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The Battle of Camden, Part 2

Map of the Battle of Camden, S. C., Showing Position and Strength of American and British Commands. (Sketch made on the ground March 16, 1929, by Lieut. Col. H. L. Landers. F. A., Historical Section, Army War College)

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nothing on their front more alarming than a raiding or reconnoitering party. Not one, in those silent columns of more than 5,000 men, knew that the foe was approaching in full strength and with sinister purpose.

THE BATTLE OF CAMDEN, AUGUST 16, 1780
Suddenly out of the quiet came a sharp challenge, an interchange of scattered shots, and then loud huzzas of challenging troops. The van of both armies came together at 2.30 o’clock in the morning on the Sutton farm, which was about 8 miles from Camden, just north of the ford over Gum Swamp. The British Legion cavalry dashed ahead to overcome by surprise and shock whatever might block their path. Armand’s cavalry stood the charge for only a moment. The flanking columns of Infantry, under Armstrong and Porterfield, were prompt to get into position, from which their fire took the Legion cavalry in the flank, causing its precipitous retreat and the wounding of its commander. Meanwhile Colonel Webster was moving the British front division into position, and it was not long before the four companies of light infantry and the Twenty-third and Thirty-third Regiments were posted across the road, forming a wall behind which the Legion cavalry could rally and the remainder of the army halt in safety and recover from the surprise of the rencounter.

In the first clash between the two advance parties the wounded in Armand’s legion retreated and threw the whole of his corps into confusion. The corps recoiled suddenly against the front of the column of Infantry behind, creating disorder in the leading brigade, the First Maryland, and occasioning a general consternation throughout the whole extent of the Army. But this confusion in the main body was of no consequence, as the advance guard of light Infantry bravely and effectively held the ground in front, thereby providing time for the various organizations in rear to reestablish their poise. Lieutenant Colonel Porterfield, in whose bravery and judicious conduct great dependence was placed,

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received a mortal wound in the first rencounter and was obliged to retire, but his Infantry continued to hold their ground. Musketry fire was exchanged for nearly a quarter of an hour, when the two armies, finding themselves opposed to each other, ceased firing as though by mutual consent to determine upon the next move.

The prisoners taken by each side during this scrimmage soon informed their captors of the true condition of affairs. Cornwallis was assured by both prisoners and deserters that the whole of Gates’s army was marching with the intention of attacking the British at Camden. From them Cornwallis learned that the force confronting him was far greater than his own. From one of the British who had been made a prisoner Colonel Williams obtained the startling information that five or six hundred yards in front lay the whole British Army, represented as consisting of about 3,000 regular troops, commanded by Lord Cornwallis in person. Each side was as much surprised at the astounding information as was the other. The situation least expected to arise—that is, to encounter the opposing army on the march and in the dark—had become a fearful reality, requiring the exercise of prompt and heroic qualities of leadership on the part of each commander were he to save his command from destruction and turn surprise into victory. Day, light was fast approaching; by half past 4 o’clock the dawn of the coming day would bring the armies within view of each other. But little more than an hour was left in which to deploy the troops into battle formation.

Confiding in the discipline and courage of the King’s troops, and well apprised by several inhabitants that the ground on which both armies stood, being narrowed by swamps on the right and left, was extremely favorable for his numbers, Cornwallis did not choose to hazard the great stake for which he was going to fight to the uncertainty and confusion to which an action in the dark is so peculiarly liable. His command, composed largely of highly trained troops, could be maneuvered into line of battle before day broke, but he resolved to defer the attack until dawn. A byway which

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led to Camden, beyond the morass on the left, gave him some uneasiness for a short time, lest the Americans should pass his flank, but the vigilance of a small party in that quarter soon dispelled his anxiety.

The British battle line was formed with Webster’s division on the right, the four light companies, 148 strong, being on the flank and reaching to the swamp. Next came the Twenty-third Regiment, of 292 officers and men; then the Thirty-third Regiment, 238 strong, with its left resting on the road over which it had marched from Camden. On the left of this road the division commanded by Lord Rawdon was formed. His own regiment, the Volunteers of Ireland, with a total strength of 303, joined the left of the Thirty-third Regiment. Then came 126 men of the Legion infantry, and beyond them were 267 of Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton’s North Carolina regiment, protected by a morass on their left flank. Some of Colonel Bryan’s regiment, who had been brought together following their defeat at Hanging Rock on the 6th, formed in rear of the North Carolinians. There was a total of 322 volunteer militia present.

