By Dr. John R. Maass U. S. Army Center of Military HistoryAugust 7, 2009
Fought on August 16, 1780, the Revolutionary War Battle of Camden, South Carolina, pitted American forces under Major General Horatio Gates against a small British field force commanded by Lieutenant General. Charles, Lord Cornwallis. Despite numerical superiority, the Patriot forces suffered a humiliating rout, one of the worse defeats in American military history.
After capturing Charleston in May, 1780, British forces established a number of posts in the interior of South Carolina to exert control over the state and to quell rising Patriot militia activity. One of their main bases was at Camden, an important transportation and communications hub in the center of the state. Opposing them by late July were several groups of South Carolina partisans, North Carolina militia troops, and a small nucleus of Maryland and Delaware Continentals. Gates, who three years earlier had stopped another major British invasion at Saratoga, New York, commanded all these Patriot forces.
From North Carolina, Gates quickly moved into South Carolina, where he hoped to take up a defensive position north of Camden in order to compel the British to attack him or quit their strong post there. After a grueling march through a Tory-infested country, Gates brought his tattered troops to Rugeley's Mills, a dozen miles north of Camden, by August 13. The American force of about four thousand men included twelve hundred veteran Continentals, augmented by three thousand state troops and inexperienced militia units. On August 15, Gates ordered a night march toward Camden, to begin at ten p.m. that night.
Coincidentally, the British also set out from Camden at ten p.m., directly for Gates' camp. Cornwallis sought to attack the Americans on the march, as they approached his position. The armies blundered into each other early on the morning of August16, and after a brief firefight, the two belligerents waited for daylight. Initially, the British deployed into line with their veteran regiments on their right flank, with cavalry in reserve to exploit success. Gates, too, arranged his forces and therein made a critical mistake. The American commander posted the Continentals, his best troops, on the right flank. On his left, Gates deployed the inexperienced militia, thereby placing them opposite the best troops the British had on the field.
Cornwallis was quick to take advantage of Gates' improper arrangements. After a few volleys, the redcoats advanced with bayonets leveled, which immediately routed the militia, many of whom threw down their arms and fled the field. While Gates and several of his officers vainly tried to rally the panicked militia, the Continentals fought valiantly on the American right. Despite initial success, they were eventually overwhelmed after the flight of the militia. Hundreds of Continentals were captured, while others fled to safety through the surrounding forests and swamps. Gates managed to regroup the remnants of his command in the coming weeks at Hillsborough, North Carolina, almost two hundred miles away.
Once news of the defeat became known, Congress moved to replace Gates, whose reputation never fully recovered from the debacle in South Carolina. One general or one battle, however, does not determine the outcome of a campaign or a war. American forces would rally under a new commanding general, Nathanael Greene. Within fifteen months they would confine the British to a few coastal enclaves in the Carolinas and Georgia. Meantime, Cornwallis would march off through North Carolina into Virginia -- to another coastal port called Yorktown.
ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021.