Towards the end of August, 1940, the Luftwaffe High Command realized that they were not shooting down enough British planes. In order to destroy the fighters, or at least force them away from the southern coast, the Germans needed to focus their attacks on fighter specific targets to compound the damage they were already doing in the air. On 23 August 1940, Herman Goring ordered the Luftwaffe to focus on RAF Fighter Command’s airfields of Air Vice Marshal Keith Park’s 11 Group.
11 Group covered Southern England and already bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s attacks. Goring’s new focus was devastatingly effective. Park’s airfields were smashed, and although heroic efforts were made to keep them open, aircraft, and more importantly, pilot availability was affected. On paper, the RAF had more assigned fighter pilots than the Luftwaffe, but the attacks on the airfields prevented the critical “battlefield calculus” from occurring: An experienced and awake pilot + a workable plane + enough fuel + loaded ammunition + a flat runway + an id’d target + time to reach it + a place to do it from all over again a few hours later = victory. The Luftwaffe was making that more difficult everyday. And only Herculean efforts by ground and maintenance crew were keeping British fighter pilots in the air.
Furthermore, as Park’s fighter squadrons were intercepting raids, his airfields were supposed to be protected by 12 Group’s fighters from the north, under AVM Leigh-Mallory. But Leigh-Mallory’s tactics were ineffective, and his squadrons routinely missed the Luftwaffe. Whereas 11 Group attacked raids quickly with a single squadron, 12 Group formed “Big Wings” of three or more squadrons, ostensibly to do more damage i.e. the principle of mass. Theoretically, it should work. But the Big Wings took too much time to form up, thereby becoming the classic “exception that proves the rule“ for the principle of mass, in other words “It’s not mass if it isn’t there”.
Finally, the Luftwaffe attacks unknowingly had a great effect on Air Marshal Dowding’s early warning system. One of the two critical vulnerabilities of the system, the Sector Control Centers, were only located on airfields for administrative convenience. (The other CV was the infamous “Filter Room”.) The Sector Control Centers were responsible for communicating directly with the squadrons, and they were smashed along with the airfields. Many RAF squadrons in late August and early September wasted their time flying around looking for the raids when the SCCs couldn’t direct them to one.
In early September, the pilot situation became critical. Shortfalls were made up by dragooning Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Command pilots, in addition to pilots from Canada, Australia, Rhodesia, South Africa, New Zealand, Belgium, France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and even a Jewish pilot from Mandate Palestine. But even cutting pilot training hours down to the bare minimum could not produce enough available pilots. At the height of the crisis, British Secretary of State for Air, Sr Archibald Sinclair noted, the RAF had “only 350 pilots to scramble, of which nearly 100 were Poles.”
On 5 September, Dowding had to confront the serious possibility that they needed to pull 11 Group north of London to put their airfields out of the range of the Luftwaffe bombers, or they wouldn’t have enough fighters left to repel any invasion. This would effectively cede the English Channel to the Germans. He planned to brief Churchill on the 8th.
For thirty years in the late 15th century, the War of the Roses raged across England and Wales (The War of the Roses was the real Game of Thrones). By 1483, the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose, had forced the remaining members declared for the House of Lancaster, the red rose, to flee to France. But internal politics had forced the regency council to declare the 12 year old Yorkist King Edward V illegitimate, and Henry, of the small House of Tudor and the last remaining Lancastrian lord, took the opportunity to invade.
Henry Tudor landed in Wales in early August 1485. Henry gathered troops from former Lancastrian allies, and met the forces of the House of York under King Richard III outside of the village of Bosworth. (Richard took the throne after Edward V and is the guy whose remains they discovered underneath a parking lot in Leicester in 2015) Richard III vastly outnumbered Henry Tudor and he divided his army into three “battles”: one commanded by himself, one under the Duke of Norfolk, one under Earl of Northumbria. A fourth force was on the field under Lord Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, ostensibly fighting for Richard. Henry kept his small army together under the Earl of Oxford.
Richard III ordered all of the battles to attack, but only his and Norfolk’s actually did. The Earl of Oxford held off the attacks and even forced some of Richard’s forces to retreat. Richard asked Northumbria for assistance but the Earl’s battle did not move. Henry, seeing the two immobile battles of Stanley and Northumbria, correctly surmised that they were waiting to see who won in the center before throwing in their support.
