisoners, of these were 162 Continentals killed, 12 South Carolina militia killed, 3 Virginia militia killed, 63 North Carolina militia killed.
Ramsay: “Two hundred and ninety 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.”
Lossing: The exact loss sustained by the Americans in the engagement on the sixteenth, and Sumter's surprise on the eighteenth, was never ascertained. The estimated loss was as follows: exclusive of De Kalb and General Rutherford, four lieutenant colonels, three majors, fourteen captains, four captain lieutenants, sixteen lieutenants, three ensigns, four staff, seventy-eight subalterns, and six hundred and four rank and file. They also lost eight field-pieces, and other artillery, more than two hundred baggage wagons, and the greater part of their baggage. That of Gates and De Kalb, with all their papers, was saved. The loss of the British was severe. Gates estimated that more than five hundred of the enemy were killed and wounded; Stedman says the British loss was three hundred less than the Americans. A great many of the fugitive militia were murdered in their flight. Armed parties of Tories, alarmed at the presence of the Americans, were marching to join Gates. When they heard of his defeat, they inhumanly pursued the flying Americans, and butchered a large number in the swamps and pine barrens.”
Ward: The Continentals lost 650 killed wounded or captured; the North Carolina militia 100 killed and wounded, 300 captured; 3 Virginia militia wounded.
American officer casualties of note:
Maj. Gen. de Kalb mortally wounded.
Brig. Gen. Griffith Rutherford wounded and taken prisoner.
Brig. Gen. Isaac Gregory wounded twice, taken prisoner.
Lieut. Col. Charles Porterfield killed.
American cannons, muskets, wagons and stores captured:
“Return of ordnance and military stores taken by the army under the command of Lieutenant-general Earl Cornwallis, at the battle fought near Camden, the 16th of August, 1780”:
Brass guns: Six pounders, 4; three pounders, 2; two pounders, 2. Total, 8.
Iron guns: Three pounder, 1; two pounder, 1; swivels, 3; Total, 5.
Ammunition wagons covered 22, 2 traveling forges, fixed ammunition for six pounders, 160, same for three pounders, 520, stands of arms, 2000, musket cartridges, 80,000.
Tarleton summarizes the captures as 20 ammunition wagons, 150 carriages containing baggage, stores, camp equipage.