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The Battle of Camden, Part I

When the campaign of 1779 terminated in the North and the troops went into winter quarters, General Gates left his command and returned to his home at Travellers Rest, in Berkeley County, Va., where he passed the winter and spring months and awaited recall to duty in the 1780 campaign. This recall came on the 4th day of June in a letter from General Washington, written when the summer campaign was fast approaching. Just three days before writing this letter Washington received the first definite information of the capitulation of Charleston. This information, although disheartening, was in no wise a surprise, as such a termination of the siege operations being conducted by the British against that city had been anticipated. General Lincoln being taken prisoner at the surrender, it became necessary for Congress to designate a new Commanding general for the Southern Department. It was not deemed advisable to intrust the command to Baron de Kalb, and on the 13th of June Congress appointed General Gates to the position.

It was Gates who commanded the army to which General Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga in 1777, and this success made him one of the most popular of the American leaders. Later the glory which attached to his name was dimmed, in the minds of some, by his machinations against Washington, but despite the exposure of his participation in the Conway cabal Gates had more friends in Congress during the year 1780 than did the Commander in Chief His appointment to the Southern Department was made without consulting Washington. His acceptance of the honor and responsibility was contained in a modest declaration, addressed to the President of Congress, to do his utmost to serve his country under conditions in the field which, he knew, would try to the utmost his patience and ability. He asked for no indulgence for errors of the heart; for those of the head alone did he expect compassion.

General Gates set out from Travellers Rest on the 26th day of June to join his command, tarrying several days in Fredericksburg, Va., to answer dispatches from Congress and write numerous letters. One of these letters was to General Lincoln, dated July 4, wherein Gates expressed a soldierly sympathy for that officer, requested advice on any matter which might be useful to him, and stated his wish to restore Lincoln to his former command. The difficulties which Gates knew confronted him were tersely expressed in the statement that he was succeeding Lincoln— to the command of an army without strength; a military chest without money. A department apparently deficient in public spirit, and a climate that increases despondency instead of animating the soldier’s arm. From Fredericksburg Gates proceeded to Richmond, where he conferred with the governor and others concerning the assistance to be expected from that State in maintaining the Army in the South. From thence his course was directed to Hillsboro, N. C., where on the 19th of July he sent General Huger with a letter to Governor Nash, of that State, in which he made a strong case of the deficiencies existing in the department in the matter of supplies, men, and money and demanded more effective cooperation. While at Hillsboro detachments of militia totaling 1,438 men arrived from Virginia; but they were deficient in arms, ammunition, provisions, and equipment, and an urgent letter was sent to the Governor of Virginia to correct these matters with all promptness.

After reporting conditions as he found them to the President of Congress and the Board of War, in letters written on the 20th of July, and sending orders to Brig. Gen. Edward Stevens, of the Virginia Militia, and Colonel Buford to join with their commands without unnecessary delay, Gates cleared up a voluminous correspondence while at Hillsboro and departed from thence on the 23d, taking a direct route to Coxe’s mill, where the Army lay in camp awaiting the new commander. His arrival on the night of the 24th was a great relief to De Kalb, who was finding the campaign

attended with difficulties beyond the power of a commander of foreign birth and training to overcome. The following day the troops were paraded and a salute fired to General Gates from the little park of artillery. Besides the Maryland division and the Delaware regiment, there were present a small legionary corps under the command of Colonel Armand, Marquis de la Rouerie, consisting of about 60 Cavalry and as many Infantry, and a detachment of three companies of Artillery, which had joined in Virginia. The Virginia Militia and such Continental corps of Cavalry and Infantry from that State as Congress had allotted to serve in the Southern Department were on the march and were expected to join shortly. A meeting of all general officers who were to serve under Gates was called for the 27th of July for the purpose of determining upon a plan of campaign. A letter was sent to General Caswell to attend this meeting and to bring with him Brigadier Generals Rutherford and Harrington.

