General Gates's Disgrace

Camden Battlefield & Townsite

"Picture it as bad as you possibly can and it will not be as bad as it really is." 

-- General Edward Stevens (U.S.A.)

"The road for some miles was strewed with the wounded and killed.  The number of dead horses, broken wagons and baggage scattered on the road, formed a perfect scene of horror and confusion, such was the terror and dismay of the Americans."    

-- Charles Stedman, British Commissary Officer

In the year 1780 the American Revolution was dragging into its sixth bloody summer.  The war in the northern Colonies had devolved into a maddening stalemate and so the focus of both sides had shifted to the South as the possible location where the conflict might be decided.  In the Spring of 1780 British Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis arrived in Charleston, South Carolina and quickly set about formulating a strategy that would hopefully see the large Loyalist population of the South rise to British aid and turn the tide of the war once and for all.  To accomplish this grand plan Cornwallis organized a series of fortified outposts at numerous towns located in the South Carolina backcountry.  These outposts would serve as jumping-off points for raids against rebel forces in the region as well as securing vital lines of supply and communication to the base of operations at Charleston.  One such outpost was established at a small colonial town to the north on the banks of the Wateree River...its name was Camden.

Camden, South Carolina was established in 1732, the fourth oldest town in the state.  The community, though backcountry in nature and far removed from the relative decadence of Charleston, none-the-less quickly evolved into one of the most important inland trading centers in the colony.  With the outbreak of the Revolution the atmosphere surrounding Camden remained mostly peaceful.  Despite a large powder magazine being built for use as a munitions storage facility by the colony, the war didn't arrive at Camden until General Cornwallis determined it to be of vital importance to the British strategy of subjugation.  A British force of around 1,000 men occupied the town over the summer and began constructing a network of defenses around the town in anticipation of a hostile American move southward.  When it was confirmed that a large Continental force was indeed on its way, General Cornwallis himself marched from Charleston with 1,100 additional men to meet the threat.  The name of sleepy Camden was about to become one of the more famous in Revolutionary War history.

On July 25, 1780 General Horatio Gates, who had gained fame in his victory over the British at Saratoga, New York in 1777, assumed command of the American forces in the South.  He immediately put them to the march with the British outpost at Camden firmly in his crosshairs.  His intent was to stop just short of Camden, build a defensive line, and gradually force a British withdrawl from the town.  General Cornwallis, though, had no intentions of giving Camden up so easily.  Leaving Charleston on August 9th, Cornwallis and his column of reinforcements arrived at Camden on the 13th, just two days before Gates and his force moved into the swamps and woodlands just to the north of town on August 15.  Inexplicably, General Gates wasn't content that evening to halt his march until morning.  Instead he ordered his force to continue south toward Camden in an extremely ill-advised night march.  Slowly picking their way through the darkness, Gates Army suddenly collided with a force of mounted British Dragoons under the soon-to-be-infamous Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton at around 2:00 am on the morning of the 16th.  Both sides pressed the fight initially but the confusion of a fight in the darkness soon convinced both sides to dig in and wait for morning.  The real fight would begin after the break of daylight.