Henry saw an opportunity to win the battle and moved off to directly appeal to Stanley. Richard III saw Henry move toward Stanley and realized that the only way to win the battle was to kill Henry. So he personally charged. The bodyguards of the two commanders fought and Henry was almost killed. But when Sir William Stanley (the Earl of Derby’s nephew?) saw that Richard was isolated from the rest of his army, he and his men charged. Richard III slighted William Stanley years before and chose this moment for revenge. The combined weight of Henry’s bodyguard and Stanley’s knights overwhelmed Richard and his retinue, whom were slaughtered to a man. Unhorsed, Richard III fought to the death.
Henry Tudor was crowned on the field and the War of the Roses was over. The House of Tudor claimed prominence in England and King Henry VII would reign for 25 years. He was succeeded by his son Henry VIII (I am I am; the one with the wives), and his granddaughters Queen “Bloody” Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I.
After the fall of Fort Saint Elmo at the end of June 1565, the Turks maintained a constant bombardment and launched a series of joint landward and seaward attacks against the Maltese Knights’ main defenses of the town of Birgu, Fort St. Michel, and Fort St. Angelo.
The attacks were devastating but uncoordinated due to the death of the most competent leader, the Ottoman corsair admiral Dragut Reis who was killed by an errant cannonball during the final assault on Fort St. Elmo. The other two Ottoman commanders, Mustapha Pasha and Piali Pasha, despised each other, and their various schemes undermined the efficient and effective use of the Ottomans’ remaining resources, after losing 1/4th their force at St. Elmo. Nonetheless, they still had 30,000 troops and complete command of the harbor.
The Knights held through these attacks, but only by the slimmest of margins. Many of La Vallette’s subordinates wanted to trade fortifications for time, but La Vallette disagreed. He knew the only wany to defeat the Turks will to fight was to fight for every inch of the defense. Every Turkish assault that was thrown back degraded the Turkish will to continue, and more importantly, delayed the next Turkish assault, as they reorganized.
In the beginning of July, the Turks launched a surprise amphibious attack against the seaward side of the Senglea Peninsula, combined with a landward attack on Fort St. Michel. St Michel was exposed on its harbor side due to the fall of St Elmo, but an enterprising older French knight, Chevalier de Gurial, on his own volition, ordered a battery from the wall of St. Angelo to the shore. The battery waited until the Turks were within 200m before firing and their grapeshot and chainshot killed almost a thousand elite Janissaries. Fort St. Michel would have almost certainly fallen without the actions of de Gurial’s battery, and it allowed the Knights the time to build a palisade along the shore to protect against future attacks.
At the beginning of August, Fort St. Michel was again the focal point of a massive Turkish assault after a mine was exploded underneath one of the bastions creating a breach. The Turks stormed the fort and through sheer numbers forced the remaining defenders back to the chapel. As they were about to be overwhelmed, the Turks inexplicably (to the chapel defenders) fell back in disarray. A raid from the small outpost of Maltese Knights at Mdina, in the center of the island, which was never captured by the Turks, attacked the undefended Turkish camp and gave the impression that the relief army from Sicily had arrived, prompting the Turkish retreat. The Knights and Maltese engineers and citizens immediately repaired the breach and filled the mine. In mid-August, another mine detonated opening a breach in the Birgu wall and the Turks flooded into the town. La Vallette ordered the guns of St Angelo to fire on the town while the 70 year old commander personally led the counterattack to the breach. Despite fierce fighting and many irreplaceable defenders lost to both the Turks and “friendly” cannon, La Vallette and his body guard fought their way to and held the breach as the citizens of Birgu filled it in. An Italian mercenary wrote of La Vallette,
“de Valette was told the Turks were within the walls; the Grand Master ran to the threatened post where his presence worked wonders. Sword in hand, he remained at the most dangerous place until the Turks retired”.
After the failure of the mines, Mustapha placed his faith in two giant siege towers. On 18 August, he attacked the wall of Birgu again but this time with a great siege tower filled snipers which cleared the top of the wall. But as the tower slowly lumbered forward, La Vallette ordered the base of the wall hollowed out. As the tower neared, laborers removed the few remaining stone blocks, and two cannon were pushed forward. They fired chain shot point blank into the base of the tower, toppling it. The second tower’s base was hastily reinforced against the repeat of the same tactic but as it approached the Maltese removed the blocks and instead of cannon, Knights streamed out and stormed the tower, eventually capturing it.
