Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Battle of Camden, 16 August 1780

In May 1780 the regular Continental army, those not imprisoned, had retreated northward to Hillsborough, North Carolina, above Durham, and even as far as Virginia, in the aftermath of Charleston's surrender to the British. The Waxhaw Massacre of Abraham Buford's troops that month also signaled retreat for anyone lucky enough to survive.
Late in July, though, with Major General Horatio Gates at the helm, the Continental army returned southward into the Carolinas. They gathered at Charlotte to regroup, calling in the local militia to meet with Continental Army officers. Gates was intent upon taking on Lord Cornwallis and regaining South Carolina. 
He was targeting Camden in particular, a key crossroads which had become a Loyalist stronghold of about a thousand men under British commander Lord Francis Rawdon. Lord Cornwallis was advised of Gates's movement days earlier and arrived on the scene to support Rawdon with additional troops, including Banastre “Butcher” Tarleton and his notorious dragoons.
Soon after your Lordship had first taken possession of Camden, you detached me to Waxhaw with my own regiment, thinking that as it was an Irish corps it would be received with the better temper by the settlers of that district, who were universally Irish and universally disaffected. My conduct towards the inhabitants, and the extraordinary regularity of the troops under my command, I must assert to have been such as ought to have conciliated their firmest attachment; yet I had the fullest proofs that the people who daily visited my camp, not only held constant correspondence with the rebel militia then assembling at Charlotteburg, and with those who were harassing Lieut.-Colonel Turnbull's detachment, but also used every artifice to debauch the minds of my soldiers, and persuade them to desert from their colours. The encouragement which they gave to the men, and the certain means of escape with which they furnished them, succeeded to a very alarming degree, and the rage of desertion was not stopped by our return to Camden.
When your Lordship left me to command in the Back Country, you left me in the territory of an enemy, awed solely by apprehension of our force from open opposition. I soon found (as your Lordship's experience since will readily lead you to believe) that I was betrayed on every side by the inhabitants. Several small detachments from me, were attacked by persons who had the hour before been with them as friends in their camp. As the rebels, however, had not strength to assail the body of the army, they endeavoured to weaken it by treachery. I had the clearest conviction that the militia who swarmed daily in our camp, not only held forth every allurement that could entice the soldiers to desert, but actually furnished horses to such as would go off, and forwarded them from house to house till they were beyond the reach of pursuit.
—Letter from Lord Francis Rawdon to Lord Charles Cornwallis, excerpt
(It is not indicated nor probable that any of the Burke County, North Carolina, McDowells or their overmountain colleagues participated in the Battle of Camden. Thomas Sumter, William Davie, and Francis Marion were more likely to be leading the South Carolina militia. Gates had even reduced his own regular army numbers by sending support troops to Sumter and Marion, who had been sent back to the swamps by Gates. The battle is, however, important in context of what followed for those men.)
Horatio Gates made some questionable choices, especially the choice to hold a large portion of his regular army in reserve. Despite his known lack of faith in militia, he chose to create the entire left  flank from them, while the opposite flank was regular army helmed by Baron Johann de Kalb. In sum, early morning 16 August 1780, within an hour of the first volley, the Continental Army was totally routed by Lord Rawdon and his men. The militia dropped their arms and fled. Baron de Kalb suffered three bullets and eight bayonet wounds, then took three days to die. The battle was still playing out when General Gates mounted his horse and galloped for Charlotte. There, he procured a fresh horse and fled another 120 miles north to Hillsborough. He ran. His troops that were able to flee, aimed for the safety of Charlotte. 
General Gates fled & left his army a great many of whom was killed & taken prisoner and the balance thrown into utter confusion.
–Pension application of Richard Crabtree, excerpt
Errors were made by an overconfident General Gates, and the total collapse of his left flank left about 800 Continentals facing over 2000 British troops. Cornwallis sent in a charge by Tarleton  and his legion. The Continentals turned tail and fled. 
Brigadier General Griffith Rutherford of the Carolina militia had accompanied commander Horatio Gates to Camden. Rutherford was wounded, captured, and ultimately incarcerated in the British prison at St Augustine, Florida, until his exchange in summer of 1781. Gates's regular army and its officers ultimately retreated to Hillsborough, leaving no provision for the patriot militia. 
…and the mortified militia, were left to depend upon their own exertions, and their own fortitude; which, notwithstanding the discouragements they had met with, did not fail. They assembled—formed themselves into small partisan corps—and actually combated successfully, the first detachments of the enemy that came afterwards into their country. These are facts which entitle the patriots of Mecklenburg and Waxsaws, [sic] to a whole page of eulogium, in the best history that shall record the circumstances of the revolution.
—Otho Holland Williams, Adjutant to General Horatio Gates*
In the meantime, militias on the county and local levels, if not casualties or prisoners, disappeared back into the countryside to regroup and continue to strategize. Colonel Charles McDowell and his militia withdrew to the west of the mountains.

* Otho Holland Williams, A Narrative of the Campaign of 1780, transcribed by William Johnson, included in Johnson's Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene, published 1822 by A.E. Miller, Charleston, South Carolina