In the line of battle were two 6-pounders, and two 3-pounders under Lieutenant McLeod, posted to the left of the road and in front of the right of the Irish Volunteers. The Seventy-first Regiment, with two 6-pounders, was formed as a reserve, the First Battalion of 144 officers and men being posted about 200 yards in rear of the Thirty-third Regiment, and the Second Battalion, with a strength of 110, the same distance in rear of the Volunteers of Ireland. The cavalry of the Legion, with a total strength of 182, was in rear to the right of the road, and, the country being wooded, it was drawn up close to the Seventy-first Regiment, with orders to seize any opportunity that might offer to break the enemy’s line and be ready to protect its own in case any corps should meet with a check.

The British soon recovered from the disorder occasioned by the first alarm, but for a long time the American Army was gripped

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by fear. Order was finally restored in the corps of Infantry, and the officers became engaged in forming line of battle, when the deputy adjutant general communicated to General Gates the information he had received from the prisoner. The astonishment of the commanding general upon learning that the entire British Army was but musket shot away could not be concealed. He ordered Colonel Williams to call a council of war with all possible celerity. The general officers immediately assembled in rear of the line, and the unwelcome news of the enemy was communicated to them. General Gates then asked: Gentlemen, what is best to be done? All were mute for a few moments, when General Stevens exclaimed: Is it not too late now to do anything but fight?

No other advice was offered, and Gates directed his generals to repair to their respective commands and continue the deployment of the troops into formation for battle. When Colonel William went to call General de Kalb to the council, he told him what had been discovered. The latter facetiously remarked: Well, and has the general given you orders to retreat the Army? Not that De Kalb expected such an order would be given, for he had learned to respect the determination of the man who succeeded him to the command and knew that without a fight the Army could not withdraw, except at the risk of being cut to pieces.

At length the Americans were ranged in line of battle in the following order: General de Kalb’s corps, composed of the two brigades of the Maryland division and the Delaware regiment, was going into position on the right. In the center was the North Carolina Militia, commanded by General Caswell. The left wing was made up of the Virginia Militia under General Stevens, the light Infantry, and Porterfield’s corps. Both flanks of the line were protected by the swamps which covered the enemy’s deployment.

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The swamp on the west side approached the road in the vicinity of the American line, and it was found that the Second Brigade of about 400 men, commanded by General Gist, and the Delaware regiment of about 150 men would fill the ground from the road to the creek which bordered the swamp. The Army reserve consisted of the First Maryland Brigade of approximately 400 men, under General Smallwood. The first position of the reserve was across the road and about 200 yards in rear of the front fine.

The North Carolina troops were organized into three brigades, each consisting of about 400 men and commanded by Brigadier Generals Gregory, Butler, and Rutherford. One of Gregory’s regiments was in charge of Colonel Dixon, a Continental officer. This regiment was next to the Second Maryland Brigade. The Virginia Militia numbered 700 and the fight Infantry and Porterfield’s corps about 400. The few men still left in Armand’s legion were ordered to the left to support the militia on that flank and oppose the enemy’s cavalry. Six pieces of artillery were assigned to the front line, two on the road, two between the Second Maryland Brigade and the swamp, and two between the North Carolina and Virginia troops. The remaining two pieces were on the road with the reserve brigade. The total strength of the American Army at this time was about 3,300 officers and men, as the detachment which had been sent to join Colonel Sumter numbered somewhat more than 400.

As the night gave way to the coming day out of the darkness appeared the dim visage of the ghostly armies. Every eye was strained to catch a movement of the enemy; every heart beat with fear of the unknown and hope of some advantage in troops and position. Cornwallis advanced his line of columns preparatory to forming battle front and while doing this was able to perceive the two lines of the Americans, now very close to him. At the same instant his movement was detected by Captain Singleton, who commanded two pieces of the artillery and who remarked to Colonel Williams that he could detect the British uniform at about 200 yards in front.

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The deputy adjutant general immediately ordered Captain Singleton to open fire with his battery and then hastened to join the commanding general, who was in rear of the reserve brigade, and informed him that the enemy seemed to be deploying their column by the right. The suggestion was made by this staff officer that if the enemy, while deploying from parallel columns into line, were briskly attacked by General Stevens’s brigade, which was already in line of battle, the effect might be fortunate. The order that this be done was given by General Gates, and Colonel Williams hastened to deliver it to General Stevens. At the same time orders were given to General Smallwood, commanding the reserve brigade, to advance to the left front and support the left wing on the ground about to be vacated by the Virginia Militia. General Gates then rode up to General Gist and ordered the Second Brigade to advance slowly, reserving its fire until close to the enemy, when it was to fire and charge with the bayonet.