The tower attacks were Mustapha’s last serious attempts to seize the forts. La Vallette maintained that the Turks were losing will after the repeated failed even though the cost to the defenders was dear. La Vallette was right. On 28 August he moved his army to the small outpost of Mdina, where there was a water source so they could winter there. But as they approached, the few knights and Maltese citizens fired all of their cannon recklessly, using up all of their powder. Mustapha thought this meant they had powder to spare, and having none of his own, fell back to his camp near the harbor. Out of gunpowder, and nowhere to winter on the island, the Turks launched one final assault on 1 September, which was beaten back with heavy losses.
On 7 September Don Garcia of Sicliy landed in St Paul’s Bay on the north side of the island with a relief army. Mustapha took the Turkish army to the southern shore and boarded his galleys the next day. The Siege of Malta was over and the fragmented and petty kingdoms of the “soft underbelly of Europe” were safe from Islamic conquest. The Maltese would rebuild the capital of their island and name it Valletta, after the indomitable Jean Pairsot de Vallette, Grand Master of the Order of St John and Defender of Malta.
In March 1965, the first US Marines landed in South Vietnam to protect US airbases as they supported the South Vietnamese Army’s fight against the Viet Cong and North Vietnam. On 15 August, the Marines learned that the 1st VC Main Force Regiment occupied the village of Van Tuong outside the Chu Lai Airbase on the South Vietnamese coast. In only two days (!?!?!) the Third Marine Division staff planned a joint combined arms hammer and anvil operation in complete secrecy to prevent VC infiltrators in the ARVN from tipping off the regiment about the attack.
On the morning of 18 August, the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment stormed ashore near Van Tuong in LTVPs launched from the landing ship USS Iwo Jima in the first contested amphibious assault since Inchon 15 years before. They were followed by 3/7 Marines. They were the “hammer” while the 2/4 Marines was the “anvil”. 2/4 was air assaulted into three landing zones west of the village by a company of Sikorsky S-58DT helicopters (you know: Riptide). The final battalion in the assault, 1/7, was reinforced with a company of M48 Patton tanks and secured the resupply convoys from the south.
The VC were completely surprised, but the Marines unknowingly played directly into their hands. The landing force did not have enough amtracs for more than one company at a time, so it was fed piecemeal into the fight for the small hamlets south of the village. Also, the far southern landing zone was only 400m from the communist Regimental HQ, was overlooked by the key piece of terrain in the area, Hill 43, and nearly overrun. Finally, one of the supply columns moved before the operation matured, and was promptly ambushed and surrounded. All three general actions (hamlets near beaches, the helicopter LZ’s, and convoy) were not coordinated effectively, and the operation was consumed in trying to desperately and disparately relieve each one simultaneously. Nonetheless, after heavy fighting, the battle was finally sorted out by nightfall: the Marines cleared the village and had the VC regiment surrounded.
Unfortunately, the Marines’ unfamiliarity with the terrain and distractions caused by severe thirst allowed the VC to exfiltrate that night. The Marines suffered 50 killed and 200 wounded, and the Viet Cong suffered about 600 killed. Operation Starlite, or the Battle of Van Tuong, was the first unilateral American ground offensive operation of the Vietnam War.
During the Polish-Soviet War immediately following the First World War, Marshal Pilsudski stripped the Southern Front in the Ukraine of many Polish units to prepare for the upcoming Battle of Warsaw. In mid-August, 1920, the Communists of Semyon Budyonny’s 1st Cavalry Army broke through the front and threatened the Polish city of Lwów (now part of the Ukraine). The remaining Polish forces of the Southern Front streamed back to Lwów to hold the city.
On 18 August, 1920, 500 mounted Polish volunteers from Lwow under Captain Bolesław Zajączkowski were sent to reinforce the Polish soldiers that were withdrawing in the face of Budyonny’s 1st Cavalry Army, known simply as the “Konarmiya” or “Horse Army”. As they approached the village of Zadwórze, they received fire; the unit they were looking for was destroyed there the day before. The victorious Communists were the lead elements of the Red 6th Cavalry Division and were happy to see more Poles to kill before they resumed their advance.