The first order issued by General Gates upon assuming command was to pay General de Kalb the compliment of confirming his standing orders. Then, much to the surprise of everyone, he ordered the troops to hold themselves in readiness to march at an hour’s warning. To those who knew the precarious wants of the troops this order was a matter of great astonishment. The march of the Army from Petersburg to Coxe’s mill had stretched the nervous energy of De Kalb and his staff to the breaking point; further advance, in their minds, should be attended with delay and circumspection. It needed the appearance of a commander not already exhausted by his efforts in bringing the Army to this point to lead them onward. Some satisfaction was derived from the paragraph of the order which read: The Army may be satisfied that such measures are taken, and have for some time past been taken by Congress and the executive authority of all the Southern States from Delaware inclusive, that plenty will soon succeed the late unavoidable scarcity. Provisions, rum, salt, and every requisite will flow into camp, which shall then with a liberal hand be distributed to the Army.

On the 26th of July a comprehensive order of march was published to the troops, and early the following morning, without waiting for Generals Caswell, Rutherford, and Harrington to join at Coxe’s mill for conference, the “Grand Army”, as General Gates designated his command, resumed its march, crossing Buffalo Ford and following the most direct route leading toward the enemy’s advanced post at Lynches Creek, on the road to Camden. Two brass field pieces were abandoned for want of horses. De Kalb had previously left behind nine pieces of artillery, keeping ten, which he considered sufficient for the small army. With the further reduction of two pieces there were left eight with the Army.

Col. Otho H. Williams, of the Maryland line, who on the 9th of July had been appointed adjutant general of the Southern Army by De Kalb, presuming upon the friendship of General Gates, ventured to expostulate with him because of the seeming precipitate and inconsiderate step he was taking in marching so soon and in the direction adopted. He represented that the country to the south, through which the general proposed to march, was barren, abounding in sandy plains, intersected by swamps, sparsely inhabited, and capable of furnishing but little provisions and forage. A more desirable route, in Williams’s opinion, lay to the westward, through the higher ground of the Yadkin, thence to the town of Salisbury, located in the midst of a fertile valley, where many of the inhabitants were zealous in the cause of freedom. Williams and other officers had contemplated this route with pleasure, not only as it promised a more plentiful supply of provisions, but because the sick, the women and children, and the wounded might have an asylum provided for them at Salisbury or Charlotte Town, where they could remain in security in case of disaster to the Army. The militia of the counties of Mecklenburg and Rowan, in which these villages were located, were staunch friends. Among other considerations suggested was the advantage of turning the left of the enemy’s outposts, even though the route were circuitous, and thus

approach the main post at Camden by marching down the east bank of the Wateree, with the friendly settlement of Charlotte Town directly to the rear.

General Gates told Colonel William he would confer with his general officers on these matters when the troops halted at noon. Whether or not such a conference occurred is not known; but if it did, it occasioned no change in the celerity and directness with which Gates moved toward his objective. That night the Army camped at Spink’s, 12 miles west of Deep River. The following day, the 28th of July, Cotton’s was the halting place, 15 miles from Spink’s, and on the 29th Kimborough’s was reached. At this time General Stevens, with the Virginia Militia, was two days’ march in rear. From Kimborough’s Gates sent letters to Generals Caswell and Rutherford, asking for their opinion regarding the intentions of the British commanders and urging close and immediate cooperation in aggressive action against the enemy.

The three days’ march from Coxe’s mill to Kimborough’s had developed numerous matters of discipline highly unsatisfactory to the commanding general. The loads of the overburdened wagons were increased by many of the foot troops and even the sentinels throwing their guns and equipment into them; wagons halted for frivolous reasons; the Artillery stretched along the road, unduly elongating the column; kind-hearted teamsters added to the burdens of their jaded teams by permitting women camp followers to ride, “sometimes two in one wagon.” Measures were taken to correct these evils, and after a rest of two days the march was resumed on the 1st day of August.

Masks Ferry on the Peedee was reached that evening. There Gates was again delayed, this time by high water in the river making the crossing a hazardous undertaking. Much of the time was occupied in writing letters to the Governors of Virginia and

North Carolina and to the commanders of State troops who were supposed to be marching to join him. Gates wrote Governor Jefferson:

Flour, rum, and droves of bullocks should without delay be forwarded to this Army, or the Southern Department will soon want one to defend it.

To Governor Nash he wrote:

Flour and rum are the articles most in request in this climate, which bad water contributes to render more unwholesome. Rum is as necessary to the health of a soldier as good food. Without these, full hospitals and a thin Army will be all that your State or the Congress can depend upon in the Southern Department. For my own part, I have never lost one moment in pressing the Army forward from the instant I joined it to this moment, and when I can do more, more shall be done. Brave words of a determined soldier, these last, and typical of the writer’s every action during his march to encounter the enemy.