General Stevens meanwhile advanced his brigade in compliance with the order given him to attack, all the men apparently in fine spirits, but it was soon discovered that the right wing of the enemy was now in line and that it was too late to make a surprise attack upon them while they were still deploying. Seeing this, Colonel Williams requested General Stevens to let him have 40 or 50 volunteers, who would run ahead of the brigade and commence the fight. They were led forward to within about 50 yards of the British and ordered to take to trees and keep up as brisk a fire as possible. Colonel Williams hoped, by this expedient, to draw the enemy’s fire at some distance, thereby rendering it less terrible to the militia at the outset.

This stratagem, however, was doomed to failure, for Cornwallis, observing the movement which had taken place in front of his right wing and supposing that it indicated an intention on the part of the Americans to make some alterations in their order of battle, directed Colonel Webster to begin the attack, and the latter was now moving up with this object in view. There was a dead calm

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at the time, preventing the smoke of battle from rising, which added to the haziness in the air. Due to the obscured atmosphere, it became difficult to seethe effect of the very heavy fire which ensued. The British line continued to advance in good order with the cool intrepidity of experienced soldiers. General Stevens, observing the steady approach of the enemy, told his men to use their bayonets, but the impetuosity with which the British continued on, firing and huzzaing— threw the whole body of the militia into such a panic, that they generally threw down their loaded arms and fled, in the utmost consternation. The unworthy example of the Virginians was almost instantly followed by the North Carolinians; only a small part of the brigade commanded by Brigadier General Gregory, made a short pause.

This terrible havoc in the militia troops was being wrought by the companies of fight infantry and the Twenty-third Regiment. The advantage which they gained they judiciously followed, not by pursuing the fugitives, but by wheeling on the left flank of the Continentals, who were now abandoned by all their militia except the North Carolina regiment under Colonel Dixon. The contest at this time was supported by the two Maryland brigades, the Delaware regiment, Dixon’s regiment, and the artillery. Almost the entire militia, constituting two-thirds of the Southern Army, had fled without firing a shot. Colonel Williams in writing of these events said:

He who has never seen the effect of a panic upon a multitude can have but an imperfect idea of such a thing. The best disciplined troops have been enervated and made cowards by it. Armies have been routed by it, even where no enemy appeared to furnish an excuse. Like electricity, it operates instantly; like sympathy, it is irresistible where it touches.

The regular troops, who had the keen edge of sensibility and fear rubbed off by strict discipline and hard service, saw the confusion with but little emotion. Some irregularity was created by the militia breaking pell-mell through the First Maryland Brigade, but order was restored in time to give the British a severe check,

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which abated the fury of their assault and obliged them to assume a more deliberate manner of acting. The most severe part of the action occurred on the front of the Thirty-third Regiment, which advanced on the right of the road, and on the front of the Volunteers of Ireland, who went forward on the left of the road. The latter regiment, together with the Legion infantry and the militia and supported by the Second Battalion of the Seventy-first Regiment, engaged the Second Maryland Brigade and the Delaware regiment, which at the time were advancing to meet them. At the same time the right division, composed of the Thirty-third and Twenty-third Regiments and the light companies and supported by the First Battalion of the Seventy-first, having cleared the militia from its front, was now encountering Smallwood’s brigade of Marylanders, which had moved up east of the road in line with Gist’s brigade.

The disparagement in numbers of the two armies at this phase of the action was not so great, there being about 1,300 regular infantry of the British opposed to about 1,000 Continentals, but there was no way of checking the flanking movement which the British were making against the First Maryland Brigade. There were no more reserves, and the brigade was compelled to give ground. It fell back reluctantly and collectedly, and then a moment later, under the rallying cry of some of its officers, it bravely returned to the fray. It was obliged to give way a second time and was again rallied and renewed the contest. Meanwhile the Second Brigade, fighting under the immediate leadership of De Kalb and Gist, was more than holding its own, inflicting heavy losses upon the Volunteers of Ireland.

There was now a distance of nearly 200 yards between the two Maryland brigades, and owing to the thickness of the air dependence had to be placed upon the hearing, and not upon the eyesight, to learn what was occurring on a different part of the battle field. At this critical moment the deputy adjutant general, anxious that communication between the brigades should be preserved and hoping,

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