The Battle of Camden

After his great victory at Charleston, Clinton moved quickly to consolidate British control of South Carolina. He sent columns of troops into the interior to occupy a string of posts from Cheraw through Camden to Ninety Six. He secured the seacoast by garrisoning Georgetown and Beaufort in addition to Savannah and Charleston. On June 5, Clinton set sail for New York City after learning that a French fleet was heading to Newport. He left behind General Charles Cornwallis with 8,000 men.

Horatio Gates Is Sent South

The United States seemed in danger of losing the south in the summer of 1780. The British had engulfed Georgia and South Carolina and were busily consolidating their grip on those states. The American army in the south had been wiped out. Nothing stood between the British and an invasion of North Carolina and Virginia. All the news that found its way north was bad.

Word of one engagement in particular sealed the notoriety of Banastre Tarleton. Colonel Abraham Buford was leading a regiment of 350 Virginia Continentals toward Charleston when the city fell. General Huger ordered him to retreat back to North Carolina. On May 29, Buford was overtaken by Tarleton and his Legion at the Waxhaws near the North Carolina border. Tarleton's cavalry overran Buford's men. When Buford tried to surrender, the loyalists of the Legion kept attacking, cutting down men without mercy, bayoneting the wounded. When the slaughter ended, 113 Americans had been killed and fifty captured. More than 150 were so badly wounded that they were left behind. Tarleton lost five dead and twelve wounded. From then on, southern Patriots fiercely denounced “Tarleton's quarter.”

Early in the war, the British made little use of loyalists. This attitude changed after Saratoga. By the end of 1778, the British had recruited 7,500 provincial troops. Loyalist units like Tarleton's Legion would play a pivotal role in the southern campaign.

Concerned about the situation around Charleston, Washington ordered 1,400 Maryland and Delaware Continentals to march south. Commanding them was the Baron De Kalb, a German soldier of fortune who had accompanied Lafayette to America. De Kalb was a brave and able man. He was in North Carolina when he learned of the fall of Charleston, and he stayed there, struggling to collect supplies from the local authorities and persuade the North Carolina militia to reinforce his command.

The surrender of Benjamin Lincoln with his army at Charleston compelled Congress to find another commander for the Southern Department. As a foreigner, De Kalb was out of the running. At this moment of crisis, Congress ignored Washington's advice and turned to Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga. Gates was living at his Virginia plantation when word of his appointment reached him. Charles Lee, who lived nearby and who knew the vicissitudes of war, warned Gates, “Take care lest your Northern laurels turn to Southern willows.” Gates, however, was happy to return to the field. He formally took command of the Southern Department on July 25.

The Destruction of an Army

The army Gates took over from De Kalb barely deserved the name. The men were hungry, the North Carolina authorities having failed to provide for the troops. Despite this, Gates decided on an advance against the British post at Camden, South Carolina. Instead of taking the route that De Kalb and other officers recommended, which traversed prosperous counties that were Patriot in their sympathies, Gates insisted on taking the most direct road, through thinly populated pine barrens, where supplies would be in desperately short supply.

One reason for the difficulties in supplying American armies was the financial chaos in the country caused by the depreciation of the currency. By late 1779, the price of a barrel of salt had risen from $1 to $36. A horse could cost $20,000 and a hat $400.

The march was a miserable experience. The men were forced to subsist on what they could find, mostly green corn and green apples, which made them sick. Dysentery became a problem. Units of militia joined Gates along the way. The British detected the approach of the Americans. Alarmed, Cornwallis came up from Charleston, bringing the British forces in Camden to 2,239 men. By the time Gates neared Camden, he believed that he had 7,000 men. When one of his officers pointed out that the real number was only a little over 3,000, Gates replied, “Sir, there are enough for our purpose.”

Most of the men with Gates were militia. He had only 900 seasoned Continentals. On the night of August 15, Gates set his army in motion toward Camden, hoping to catch the enemy by surprise. There would be a surprise, but it was mutual. Cornwallis had decided on a similar advance against the Americans. The two armies met in the dark; after a short firefight, they settled down to await the morning. Gates held a council of war to decide on a course of action. De Kalb and the most experienced officers wanted to retreat. A militia commander exclaimed that it was too late to retreat. Hearing this, Gates closed the council with the words, “We must fight, then. To your commands, gentlemen.”

Gates deployed his army in a line between two swamps, the militia on the left and De Kalb and 600 Continentals on the right. The rest of the Continentals acted as a reserve. As the British began to march toward the American line, Gates sent 500 Virginia militiamen forward to the attack. When the untried militiamen saw the advancing British bayonets, they turned and ran. Once the 2,000 North Carolina militiamen saw the Virginians running, they panicked and bolted for the rear as well. The mob of militiamen overran and disordered the reserve, carrying Gates with them. De Kalb and his Continentals were left alone on the field. They drove back the first attack with a bayonet charge. They continued to resist though all but surrounded, wielding their bayonets with great effect, until De Kalb fell, mortally wounded and bleeding from eleven wounds. The remnant scattered.

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