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The Battle of Camden, Part 2

in the almost certain event of a retreat, that some order might be sustained, hastened from the First to the Second Brigade and begged his own regiment, the Sixth Maryland, not to fly. He was answered by its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ford, who said: They have done all that can be expected of them; we are outnumbered and outflanked; see the enemy charge with bayonets!

General Cornwallis now had all of his regiments concentrated against these two gallant brigades. A tremendous fire of musketry on both sides was kept up for some time, with equal perseverance and obstinacy, until Cornwallis pushed forward a part of his cavalry under Major Hanger to charge the American left flank, while Lieutenant Colonel Tarleton led forward the remainder. The infantry, charging at the same time with fixed bayonets, put an end to the contest. The battle was terminated in less than an hour. The British victory was complete. All the artillery and a great number of prisoners fell into their hands. The dead and wounded lay where they fell and the rout of the remainder was thorough. General Gist moved from the battle field with about 100 Continentals in a body by wading through the swamp on the right of the American position. Other than this not even a company retired in any order; everyone escaped as he could. The brave De Kalb had his horse killed under him and continued to fight on foot with the Second Brigade until he fell into the hands of the enemy mortally wounded, pierced with eight bayonet wounds and stricken with three musket balls. This brigade had fought with such a great measure of success, and the thickness of the air preventing observation of other parts of the battle field, De Kalb, when wounded and taken, could not believe that General Gates had been defeated.

As soon as the rout of the Americans became general the Legion dragoons advanced with great rapidity toward Rugeley’s. On the road General Rutherford and many others were made prisoners. The charge and pursuit having greatly dispersed the British, a halt was ordered on the south side of Granneys Quarter Creek in order

to collect a sufficient body to dislodge a small party of Americans that was employed in rallying the militia at that pass and in sending of the baggage. The junction of Tarleton’s cavalry soon caused this group of Americans to continue the retreat. The chase again commenced and did not terminate until the British cavalry reached Hanging Rock, 22 miles from the battle field, by which time the Americans were dispersed and fatigue overpowered the exertions of the British.

As soon as the firing in the night had commenced General Gates rode to the head of the column to learn the cause and the extent of the threatened danger. There he met some of Armand’s legion retreating and was urged by the commander to retire from the point of danger. Gates answered that it was his duty to be wherever it was most necessary to give orders, and he remained at the front until the firing grew slack and the troops were beginning to form. When the conflict opened at dawn he was with the reserve brigade, and it was there his deputy adjutant general found him and received the order directing Colonel Stevens to attack at once. At the same time Gates turned to one of his aides, Maj. Thomas Pinckney, of South Carolina, with the order: Now Sir! do you go to Baron de Kalb and desire him to make an attack on the enemy’s left to support that made by General Stevens on the right. When, to the great astonishment of General Gates, the left wing, composed of Stevens’s Virginians, gave way, followed immediately by almost all of Caswell’s North Carolinians, his world was shaken to its foundations. The chance of battle, which is always a threatening factor on the battle field, seemed about to strike him a deathblow. Were the laurels of Saratoga to be snatched from his brow and strewn in the dust? Was his proud head to be bowed down with humiliation, an army destroyed, and the Southern States brought to the verge of ruin? Were the “southern willows” to be his future

decoration? These militia of North Carolina and Virginia, why should they not be expected to fight in defense of their homeland? It is true that the five years of war had brought much discontent with the militia system. It was condemned by every military leader in the Revolutionary cause, and it had not one supporter. But the cause of complaint was directed more to the difficulty of getting the militia to stay with their organization rather than to the question of their bravery when once cornered and forced to face the enemy at close quarters.

Indifferent they might be to orders of their own officers, of camp restrictions, injunctions against plundering, requirements of camp guard; ambitious their general officers might be to retain independent commands and gain glory through their own leadership; but who was there in all that number of high ranking officers that fore, saw the terrifying effect upon these untried troops when first they faced the fire of an enemy? There was no one. That the Virginians and North Carolinians, a combined force of more than 2,000 officers and men, would be equal to the demands placed upon them was the opinion held by all.