Morning light found the two armies squaring off across the Great Wagon Road in a general east-to-west line.  Per military tradition at the time both commanders had positioned their best troops to the right side of their respective lines.  Of any decision they made, this was the one which would decide the outcome of the battle to come.  This was due in large part to the composition of each of the opposing forces.  In arranging his forces this way General Gates had placed his best trained Continental Regulars on his right while leaving the defense of his left almost entirely to militia units whose value in battle was tenuous at best.    This meant that the militia units on the left, then, would be facing the finest troops in Cornwallis' army.  It was a recipe for disaster.  At around 9am both commanders ordered their troops to advance.  On the American right (the British left) the Continental Regulars engaged in a brutal fight which saw attacks followed by counter-attacks by both sides.  On the American left, however, things quickly fell apart.  The British troops advanced in tightly packed ranks against the militia units.  The massed formations of the British advancing with bayonets at the ready was immediately too much for the terrified militia.  Almost without firing a shot the entire left flank of the American Army dissolved in terror and confusion.  To make things worse, General Gates himself was caught up in the apparent rout and almost immediately turned tail and began to ride for the rear.  Later in defense of his actions Gates claimed he was only trying to rally his troops back to their lines but this excuse rings hollow when you discover that Gates only halted his retreat when he was an overly safe 170-miles from the battlefield.  Despite the immediate collapse of the militia lines and the abandonment of their commander, several Continental units attempted to plug the gaps left by their fleeing comrades and stem the tide of retreat.  General Cornwallis, all but expecting the retreat of the militia units, wisely commanded his troops to forgo a pursuit and focus instead on the remaining Continentals who were thus-far managing to hold their own against the British onslaught.  Cornwallis had one last deadly card to play, however.  Tarleton's Dragoons were now released upon the American lines.  With their flanks slowly collapsing, this final ferocious cavalry charge proved too much for the brave Continental troops that remained.  The American lines collapsed under the onslaught.  Taking to the woods and swamps surrounding the area the fleeing American troops desperately sought escape.  Though Cornwallis' exhausted infantry soon gave up the chase, Tareleton's cavalry continued the pursuit for days capturing and brutally killing scores of Americans in the process.  The Battle of Camden had been an unmitigated disaster for the American Army which, for all intents and purposes, had ceased to exist.  It appeared Cornwallis now had an open door through which he could complete his conquest of the South.

The news of the American defeat quickly spread north through the Colonies.  General Gates became the obvious scapegoat.  His unprofessional and, quite frankly, cowardly behavior left the commander in disgrace and command of what forces had managed to escape was soon transferred to one General Nathaniel Greene.  Astonishingly the American forces were quite quick to regain their strength.  Cornwallis' "open door" to the South was quickly slammed shut.  Barely two months later Patriot forces utterly destroyed an entire wing of the British Army at Kings Mountain and, now under command of Generals Greene and Daniel Morgan, the newly reorganized southern Continental Army crushed Tarleton and another detachment of British forces at Cowpens.  At that point everything changed.  British fortunes in the South continued to decline (despite a victory in March 1781 at Guilford Court House) and, barely more than a year after Camden, General Cornwallis would find himself facing final defeat at Yorktown.

Likely due to the disgrace following the ugly defeat at Camden, the battlefield never received the level of notice or preservation granted to other more venerated ones across the region.  It has only been in recent years that a concerted effort has been made to make the historic site of the Battle of Camden more widely known and accessible.  Still, the old field of battle remains virtually devoid of monuments or markers and only those most dedicated to finding and exploring it will likely find it.  A small network of trails now loops through the site of the battle and a small collection of interpretive signs point out different locations and the events which took place near them.  It's a place that certainly fosters quiet contemplation and reflection of horrific events which took place here.  The town of Camden itself, however, has over the years happily embraced its long history and its ties to Revolutionary War fame.  On the south side of the present day village is a collection of late-18th and early 19th Century homes which together form the 107 acre Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site.  Here you can see reconstructions of the earthen fortifications built by the British during their occupation of the town as well as a handful of homes, both small and large, which were built in Camden over the intervening years.  Its a wonderful place to burn an hour or so and is the best place to get info about how and where to find the nearby battlefield.  

So in this album you'll find a two-part tour.  The first half of the page follows me as I tour the site of the Battle of Camden, at which I stop by each of the marked stopping points on the battlefield that can be reached by trail.  The second half of the album is a walking tour of the old town site and a bit of history on each of the buildings and the British occupation of the town.  Without further adieu then  I welcome you to Camden, South Carolina...its a place a bit less well-known than other Revolutionary War sites I've visited but I think you'll find no less interesting.  As always...ENJOY!!!

Battle Statistics

Continental Army

Commanding Officer: General Horatio Gates

Strength: 4,000

Casualties: 1,900 or 47.5% (900 killed & wounded, 1000 captured)

British Army

Commanding Officer: Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis

Strength: 2,100

Casualties: 324 or 15.4% (68 killed, 245 wounded, 11 missing)


  • Dave Kathy Weemhoff

    on November 25, 2017

    Quite the place for remembering..... the stats for losses for USA were staggering!