Before the Communists could form, Zajączkowski ordered his men on line, and charged the village. They took the train station, but could not seize the entirety of the village. The village of Zadwórze became a vortex for the Red Cavalry, as the Communists committed more and more of the division to break the Polish resistance at the train station. Zajączkowski’s men fought off six successive cavalry charges from their stronghold in the station over the next six hours, while continuing to fight for the rest of the village. With dusk fast approaching and ammunition dangerously low, Zajączkowski ordered what remained his command to fall back to Lwów.
On the way out of the village, Zajączkowski’s men were strafed and bombed by three Communist airplanes, which broke up his formation. Zajączkowski gathered what men he could, and made a last stand in a lineman’s hut just on the outskirts of the village. In the dark, the Poles and Communists battled with bayonets, rifle butts, sabers, and fists. Just after midnight on 18 August, 1920, the hut was overrun, and the last of Polish defenders were dead, or had escaped. The seriously wounded Zajączkowski killed himself rather than be captured and endure the inevitable torture and execution at the hands of the Communists. Of the Zajączkowski’s original 500 men who attacked Zadwórze that morning, only 12 reached Lwów.
The 11 hour battle for Zadwórze consumed the entire 6th Cavalry Division, and held up the advance of the Konarmiya toward Lwów for more than a day. Zajączkowski’s stand gave time for the Polish defense of the city. Not only was Lwów saved, the Budyonny became fixed in front of the city, and could not extricate the Konarmiya quickly enough to ride northwest to affect the decisive Battle of Warsaw.
The Battle of Zadwórze was nicknamed “The Polish Thermopylae” after the Greek stand against the Persians 2400 years before.
(The Poles seem to have an obsession for the Greek Battle of Thermopylae. Zadwórze is one of at least six battles throughout Polish history known as “The Polish Thermopylae”)
After the Achaemenid Persian defeat under Darius at the Battle of Marathon ten years before, his son Xerxes decided, under pressure from his advisors, to invade Greece overwhelmingly by land with an accompanying supply fleet offshore. In the summer of 480 BCE, Xerxes’ Persian Army conducted the largest seaborne invasion of Europe until the Normandy landings in 1944, 2500 years later. And then in one of the engineering marvels of the ancient world, the Persians constructed two 1,300m pontoon bridges across the Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles) and marched the rest of his massive army across over a total of seven days and seven nights.
The Athenian General Themistocles suggested that the Greeks make a stand at the narrow pass at Thermopylae (or “Hot Gates”, named after a warm spring nearby) and the adjacent straits of Artemesium. The narrow confines of each would mitigate the Persians’ greater numbers. Themistocles, an Athenian, would lead the Greek navies at Artemesium, while King Leonidas of Sparta led the Greek armies. On his march to the pass, Leonidas collected various contingents from other Greek city states, but due to the Olympic Games, during which fighting is prohibited, he could only collect limited forces. Nonetheless he planned to delay the Persians long enough for the rest of the Greeks to mobilize after the games. From Sparta, he brought only his personal bodyguard of 300 hoplites, and 900 other squires and armed retainers. The remaining Spartan army would fight with the main Greek army when it formed. Along the march he collected 4000 hoplites and 3000 more armsmen from the city states of Phocia, Trachis, Arcadia, Corinthia, Tegea, Mantinea, Thebes, Thespia, Malia, and Locria.
On 19 August 480 BCE) the 400,000 strong Persian Army under Xerxes I arrived outside of the narrow pass of Thermopylae and met the 8000 Greeks under King Leonidas. A Trachian lamented that the Persians were so many that their arrows would blot out the sun. A Spartan file commander, Dienekes, responded, “Good, then we will fight in the shade.” Hoping that the show of force sufficiently cowed the Greeks, the Persian herald demanded Leonidas surrender his weapons in a show of subservience to Xerxes. Leonidas responded “Molon labe”, “Come and get them.”
