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American Revolution: Battle of Camden

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American Revolution: Battle of Camden

Death of De Kalb at the Battle of Camden, 1780

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Battle of Camden - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Camden was fought August 16, 1780, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Armies & Commanders

Americans

  • Major General Horatio Gates
  • Major General Johann de Kalb
  • 3,700 men

    British

  • Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis
  • Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton
  • Lord Rawdon
  • 2,200 men
  • Battle of Camden - Background:

    Having withdrawn from Philadelphia to New York in 1778, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton, commanding British forces in North America, shifted his focus south. That December, British troops captured Savannah, GA and in the spring of 1780 laid siege to Charleston, SC. When the city fell in May 1780, Clinton succeeded in capturing the bulk of the Continental Army's southern forces. Raiding from the city, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton defeated another retreating American force at the Battle of Waxhaws on May 29. Having taken the city, Clinton departed leaving Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis in command.

    With the exception of partisan groups operating in the South Carolina backcountry, the closest American forces to Charleston were two Continental regiments commanded by Major General Baron Johann de Kalb at Hillsborough, NC. To rescue the situation, the Continental Congress turned to the victor of Saratoga, Major General Horatio Gates. Riding south, he arrived in de Kalb's camp at Deep River, NC on July 25. Assessing the situation, he found that the army was lacking in food as the local population, disillusioned by the recent string of defeats, was not offering supplies.

    In an effort to restore morale, Gates proposed immediately moving against Lieutenant Colonel Lord Francis Rawdon's outpost at Camden, SC. Though de Kalb was willing to attack, he recommended moving through Charlotte and Salisbury to obtain badly needed supplies. This was rejected by Gates who insisted on speed and began leading the army south through the North Carolina pine barrens. Joined by Virginia militia and additional Continental troops, Gates' army had little to eat during the march beyond what could be scavenged from the countryside.

    Moving to Battle:

    Crossing the Pee Dee River on August 3, they met 2,000 militia led by Colonel James Caswell. This addition swelled Gates' force to around 4,500 men, but further worsened the logistical situation. Approaching Camden, but believing he greatly outnumbered Rawdon, Gates dispatched 400 men to aid Thomas Sumter with an attack on a British supply convoy. On August 9, having been informed of Gates' approach, Cornwallis marched out from Charleston with reinforcements. Arriving at Camden, the combined British force numbered around 2,200 men. Due to disease and hunger, Gates possessed around 3,700 healthy men.

    Deployments:

    Rather than wait at Camden, Cornwallis began probing north. Late on August 15, the two forces made contact approximately five miles north of the town. Pulling back for the night, they prepared for battle the next day. Deploying in the morning, Gates made the error of placing the bulk of his Continental troops (de Kalb's command) on his right, with the North Carolina and Virginia militia on the left. A small group of dragoons under Colonel Charles Armand was to their rear. As a reserve, Gates retained Brigadier General William Smallwood's Maryland Continentals behind the American line.

    In forming his men, Cornwallis made similar deployments placing his most experienced troops, under Lieutenant Colonel James Webster, on the right while Rawdon's Loyalist and Volunteers of Ireland militia opposed de Kalb. As a reserve, Cornwallis held back two battalions of the 71st Foot as well as Tarleton's cavalry. Facing off, the two armies were constrained to a narrow battlefield which was hemmed in on either side by the swamps of Gum Creek.

    The Battle of Camden:

    The battle commenced in the morning with Cornwallis' right attacking the American militia. As the British moved forward, Gates ordered the Continentals on his right to advance. Firing a volley into the militia, the British inflicted several casualties before surging forward with a bayonet charge. Largely lacking bayonets and rattled by the opening shots, the bulk of the militia immediately fled the field. As his left wing disintegrated, Gates joined the militia in fleeing. Pushing forward, the Continentals fought vigorously and repelled two assaults by Rawdon's men (Map).

    Counterattacking, the Continentals came close to breaking Rawdon's line, but were soon taken in the flank by Webster. Having routed the militia, he turned his men and began assaulting the Continental's left flank. Stubbornly resisting, the Americans were finally forced to withdraw when Cornwallis ordered Tarleton to attack their rear. In the course of the fighting, de Kalb was wounded eleven times and left on the field. Retreating from Camden, the Americans were pursued by Tarleton's troopers for approximately twenty miles.

    Aftermath of Camden:

    The Battle of Camden saw Gates' army suffered around 800 killed and wounded and another 1,000 captured. In addition, the Americans lost eight guns and the bulk of their wagon train. Captured by the British, de Kalb was cared for by Cornwallis' doctor before dying on August 19. British losses totaled 68 killed, 245 wounded, and 11 missing. A crushing defeat, Camden marked the second time an American army in the South was effectively destroyed in 1780. Having fled the field during the fighting, Gates rode sixty miles to Charlotte by nightfall. Disgraced, he was removed from command in favor of the dependable Major General Nathanael Greene that fall.

    Selected Sources

  • Symonds, Craig (1986). A Battlefield Atlas of the American Revolution. Baltimore, MD: The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America.
  • British Battles: Battle of Camden
  • US Army Center for Military History: Battle of Camden
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