(August 16, 1780). In early April 1780, as British forces tightened their grip around Charleston, the Maryland Division, the Delaware Regiment, and the First Continental Artillery Regiment received orders to march for the Southern Department, where they were expected to serve as the main component of a Charleston relief expedition. With the fall of Charleston on May 12, this element of the Continental army, under the command of Major General Baron Johann de Kalb, became the only significant force in the South. The Continental Congress, however, felt that the crisis deserved a more illustrious savior and appointed Major General Horatio Gates, the hero of the Saratoga campaign, to command the Southern Department. He arrived in de Kalb’s camp at Buffalo Ford in North Carolina on July 25.
The new commander resolved to advance on the British outpost at Camden, South Carolina. De Kalb agreed but suggested taking the route via Salisbury and Charlotte through friendly country in order to obtain food and supplies for the army. Gates instead chose a direct march to catch the British garrison by surprise. The “grand army” (as Gates called his force) set out immediately on July 27 on a long and weary march with little to eat. North Carolina and Virginia militiamen eventually joined the American forces, which added to their logistical difficulties.
In Charleston, the British general Charles, Lord Cornwallis learned of Gates’s advance and marched to Camden with a reinforcement of one thousand soldiers, doubling the size of the Camden garrison. On arrival, Cornwallis started north from Camden to intercept the enemy. The two armies bumped into each other six miles north of Camden on the night of August 15 but withdrew to await the morning. Both sides were hemmed into a narrow battlefront by the swamps near Saunder’s Creek. This should have worked to the advantage of the Americans, who had numerical superiority, but in positioning his forces Gates made a fatal error. He placed all of his seasoned units on the right and the untrained militia on the left, unsupported by the Continental reserve. When the British attacked the next morning, the redcoats charged into the American left wing and routed the militiamen. Many threw down their muskets and ran without firing a shot. The British infantry wheeled left into the flank of de Kalb’s Continentals. Fighting was fierce, but the Maryland and Delaware Regiments were outnumbered and soon succumbed. De Kalb fought bravely until he fell mortally wounded.
Approximately eight hundred Americans were killed or wounded, and another one thousand were taken prisoner. The army that Gates had inherited was destroyed, and he reputedly departed the battlefield with the initial British assault and rode posthaste all the way to Charlotte. The defeat at Camden was one of the worst losses suffered by the Continental army. British and Loyalist morale soared as a consequence, but Cornwallis still had to deal with bands of marauding partisans before moving into North Carolina. By the time Cornwallis had seemingly solidified his control of South Carolina, a reformed American army was organizing in North Carolina.
Lumpkin, Henry. From Savannah to Yorktown: The American Revolution in the South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981.
Nelson, Paul David. General Horatio Gates: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.