It took three days for Xerxes to organize an assault and on 22 August he attacked. The Greeks were armored in their traditional heavy bronze breastplate, helmet, and greaves, and armed with a large bronze shield (hoplon), an 8 ft stabbing spear (dory) that they used overhand, and a short sword (xiphos). They fought in their traditional densely packed shoulder to shoulder formation called a “phalanx” which was amazingly effective in the narrow Thermopylae Pass. The Persians were many and varied and from different provinces of Near Eastern Asia but few were as heavily armed as the Greeks. The only equivalents in the Persian army were Thessalian hoplites from already conquered Greek city states who were forcibly conscripted during the Persian advance. Persian arms and armor were meant for speed, mobility, and ranged attacks in the deserts, steppes, and mountains of their homelands. They could not withstand the rigors of close quarters combat in the narrow valleys of Greece. Their cane arrows and javelins couldn’t pierce the bronze armor; and their cloth, wooden or leather armor, and wicker shields, provided no protection against the iron weapons. Furthermore, the Greeks were soldiers in the Western tradition and valued discipline and maintaining position where their large shields could protect the man next to him. The Persians were warriors in the Eastern tradition which valued the personal kill. The Persian warriors continually broke formation making them easier to kill by the disciplined mass of Greek spears. Even Xerxes’ own bodyguard, the elite Immortals, known so because they always maintained a number of 10,000 due to casualties immediately replaced, could not break the Greek phalanx. Leonidas and his small army held the pass against overwhelming numbers for two days under constant assault.
In the early hours of the third day, a Greek traitor named Ephaliates led the Immortals on a little known mountain track which out flanked Leonidas. The small Phocian force sent to hold it was pushed aside. That morning, the Greeks met to discuss the new situation, and only the Spartans and Thesbians volunteered to remain and fight. The Thebans also stayed, but Herodutus said it was against their will. The rest of the army fell back to join the Greeks mobilizing after the Olympic Games. That afternoon the Persians attacked from both sides of the pass and overwhelmed the remaining defenders. The Thebans, bitter rivals of both the Spartans and Athenians, surrendered to the Persians. Leonidas and the remaining Spartans and Thesbians fought to the death.
Over the next few weeks, Xerxes went on to conqueror Phocis, Boeotia, Euboea, and Attica, to include the city of Athens, which was sacked. However, the time bought with the lives of Leonidas’ Greek defenders at Thermopylae was well spent. In September, Themistocles lured Xerxes fleet into battle in the straits of Salamis, where the Persian navy was decisively defeated. With no way to supply his huge army in Greece, most of it returned to Persia, including Xerxes himself. Xerxes turned the army over to Mardonius, Xerxes most powerful advisor and the newly appointed Satrap of Greece. In 479 BCE, the combined armies of the remaining Greek city states under Leonidas’ nephew, the Spartan regent Pausanias, defeated Mardonius and the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea. The victories of Salamis and Plataea cemented Greek freedom from Persian domination to this day. The Greek experiment in democracy was not killed off in the cradle.
Other raids departed about the same time Sumter and Taylor struck the fords and ferries across the Wateree. One such was Colonel Isaac Shelby’s raid on the Loyalist outpost at Musgrove’s Mill near a ford on the Enoree River. Musgrove’s Mill contained large stores of the area’s grain supply. On 18 August 1780, at the head of about 300 Georgian, and North and South Carolinian partisans, Shelby, the victor at Thicketty Fort, planned to surprise the loyalist militia garrison there, and seize the grain and any other supplies. Shelby was blissfully ignorant of the two recent American defeats at Camden and Fishing Creek.
The element of surprise was lost when Shelby’s men skirmished with a loyalist patrol just as they were approaching Musgrove’s Mill. It was fortunate that they did. The firing from the skirmish alerted a nearby farmer who informed Shelby that the garrison at Musgrove’s Mill was reinforced with several hundred more Loyalist militia and even some British regulars. The reinforcements were on their way to join Major Patrick Ferguson’s future expedition. Shelby was outnumbered more than two to one with no element of surprise. Furthermore, his horses were exhausted, so there was no quick escape.
Shelby decided to force the garrison into attacking him. He withdrew to a nearby hill and threw up make shift breastworks. Shelby then sent Captain Shadrach Inman with 20 Overmountain men down to the ford. When Inman arrived, he engaged the Loyalists on the far bank, and then his men feigned confusion and fell back “in disarray.” The entire Loyalist garrison of Musgrove’s Mill under Lt. Col. Alexander Innis chased after them.