No deployment of the Southern Army other than the one made was possible. The front to be covered was 1,200 yards long from swamp to swamp. The Continentals were too few in number to cover this front; but even had it been possible to so dispose of them, such a tactical arrangement would have been foolish. The reserve of the Army should come from the best troops, and nothing less than one brigade of the Continentals would serve this purpose. That left a brigade and the Delaware regiment to constitute a wing of the battle front. They were sufficient in number to occupy the ground from the right of the road to the swamp, a distance some, what less than 400 yards. From the left of the road to the swamp was a much greater distance, about 800 yards, room enough to form three brigades of North Carolina Militia in the center, with the Virginians and other detachments in the left wing.

The American commander was not fighting from choice; in a rencounter engagement the fighting is rarely ever from choice. It was the lesser of two evils which General Gates chose, the greater being to retreat without offering battle. He had planned to reach his proposed position north of Sanders Creek as a surprise movement to Lord Rawdon in Camden. Now that the plan could not be consummated, he would fight where he stood; he was confident that his more than 3,000 men would give a good account of themselves. There was no occasion to be concerned about the Continentals; they would fight as courageously under their immediate commander, De Kalb, as under the Army commander.

It was the militia therefore that was General Gates’s chief concern. When their line began to waver, break, and was then transformed into a crazed mob, stampeded with fear, it was into their midst the commanding general rode, and with indignation demanded of them that they stand and show themselves men. He was assisted in his efforts by Generals Caswell and Stevens and other officers. Everything in their power was done to rally the broken troops, but to no purpose, for the British cavalry, coming around the left flank of the Maryland division, completed the rout of the militia, leaving the Continentals, Dixon’s regiment, and the artillery to stand alone, faced by the entire British Army.

A futile hope was entertained by General Gates that at Clermont he might rally a sufficient number of the militia to cover the retreat of the Regulars. Further and further to the rear was he carried in his efforts, to find some point of lodgment for at least a handful of the fleeing troops, where they might recover from their panic and again be brought into a semblance of order. Tarleton’s cavalry, however, was hanging so persistently on their heels that the road was cleared of all the fleeing Americans, they seeking safety in the adjacent woods and swamps. General Gates therefore concluded to retire toward Charlotte Town, 65 miles from the battle ground, which place he and General Caswell reached late that night, abandoned by all but their aides.

During the course of the retreat, Colonel Senf, who had been on the expedition with Colonel Sumter, returned and overtook General Gates. He brought the agreeable news that the expedition west of the Wateree had met with complete success. The British redoubt opposite to Camden had been reduced, a convoy of stores from Charleston captured, and upward of 100 prisoners and 40 loaded wagons were in the hands of Sumter’s party, which had sustained very little loss. Unfortunately it was not in General Gates’s power to take advantage of this success or to attempt at the time a junction of the remnants of the Southern Army with Sumter’s corps.

The Virginians, who knew nothing of the country they were in, involuntarily reversed the route they came and fled to Hillsboro. The North Carolina Militia fled in different directions, most of them taking the shortest way home. The regular troops, it has been observed, were the last to quit the field. Major Anderson, of the Maryland line, was the only officer who rallied, as he retreated, a few men of different companies, and whose prudence and firmness afforded protection to those who had joined his party. Colonel Gunby, Lieutenant Colonel Howard, Captain Kirkwood, and Captain Dobson, with a few other officers and 50 or 60 men, formed a junction and proceeded together.

The general order for moving off the heavy baggage to Waxhaws the preceding evening had not been carried out. The whole of it consequently fell into the hands of the British, as well as all the baggage that followed the Army, except the wagons of Generals Gates and de Kalb. Other wagons succeeded in getting out of danger, but the cries of the women and the wounded in the rear and the consternation of the flying troops so alarmed some of the wagoners that they cut out their teams, and each taking a horse left the rest for the next that should come. Others were obliged to give up their horses to assist in carrying off the wounded, and the whole road for many miles was strewn with signals of distress,

confusion, and dismay. What added not a little to the calamitous scene was the conduct of some of Armand’s legion in plundering the baggage of the Army.

