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Camden in The American Revolution

Aug 16, 1780

Despite the crushing defeat at Charleston, Patriot loyalists in the Carolina interior waged a dogged campaign against British and Loyalist forces.  In April, General Washington sent them some support in the form of 1400 men under the leadership of Horatio Gates.  Gates was the Continental Congress’s choice for the job; Washington would have preferred Nathaniel Greene.  But Congressmen were impressed by the fact that at Saratoga Gates had not only won, he had won by making skilled use of the militia that fought alongside the Continental forces.  They hoped that he would similarly turn the often-undisciplined citizen soldiers  of the Carolinas into an effective fighting force in the South. 

Gates enthusiastically embraced this challenge.  Upon reaching the Carolinas he immediately ordered a rapid advance toward a British post at Camden, South Carolina. En route he added about 2000 militia to his 1400 regulars.  Wanting to hit the post before it could be re-enforced, he marched his men round the clock, but still, he arrived too late.  By the time his march-weary troops reached Camden, General Cornwallis had increased the post’s strength to almost 2500—most of them British regulars. 

Gates still had a numerical advantage, but not nearly as large as he thought.  Somehow his 3400 troops had grown to 7000 in his imagination.  Moreover, they were exhausted after their long march.  To make matters worse, many were suffering from the effects of the previous night’s baked beef smothered with molasses.  One soldier wrote that men “broke ranks” all night long to rid themselves of the heavy meal.

Even though his troops were in no condition for battle when they encountered the British forces on the morning of 16 August, he pressed ahead.  Yet his eyesight, luck, or intelligence failed him once again.  Not properly identifying the forces arrayed against him, he set his undisciplined Virginia militia opposite battle-hardened British regulars on his left.  Then he ordered them to make the first move against the British lines.  The British regulars responded, firing volleys and advancing with bayonets fixed. With this, the Virginians panicked, turned on their heels, and ran.  The North Carolina militia followed their lead and took off without firing a shot. 

For awhile, the Continentals positioned on the right side of the American lines held their own.  But once the British had crashed the left side of their lines, these troops were also doomed.  Soon the entire army was in chaotic flight. And leading by example was Horatio Gates.  Having the fastest horse, he made Charlotte, some 60 miles from Camden, by nightfall.

Camden was a disaster for the American southern effort and an even greater disaster for Gates.  The hero of Saratoga was humiliated and only narrowly avoided a court martial.  Washington quickly replaced him with Greene; it would take longer to repair Patriot morale in the South.

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