The Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill

The Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill, the Second Battle of Camden

The 1st Maryland Continentals broke at the center of the American line just as the British began to charge up Hobkirk’s Hill on April 25, 1781.  The panic that ensued along the American front caused General Nathaniel Greene to withdraw despite his superiority in numbers. The order to reposition the Maryland line can be reasoned away or vilified by spectators of history, but the soldiers paid a price that day amid the bayonet and cavalry charges. 

Nathaniel Greene steered his army into the outskirts of Camden on April 19th.  Having marched across North Carolina on the heels of British Lord Cornwallis’s army, General Greene decided to turn south.  With Cornwallis moving north into Virginia, Greene wanted to pick off the British outposts where Cornwallis had already been.  This return to the South State was going to be christened at Camden, the linchpin of the British occupation in the back country. 

Captain Robert Kirkwood was with General Greene as part of the Delaware regiment of the Continental line.  In his journal he notates that they took 11 enemy prisoners that day, just north of Camden.  General Greene ordered that Kirkwood and his men take a smaller British encampment north of Camden called “Log Town”.  Kirkwood went ahead of the main army during the night and by first light had accomplished his mission.  The last of the British were fleeing to Camden as Greene and the main army arrived in the vicinity.


They had marched over 300 miles since the battle at Guilford Courthouse.  They were tired and low on provisions.  For the next week scouting and raiding parties went out as the British sat behind their walls, waiting.  Kirkwood’s regiment and William Washington’s cavalry were able take a fortified house near the Wateree river west of Camden and bring in beeves and horses to their camp on Hobkirk’s Hill.

The fortifications around the town were a different matter altogether.  Greene quickly realized that without the proper firepower and manpower, laying siege to the fort ringed with redoubts, palisades and cannon would be tough.  In addition, the landscapes around the garrison were cleared with an unobstructed killing field for its defenders behind the walls.

Greene, in anticipation of his move on the British fort, had sent cavalry under “Light Horse Harry” Lee to assist Francis Marion in besieging Fort Watson on the Santee.  Fort Watson was key to the British supply line to Charleston.  Doing so would prevent reinforcement coming to the aid of Camden.  But it also deprived Greene of manpower he needed to accomplish his goal.

The situation around the fortified town was tense.  The Americans were making raids all around the town and the British were sending out spies and scouts to gather intel as well.  Each was waiting on a moment of opportunity.

The opportunity presented itself for Lord Rawdon when a drummer deserted the American lines and informed him of the weaknesses of the General Greene’s army.  Hearing that Greene was not in possession of cannon and that they were low on provisions and men, he decided to attack.

He rallied his soldiers and put a gun in every able-bodied soldier, including the musicians and injured.  Taking advantage of the long leaf pine forest and the swamp on the American left flank, they ventured out unseen and unheard. 

They were observed and challenged by the Patriot pickets under Kirkwood an hour or so before noon.  A brisk fight ensued that gave Greene time to rally his men who had just stacked their guns for a meal. 

To the shock and dismay of the British, the American cannon opened up on them as they sallied forth out of the wood line.  Rawdon was incensed.  (He would later hang the drummer who he felt had misled him).

Greene sent the infantry lines into the fray when he observed the British recoil.  With the cannon situated in the middle of Greene’s line, the infantry moved into their field of fire and rendered them useless. But Greene felt like he could trap the compact lines of the Brits by outflanking them and sending Washington’s cavalry to the rear.

Rawdon, though more than 10 years junior to Greene, recognized the trap and immediately extended his lines to check the flanking maneuver. 

Still, Greene had Washington’s cavalry.  Except, Washington had run smack into over two hundred British soldiers fleeing the battle and surrendering to his officers.  This delay in approaching the red-coat rear was fortuitous for the British and dismally painful to the Americans.

As Washington is invested with surrenders and the cannon are taken out of the battle, the commander of the 1st Maryland Continentals is killed.  Col. Grunby, in an attempt to tighten his lines orders a halt and adjustment in the face of the enemy.  At that very moment, the tide turns and the British charge.  Grunby orders a repositioning to the rear, but it appears to the other Americans like they are retreating.  The Maryland 2nd finds themselves extended and they begin to give way. The British roll up the hill in a giant wave with their bayonets flashing and huzzas being shouted.  The American line gives way despite the best efforts of the officers and Greene to rally them.

The moment is lost and Greene orders a general retreat about the time that Washington rides up. 

But the cannon, so precious to the cause of warfare in that day, was still on the field.  Greene had ordered the Massachusetts light infantry under Colonel John Smith to assist in retrieving them, but British mounted riflemen were pursuing with a fury.  Ropes and tackle, muscle and brawn were needed to extricate the cannon from the unnerved horses and thick brambles.  Smith and his riflemen lent themselves to the task while at the same time discharging their rifles into the oncoming horsemen.  Again and again they pushed, pulled, reloaded and fired to save the cannon.  In the end, despite Washington riding up to drive the Brits off and assist in saving the artillery, Smith and his men paid dearly with their lives. 

Smith, severely wounded and captured, died later in the Camden prison of smallpox.

With the cannons retrieved, the American army retired for a few days about 12 miles further up the road.  However, Washington was sent back to lay claim to the field of battle by driving off the remnants of the British army on Hobkirk’s Hill. 

Doing so was a harbinger of things to come for Lord Rawdon and the British. Unlike foes of the past, Greene would not be run off.  Ever present, ever on the flanks, Greene would dog the army at Camden much like he stayed on the heels of Cornwallis. He preserved his army in the field as he observed the British numbers dwindle.

The beauty of Greene’s strategy is that it allowed him to keep his army intact while playing for time and opportunity.  Using the militia on the flanks while presenting a formidable front, caused Rawdon to worry about envelopment.  British supply lines were being cut off and when they would make plans to fight Greene, it was on Greene’s chosen field of battle.

Within two weeks-time, Rawdon evacuated Camden and burned its stores.  Greene moved in and followed Rawdon towards Charleston.

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