1777 Northern Theater of American Revolution
“Too Cautious” was the description of General Gates by his subordinates at the battles at Saratoga. Indeed, Benedict Arnold’s ultimate treason of the American cause had much to do with his dissatisfaction of General Horatio Gates; who he called ‘the greatest poltroon in the world and many other genteel qualifications.’ Major General Nathaniel Greene would write a similar, eloquent negative concerning Gates. And even though Greene went on to praise Generals Lincoln and Benedict Arnold for the successes in that Northern theater, it was now the summer of 1780 and things had changed since the war had moved south. Lincoln had lost Charleston and Arnold was convalescing from his wounds and planning treason at West Point. Gates, who had been honored with accolades from the new Congress, was Washington’s choice to counter the enemy’s advance in the south. (1)
1780 Southern Theater of American Revolution
So General Gates marched from the area of Greensboro, NC on July 25, 1780 with intentions to retake Camden, 150 miles to the south. Camden had become the staging area for General Cornwallis in the Southern theater of the war. It was only a month and a half since Charleston had fallen. Gates took over General DeKalb’s command and added troops that trickled in as they marched over the next 17 days. Many of these troops had come tardy to Charleston, but now found themselves in a position to avenge the loss of the “Holy City” of the South.(2)
Gates took a more direct route against the advice of his Generals, who wished a more westerly route. They counseled this to take advantage of a population more favorable to the cause who could feed the troops along the way. They could also avoid some swamps and marshes that would slow them down.
However, they marched with supplies and baggage wagons across the Piedmont plain of the Carolinas where the July sun and humid heat hung heavy on the head and shoulders of each soldier. Green apples, molasses (instead of the usual rum) and bad food combined to cause an epidemic of dysentery that swept through the ranks on the eve of battle. (3)
Then, Gates dithered and failed to follow up on his skirmish with Lord Rawdon about 7 miles above Camden on August 11th, despite his advantage of 4 to 1 odds in manpower. Gates\’ vacillation allowed Cornwallis to come up 5 days later and the two armies surprised each other at 2 a.m.
Skirmishers were taken prisoner on both sides and debriefed. Both armies realized they were face to face. Gates called another council of war seeking input from his officers, but once more failed in his administration of a battle plan by misplacing his militia on the battle lines.
The Red Coats fixed bayonets, charged and decimated the militia. Cornwallis then turned on the flank of the Continentals still fighting on the field under DeKalb. DeKalb, a brave and noble warrior who had fought with honors in Europe during the Seven Years War, received 11 wounds and was last seen fighting bravely while surrounded by the Red Coat onslaught. Cornwallis’ physicians cared for DeKalb and he died a few days later in Camden.
Though Gates would be credited by some as attempting to rally the troops, his backside was seen fleeing the battle lines while its decision was still in question. In an irony of war, Dekalb, whose command was turned over to Gates weeks before the battle, was the one deserving of honors. He was heard to declare while near death in the British camp, \”I thank you sir for your generous sympathy, but I die the death I always prayed for: the death of a soldier fighting for the rights of man.\”(4)
Battle of Camden.Dean.USMA.edu.history.gif
The Retreat and more Foreign Patriots
French Lt. Col. Armand was at the head of a Patriot cavalry contingent made up of Foreign volunteers, Hessian deserters and Frenchmen. Remnants of other companies joined up with him near the end of the ignoble battle. He and his men fought a rear-guard action and found themselves fending off an assault by Col. Banastre Tarlton’s Green Dragoons just north of the main battlefield. As the Colonial army attempted to make good their escape, Armand’s men stoutly gave battle to buy precious time for the troops retreating north.
The scene of this rear-guard action is unceremoniously known only to have occurred near the bridge over Grannies Quarter Creek on Flat Rock Rd. in Kershaw County, SC. Many of the final resting places of the foreign soldiers who died in defense of our liberty are sadly unknown to history and their remains were left in the fields and creek beds of the rural landscapes of our South State. Their noble deeds known only to the Great Creator who, we pray, has given them due credit for their defense of Freedom. (5)
After the Battle
Gates was humbled at Camden and labeled a coward by many. Lt. Colonel Armand remarked “I will not say that we have been betrayed, but if it had been the purpose of the general to sacrifice his army, what could he have done more effectually to have answered that purpose.”(6)
Cornwallis basked in the glory of what he thought was the last full measure of large resistance in South Carolina. As the Continental Army was defeated at Charleston and now at Camden, he set his sights on Charlotte. His troops were left with chasing the “Gamecock” Sumter and the “Swamp Fox” Marion. Cornwallis contented himself in believing that these partisan bands were inconsequential in the whole.
But, Cornwallis had now pushed up against the Catawba River Valley, and things were about to change in 52 days. Freedom Reigns!
(2) King’s Mountain and Its Heroes: History of the Battle of King’s Mountain, October 7th, 1780, and the Events Which Led to It, Draper and Allaire
(4) The Life of General Francis Marion: A Celebrated Partisan Officer in the Revolutionary War, Mason Weems
(5) Parkers Guide to the Revolutionary War in South Carolina, John C. Parker
( (6) Washington and the Generals of the American Revolution, J.B. Lippincott