On 25 July 1780, Major General Horatio Gates arrived at Southern Department’s main camp at Deep River, thirty miles south of Hillsboro, North Carolina, to take command of the Continental Army assembled to drive Lord Cornwallis out of South Carolina, recapture Charleston, and put down any Loyalist counterrevolutionaries. “Granny” Gates, as his men called him, was the “Victor of Saratoga” and it was thought he could do the same to Cornwallis as he did to Burgoyne.
Unfortunately, Gate’s reputation was almost exclusively the result of the actions of his subordinates, John Stark, Enoch Poor, Daniel Morgan, and Benedict Arnold mostly, which he, and his sycophants, took credit for. Left to his own devices, Gates would have almost certainly lost at Saratoga. The argument can be made that he stayed out of his subordinates’ way, but that’d be wrong: the battle was won for the most part because they ignored his orders, or disobeyed them outright. In the Southern Department, Gates had few subordinates of the caliber he had in New York, mostly because he refused their services. The exception, of course, was Major-General Baron Johann De Kalb.
De Kalb was a German officer from Franconia, who had served in the French Army, and traveled to America before the revolution. He and his protégé, Marquis de Lafayette, were offered commissions in the Continental Army, and De Kalb was instrumental training the Continental Army at Valley Forge, even though von Steuben got most of the credit. As commander of the Maryland and Delaware Line, some of the best troops in the Continental Army, whom he marched south with, the fiery De Kalb was furious when he learned Gates was given command of the Southern Department instead of him.
As soon as Gates arrived, he ordered DeKalb to march directly on Camden, a supply depot and loyalist mustering center held by Lord Rawdon in command of 1000 troops: Carolina loyalists, volunteers from Ireland, and Banastre Tarleton’s infamous British Legion. Against this force, Gates had DeKalb’s Continental Line and the dragoons of Armand’s Legion. On the way he expected to pick up North and South Carolina and Virginia militia. Gates had no plans to attack Camden, and only wanted to occupy a defensive position north of the town, which would force Rawdon to either evacuate Camden, or attack Gates’ superior force.
The road to Camden was through barren country and mosquito infested swamps which took a toll on the army, which was already low on food and wracked by dysentery. Taking the direct route to Camden was against the advice of all of his officers who knew the country. An alternate route to the west was recommended. It would have taken longer, but it would have been through Patriot friendly territory where they could have requisitioned food. Gates refused. However, by the time Gates reached Rugeley’s Mill, about 15 miles north of Camden, Gates’ “Grand Army” swelled by the addition of 2100 North Carolina militia, 700 Virginia militia, and several hundred more South Carolina militia and dragoons. With almost 5000 troops, he was sure to force the British out of Camden.
Gates’ had no faith in his militia, and still had no intention of attacking despite the odds. At Rugely’s Mill on the morning of 15 August, he found out Cornwallis had reinforced Rawdon with about 1000 additional troops. Cornwallis heard of Gates arrival on 9 August from loyalists along Gates’ route of march. Cornwallis immediately departed Charleston with its garrison, and arrived at Camden on the 13th bringing the British army strength up to 2100. Despite the increase, Gates felt little need to change his plans. Gates sent most of the South Carolina militia away, including a band led Francis Marion, to continuing raiding loyalist outposts, and capture and burn all the boats, bridges, and ferries on the Santee River, to prevent Cornwallis’ escape after the inevitable British defeat. Arrogantly, Gates refused the services of William Washington’s dragoons, who promptly went on to raid independently. Gates assumed he had more than enough troops to defeat Cornwallis.
With battle imminent, Gates wanted to fortify his sick, tired, and weary men with a bit of rum. However he didn’t have any, so he substituted molasses. The molasses just made the dysentery worse, and gave everyone else a severe case of diarrhea. Nonetheless, at 10 pm on the 15th, Gates ordered a night march to cover the 10 last miles, and planned on being in the defensive positions above Camden by dawn.
Unfortunately for Gates, Cornwallis also ordered a night march at 10 pm on the 15th. He planned a surprise dawn assault on the American army which he thought was still at Rugeley’s Mill. The two armies collided in the night about 2:30am north of Camden at Parker’s Old Field near Saunder’s Creek.
The dragoons and light infantry of Armand’s Legion and the British Legion clashed in the darkness, with Armand getting the better of Tarleton after receiving the British charge with pistol fire and counter charging. However, the Virginia militia sent to support Armand had never been in a battle, and, in a harbinger of things to come, withdrew in panic at the first shot. The Virginians sent Armand’s lines into chaos, and only a rear guard action by Armand’s light infantry, led by Lt Col Charles Porterfield, prevented Tarleton from scattering the American vanguard. Both sides withdrew as neither Cornwallis nor Gates wanted to fight a night battle.
At dawn, both armies were lined up against each other, Gates’ 4000 and Cornwallis’ 2100. Both commanders followed the standard 18th century tactic of placing their best units on the right. For the Americans it was the Delaware and Maryland Line under de Kalb, for the British it was the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the veteran 33rd Regiment of Foot. Opposite de Kalb was Rawdon in command of the Irish Volunteers and the loyalist militia, and across the field from the Welsh and the 33rd was the unreliable Virginia militia. The same who fled the night before. Gates ordered the entire American line to attack, while Cornwallis ordered just his veteran right to attack.
Gates should have guessed Cornwallis would have placed his best units on the right and not placed his least reliable troops opposite them, but he didn’t. Even worse he ordered the Virginians to attack. Gates hoped to take advantage of the British transitioning from column to line, but all he did was made the militia difficult to control by their officers. At the first sight of a British bayonet, the Virginians broke and ran. They didn’t engage or even get close to the British line. The Virginians didn’t even fire their weapons. They dropped their weapons a fled for their lives. Only three Virginians were even wounded in the battle. The rest ran. They took most of the North Carolina militia in the center of the American line with them. Tarleton and the British Legion gave chase. As the Virginians streamed past, Gates took off. Followed closely by his staff, General Horatio Gates, the Victor of Saratoga, didn’t stop running until he reached Charlotte, North Carolina, sixty miles away.
De Kalb had barely engaged Rawdon to his front before he was out flanked by the British. He took control of the battle and assaulted Rawdon, nearly breaking his lines. But in the process, his left was exposed as the British overwhelmed the only North Carolinian brigade not to run away. He ordered the American reserve, the 1st Maryland Brigade, to support his left, but they couldn’t reach it. The American line was split. Tarleton returned to the field, and charged into the rear of the Continentals which broke them. Several hundred escaped through the swamp to the west where the horsemen couldn’t follow.
In an attempt to rally his men, de Kalb was unhorsed and captured. He had ten wounds – seven from bayonet and three more from musket balls. Baron Johann de Kalb died two days later despite the best efforts of Cornwallis and his personal surgeon. Tarleton pursued the routed American for over 22 miles, ensuring “rout and slaughter ensued in every quarter.”
The Battle of Camden lasted just under an hour and the Americans suffered over 2000 casualties, the British a little over 300. 700 Continentals reformed in Hillsboro a few days later, but the equipment losses were devastating and the American army in the South would lack the essential tools of warfighting for months. Continental Congress called for an inquiry into Gates’ actions at Camden, but his political connections ensured it went nowhere. Nevertheless, Gates never had a command again. Subsequently, the Southern Department was given to Washington’s most trusted subordinate, Nathaniel Greene. But until he and Daniel Morgan could come south from New Jersey and take command, the defense of the American cause in the South fell to Patriot partisans and the overmountain men mustering over the Blue Ridge Mountains.