The Battle of Camden, fought on August 16, 1780, was a major battle in the American War of Independence. It was fought between the Colonial forces led by Major General Horatio Gates and British forces led by Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis. It was fought about five miles north of the city of Camden, South Carolina. It was one of the worst and most lopsided defeats for the Americans in the Revolutionary War, and allowed the British to strengthen their hold over the Carolinas following their capture of Charleston.
The CombatantsThe following regiments took part in the Battle of Camden:
- 23rd Foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers
- 33rd Foot, now the Duke of Wellington's Regiment
- Two battalions of Fraser's 71st Highlanders
- Lord Rawdon's Irish Volunteers
- Tarleton's Legion
- Loyalist militia
- 1st Maryland Regiment
- 2nd Maryland Regiment
- 1st Delaware Regiment
- North Carolina militia
- Virginia militia
It is necessary to know some background to understand why the Battle of Camden was so important.
Before the Battle
The Battles of Saratoga, which ended in a decisive and influential victory for the Americans, forced a change in the British strategy. This battle had convinced the French to openly ally with the Americans in order to avenge their defeat to the British in the French and Indian War. This alliance forced the British to divert their resources― committed to quelling the American rebellion― towards French establishments in the Americas. As a result, they had to rely more on American Loyalists, centered in the American South.
This reformed campaign gained strength when Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, were captured in 1778 and 1780, respectively. Having masterminded the victory at Charleston, General Sir Henry Clinton returned to New York, leaving Lord Cornwallis to strengthen the newly gained Southern territory.
The vanquished Continental Army in the South, driven out of South Carolina in May 1780, had regrouped in Charlotte, North Carolina. Major General Horatio Gates, whose role in the Battles of Saratoga was celebrated, joined this band in July 1780.
Leading up to the Battle
In the first of his many errors, Gates ordered an uncharacteristically aggressive march into South Carolina. In doing this, he ignored the advice of the council at Charlotte, who knew that Gates' path led through primarily Loyalist-populated areas and could be troublesome for the Continental Army. Gates was also unaware of the capabilities of his own army, a majority of which was made up by untrained and inexperienced militia, and inexperienced regulars.
Gates also erred by sending small parts of his army to assist other operations in the area. The Continental Army was also significantly affected by diseases caused by the extreme heat and the insufficient and inadequate food. Many soldiers suffered from dysentery and other digestive disorders. This effectively halved the number of Gates' troops; while he had over 4,000 soldiers in his camp at Camden, not more than 2,500 were combat-ready.
The importance of securing Camden was that its strategic location afforded control over South Carolina's backcountry. This meant that the British strongholds further south had to send reinforcements to aid Lord Rawdon, who held station at Camden.
Alerted to Gates' ill-advised movement through Loyalist-populated areas, Lord Cornwallis marched to Camden with reinforcements, bringing the British forces in the area to over 2,000. This made the two armies effectively equal in numbers. Cornwallis also held another advantage: more than three quarters of the Brit army were experienced, regular soldiers, in contrast to the untrained militia making up the bulk of the Continental Army.
The Events of the Battle
The two armies faced off at dawn on August 16. This was in spite of the fact that the American army had suffered from fresh bouts of digestive disorders the previous day. As a result, even though the army outnumbered the Redcoats 2 to 1, the numerical advantage was soon wiped out.
Gates then made another error while forming his ranks, by placing his weakest unit, the North Carolina and Virginia militia, to the American left, in front of the strongest British unit, the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers and the 33rd Foot. The Irish Volunteers, the weakest unit of the Brits and commanded by Lord Rawdon, was stationed at the British left. This mirroring configuration was due to Gates' past in the British army, where putting the strongest division to the right was the custom. This was arguably his biggest mistake regarding the battle itself.
Gates also severely underrated his opponent Lord Cornwallis' strategic acumen. Gates' famous success at Saratoga had been achieved against John Burgoyne, an altogether lesser strategist and tactician than Cornwallis, and Gates' overconfidence led him to believe that his numerical superiority would win out in the end.
The battle was initiated by the strong British right flank, causing havoc in the North Carolina militia with the first volley, followed by a bayonet charge. The militia, lacking bayonets, panicked and many fled the field. The Virginia militia, stationed to the left of the North Carolina militia, gave up so soon that only three of the group were killed. Gates also fled the field alongside the first of the militia, leaving his subordinates to salvage something out of the almighty mess.
The British made short work of defeating the stronger American right flank. Led by Mordecai Gist and the greatly respected Baron Johann de Kalb, the American army tried to get to the weaker Irish Volunteers, but were repelled by heavy gunfire. The British left flank, led by Lord Rawdon, then destabilized the American lines with a counterattack, forcing the latter to wheel around and flee. De Kalb was shot several times trying to motivate and regroup his soldiers, and died of the injuries three days later.
While both Cornwallis and Gates had stationed their weakest units to the left following the British custom, the British irregulars and Loyalists were much more experienced than the American militias. If the American arrangement had been inverted, the weaker but more numerous American militia units might have had a chance. However, they were forced to face the strongest British unit, while the Loyalists and Irish Volunteers managed to hold off the strongest American section, allowing Rawdon's regulars to inflict serious damage.
Lord Cornwallis then unleashed Banastre Tarleton's light cavalry, notoriously skilled in pursuit operations. Attacked from the rear by Tarleton's Legion, the remaining Continental forces, which had bravely held the British at bay, broke ranks and fled. Tarleton pursued the Americans for about 20 miles before retreating.
About half the American forces were either killed or captured. All seven of their guns were captured, and an able commander was lost in the form of Baron de Kalb. An apocryphal tale states that Cornwallis, who respected de Kalb, personally oversaw, ultimately unsuccessful, British efforts to heal the fallen American general.
The British suffered 324 casualties in total, with 68 lives lost, 11 others missing, and 245 wounded.
Horatio Gates, who had retreated all the way back to Charlotte, North Carolina, was stripped of his military duties. Incredibly, his connections with the U.S. Congress meant that he escaped further punishment and inquiries. His reputation, earned on the falsely glorifying victory at Saratoga, was in tatters. Major General Nathanael Greene, who eventually evicted the British from the Carolinas, was appointed in his place as the Commander of the southern Continental Army.
Despite the emphatic victory, the success didn't last long for the British. Having led the army in this significant victory, Lord Cornwallis then found further success hard to come. He advanced into Virginia, believing that Virginia needed to be controlled in order to establish a stronghold in the South. This allowed Greene to recapture the Carolinas, effectively wiping out British presence in the South. Cornwallis' mostly failed campaign along the Atlantic seaboard eventually led to the siege and capture of Yorktown by the George Washington-led Continental Army and the French Navy.