Innis’ regulars weren’t British regulars, but red coated New York and New Jersey provincial regulars. Innis pursued Inman all the way back to Shelby’s defensive position, but Innis’ men didn’t fall for the ambush. However, when they spotted the breastworks, most of the Loyalists ineffectually fired on them. Shelby’s men held their fire. Innis was committed; the momentum of Loyalist advance carried them up the hill. They didn’t, or couldn’t, stop to reload.
Shelby’s North Carolinians, Elijah Clarke’s Georgians, and James William’s South Carolinians unleashed a devastating point blank volley into the advancing Loyalists. Nonetheless, in the brawl that followed, the provincial regulars almost overwhelmed the Patriot right with fixed bayonets. Just as the Americans were on the point of withdrawing, Innis was struck and fell from his horse, which caused the assault to stall. Sensing the moment was right, Inman and his Overmountain men charged into the provincials’ flank. After their feigned retreat, Inman’s men formed Shelby’s reserve, and rested. Screaming Indian war cries and using their tomahawks to devastating effect, the charge of the Overmountain men threw the provincial lines into chaos, and the already bloodied Loyalist militia began to waver. Shelby immediately seized the initiative and ordered his whole command to attack. The charge broke the Loyalist militia, which streamed back to the ford. The regulars surrendered, though some fled. Shelby inflicted nearly 230 killed, wounded, and captured on the Loyalists for just four killed and 16 wounded Patriots.
Shelby couldn’t rest on his laurels long. Soon after the battle ended, he was informed of the losses at Camden and Fishing Creek. Though disconcerting, the more immediate problem was Ferguson was not far off and was on his way to Musgrove Mills. On captured horses, Shelby and his men fled over the mountains into the Watauga Association, where they were temporarily safe from Ferguson. The Watauga Association was a semi-autonomous region of Overmountain Men settlements who had banded together to petition incorporation into North Carolina. (The Watauga Association would be integral to the future defunct State of Franklin, and eventually form the far eastern part of Tennessee.) Ferguson arrived at Musgrove’s Mill 30 minutes after Shelby departed.
The Battle of Musgrove Mills was one of the only battles in the American Revolution where militia defeated regulars, albeit provincial instead British regulars, but regulars nonetheless, in a straight up battle. More importantly, the news of the American victory was received after the losses at Fishing Creek and Camden, and did not get lost in the mix. The victory at Musgrove’s Mill softened the devastating blows that were the previous days’ defeats, and gave hope to the population that there were Patriots still fighting and winning against the British in the South. The American cause was not lost at Camden.
The American loss at Camden made Colonel Thomas Sumter’s partisans at Carey’s Fort the largest Patriot force in South Carolina. After his victory, Lord Cornwallis advanced to the old American camp at Rugeley’s Mills, which fortunately for Sumter took the British away from hi, for the time being. Nonetheless, when Sumter was informed of Gates’ defeat, he knew he was in danger of being isolated and destroyed. He couldn’t let the British and Loyalists get between him and the nearest rebel base at Charlotte, or from the overmountain men mustering camps across the Blue Ridge Mountains. On 17 August 1780, Sumter’s men departed Carey’s Fort laden with 250 prisoners, 300 head of cattle, a flock of sheep, and 70 much needed wagons filled with supplies.
Moving slowly up the west bank of the Wateree River, Sumter was not counting on Cornwallis wanting those wagons back so badly. (Legend has it one of them contained his dogs and papers.) Cornwallis dispatched most of his cavalry and loyalist commanders to chase down Sumter and specifically retrieve those wagons. In his characteristic aggressive manner, Lt Col Banastre Tarelton’s British Legion made a 30 mile mostly night road march from Rugeley’s Mills to Camden in an attempt to cut off Sumter. Finding Sumter gone, Tarleton planned to cross the Wateree north of Carey’s Fort at Rocky Mount. However, when he arrived, Sumter was camped on the east bank. With the ford guarded, Tarleton waited for the rest of his command to catch up.
Sumter knew about orders to Ferguson to cut him off, but was neither aware of any to Tarleton, the speed of Tarleton’s advance, nor the fact he was just across the river from Rocky Mount. Sumter pushed his convoy as fast as they could go, but they needed a rest. On 18 August, Sumter’s column marched just eight miles to a camp on Fishing Creek.