The morning following the arrival of Generals Gates and Caswell in Charlotte Town the former realized the uselessness of attempting to establish the rendezvous of the scattered army at that place. There was neither munitions of war nor food, and the probability that the successful British Army would rapidly pursue loomed big. Gates therefore proceeded with all possible dispatch to Hillsboro, 140 miles from Charlotte Town, where the General Assembly of North Carolina was about to convene. Working in conjunction with the governor and assembly, he hoped to devise some plan for the defense of as much of the State as it might yet be possible to save from the enemy.

Hillsboro was reached on the 19th of August. The first duty devolving upon the defeated general was the preparation of a report of the disaster to his army for the President of Congress. The report was dated the 20th of August and was carried to the Governor of Virginia, thence to Congress in Philadelphia, by the department engineer officer, Colonel Senf, and Major McGill, an aide to the commanding general. Both of these officers had been careful observers of what transpired within the Army, and Colonel Senf, upon rejoining the remnant of the Southern Army the night of its defeat, made careful inquiries as to what had occurred and from the information gathered prepared a plan of the battle and a narrative of events. Major McGill, in a letter written shortly after the battle, said:

We owe all misfortune to the militia, had they not run like dastardly cowards, our army was sufficient to cope with them, drawn up as we were upon a rising and advantageous ground.

These staff officers were sent with General Gates’s report because they were loyal to the commanding general and could “answer any questions and clear up every doubt” that might arise in a Congress

which would become unfriendly as soon as the result of the battle became known.

In the summarization submitted to Congress of events which transpired after July 25, the date when Gates assumed command of the Army, to the time of writing his report he said that most assuredly the small arms are gone, for those that the enemy did not take are carried of by the militia; that there were no intrenching tools; and that all the artillery with the Army, eight pieces, was lost. He stated that the distresses of the campaign almost exceeded description, that Famine, want of tents for the militia, and of every comfort necessary for the troops in this unwholesome climate, has no doubt, in a degree, contributed to our ruin. In his despondency these difficult conditions loomed bigger in retrospect than they did when being endured. Likewise in his statement— It is considerable consolation to my mind that I never made any movement of importance, or took any considerable measure, without the consent and approbation of all the general officers,was the desire to palliate results by a division of responsibility, which had not occurred during the campaign. General Gates was 52 years old at this time. His military training began in England in his early youth. As a soldier his experience was varied. Temperamentally he was not disposed to conduct war in accordance with the majority view of a council of officers. That the failure of his army would be charged solely to him he was ready to believe and expect. Writing to General Caswell on the 22d of August he said:

While I continue in office will exert my utmost to serve the public interest, but as unfortunate generals are most commonly recalled, I expect that will be my case, and some other Continental general of rank sent in my place to command. When he arrives I shall give him every advice and information in my power; in


the meantime, I doubt not, Sir, that the candor and friendship that has subsisted between us, will continue, and that you are infinitely superior to the ungenerous custom of the many who, without benefiting themselves, constantly hunt down the unfortunate.

In recalling the heroes of Camden the American mind will dwell upon Gist and Smallwood and the other brave leaders of the Continental troops, but to none of those who survived the conflict will such honors be accorded as are due General de Kalb. His memory is immortalized by the manner of his death. He gained glory that General Gates would gladly have acquired at the same cost. He survived his 11 wounds until the third day, dying on the 19th of August, attended by his devoted aide-de-camp and friend, Le Chevalier du Buysson. General de Kalb’s dying command to his aide was to deliver a message to Generals Smallwood and Gist, presenting his affectionate compliments to all the officers and men of his division and expressing the greatest satisfaction in the testimony given by the British Army of the bravery of his troops. He was proud of the firm opposition to superior force made by his division when abandoned by the rest of the Army. The gallant behavior of the Delaware regiment and the companies of Artillery attached to the brigades afforded him infinite pleasure— and the exemplary conduct of the whole division gave him an endearing sense of the merit of the troops he had the honor to command. General Washington, in writing to Du Buysson in eulogy of De Kalb, said: The manner in which he died fully justified the opinion which I ever entertained of him, and will endear his memory to the country. The death of Baron de Kalb was deeply lamented in Maryland, and his memory is honored in that State. As a testimonial of their respect and gratitude the legislature passed an act granting the right of citizenship to his sons.