Tarleton wasn’t going to let Sumter escape. Most of his light infantry and supporting loyalist militia was still strung out on the road behind, but he decided to attack anyway. He had 100 dragoons and sixty light infantry which he doubled up on the dragoon’s horses for the approach march. He crossed at Rocky Mount after Sumter departed. With just 160 men, Tarleton attacked Sumter’s nearly 800 strong camp on Fishing Creek on the afternoon of 18 August 1780.
The surprise was complete. Most of Sumter’s men were swimming in the Catawba River (The Catawba River turns into the Wateree River as it flows south) or were drinking around campfires after a tasty supper courtesy of the captured British provisions. Most of the muskets were stacked neatly near the river, and Tarleton ordered a charge to seize the muskets before the Americans could organize.
The “Battle” of Fishing Creek wasn’t a battle at all. The Americans had no chance to organize a defense. 150 Americans were immediately cut down by dragoon sabers, and over 300 surrendered. Sumter’s force was scattered. A dozing and half-dressed Sumter had just enough time to swing into the saddle and escape. The British prisoners were released and everything Taylor captured at Carey’s Fort was recovered. Taylor himself was captured, but he was so muddy and dirty the British didn’t recognize him. He and another Patriot officer cunningly escaped two days later.
Coming so close on the heels of the British victory of Camden, the news of Tarleton’s victory at Fishing Creek was lost in the mix. Nonetheless, the Americans partisans in the South suffered a major defeat, which would be tough to recover from.
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.
The war for the Carolina backcountry intensified after the successful capture of Thicketty Fort, as patriot commanders raided Major Patrick Ferguson’s loyalist outposts. Ferguson, with a smattering of British regulars and provincial loyalists from up North, was desperately trying to recruit and train Carolinian and Georgian loyalist militia to defeat the overmountain men gathering in large numbers over the Blue Ridge. An American army led by Horatio Gates had just entered South Carolina and threatened Camden, an important depot town and loyalist mustering center, one of the few that was far too large for patriot partisans to attack. After the victory at Hanging Rock, Patriot Colonel Thomas Sumter’s next targets were the vulnerable fords and ferries on the Wateree River. Sumter wanted to strike them before the inevitable clash between Gates and Cornwallis. Sumter dispatched Col Thomas Taylor to scout one of Camden’s satellite training camps, Carey’s Fort, which also guarded the ferry over the Wateree River about a mile south of Camden behind Cornwallis’ main body.
On the morning of 15 August 1780, Taylor with about two hundred cavalry and militia, found the small British garrison of Carey’s Fort under its namesake, prominent local Loyalist Lt-Col James Carey, fast asleep. Seizing the moment, Taylor’s men quickly stormed the fort, and took the entire 37 man garrison prisoner without firing a shot. Taylor captured about thirty wagons full of supplies, which were supposed to be ferried across the river and sent to Camden that morning. Cornwallis’ army, across the river a mile away, had no idea that anything was amiss. After a quick interrogation, Taylor learned that a supply convoy from another large Loyalist outpost at Ninety Six was also scheduled to arrive that day.
Dressed the same as the loyalists they captured, Taylor’s men posed as the garrison, even waving to curious loyalists on the other side of the river who were sent to find out why the wagons had not crossed yet. Later that morning, the convoy from Ninety Six arrived. The convoy’s thirty wagons were escorted by 70 Highlanders of the British 71st Regiment. By the time the Highlanders figured out the ruse, they were in no position to fight, and were all captured. Upon learning the news of Carey Fort’s capture, Sumter brought his whole command down from his own raid to reinforce Taylor.
The loss of Carey’s Fort, and more importantly, the ferry over the Wateree River, effectively severed Cornwallis’ lines of communication from Camden to Ninety Six and Charleston. And there was nothing the British could do about it: The fort and ferry boats were secure on the west side of the fast and deep Wateree River, and the British were on the east side, impotent and helpless as the Americans taunted them. Furthermore, if the much ballyhooed Gates, with his “Grand Army” defeated Cornwallis in battle north of Camden, Cornwallis would be forced to retreat away from Charleston into the wilderness and swamps of north east South Carolina. The defeated remnants of Cornwallis’ army would then be at the mercy of American partisans. With the fall of Carey’s Fort, the war in the South, and possibly the entire American Revolution, could be won by the Patriots in the next few days.
Gates just had to defeat Cornwallis at Camden; and the Victor of Saratoga outnumbered Cornwallis nearly two to one.