Through information conveyed by a deserter and from his own intelligence service Gates was advised that the British had evacuated the Cheraws, and all the distant outposts covering Camden. It was believed that Cornwallis had gone to Savannah and had weakened his main army at Camden, where Lord Rawdon commanded temporarily. Gates, in his regret that the enemy was not standing to give battle, felt that want of provisions had perhaps destroyed the finest opportunity that could be presented of driving in the enemy’s advance posts, in all likelihood even into Charleston. He was disappointed. He had lost not a moment in pressing the Army forward and had assumed the responsibility of moving in a direction, and without waiting for the accumulation of supplies, both in contravention of the advice of the majority of the leaders and staff with the Army. It now appeared that the foe might avoid the issue of battle until the American Army was drawn to the borders of Georgia.

The impatience of General Gates to push ahead determined him not to wait at Masks Ferry for General Stevens to come up with the Virginia Militia, which on the 3d was still halted at Buffalo

Ford on Deep River, 50 miles in rear, unable to move for want of provisions. General Caswell continued his evasive, independent role, despite the many demands made, first by De Kalb and then by Gates, that he unite his troops with the main Army. It was now hoped by Gates that a junction would be effected at Anderson’s, toward which the march from Masks Ferry was to be directed. He wrote to Caswell on the 3d of August:

General Rutherford and your command have gleaned the country on both sides of the river, and the Virginia Militia stick in my rear and devour all that comes forward. This is a mode of conducting war I am a stranger to. The whole should support and sustain the whole, or the parts will soon go to decay.

The aimless wanderings of the Carolina Militia had accomplished nothing, so far, of a military advantage. On the other hand, the troops swept the meager country through which they passed so clean of food that there was scarcely anything left for the regular troops.

Green corn was cooked with lean, stringy beef from the swamps and woods, the result being a repast somewhat palatable but attended with painful effects. Green peaches were substituted for bread, with equally distressing consequences. It occurred to some of the officers that the hair powder which they carried would thicken the soup of corn and beef, and it was actually used for this purpose. Rum, which Gates declared as necessary to the health of a soldier as good food, was lacking and molasses used as a substitute. The intestinal troubles from which the troops suffered as a result of this diet produced a very enervating condition and one not conducive to bold, aggressive, and sustained fighting when time for action came.

Due to the heavy rains, passage of the Peedee by the Artillery, stores and baggage was not accomplished until the 3d of August, and at daybreak the following morning the Southern Army resumed its march. The Army was joined south of the Peedee by Lieutenant Colonel Porterfield, who had retired with a small detachment

of Virginians following the disaster at Charleston and had found means of subsisting his men in the Carolinas until this time. Eighteen miles were covered this day and camp made at May’s mill. Another day’s march of 17 miles would bring the Army to Anderson’s, where Gates had ordered Generals Caswell and Rutherford to join with their commands. Shortly after midnight Gates received a letter from Caswell to the effect that he meditated an attack upon a fortified post of the British at Lynches Creek, about 14 miles from where he was then camped. A reply was returned to Caswell at once, informing him that orders would be sent to Colonel Porterfield’s command of Virginians, which was 10 miles in advance of the Army, to join Caswell immediately and that Gates would march at 4 a. m. on the 5th with the First Maryland Brigade and join him with the utmost expedition.

The march order of the Army for the 5th of August had been issued prior to this exchange of letters. In it the hope was expressed that the— laboring oar will soon be put upon the enemy, and that the Army *** will reap the reward of their sufferings, and labor. The troops were ordered to conduct themselves on the march as though every hour they apprehended a surprise.

It has never yet been found that Americans were deficient or inferior to Britons, when fairly opposed to them in battle. This Army will not, therefore, *** be overreached by military tricks. Gates had learned by this time that his previous intelligence of the enemy, received at Masks Ferry, was inaccurate and that the British were somewhere in his front in considerable force.

The attack on the British post at Lynches Creek, contemplated by General Caswell, was not made, as Caswell himself later apprehended an attack on his own camp from these same troops and requested General Gates to reenforce him with all possible dispatch. Such evasions of orders, such pretences to enterprise, and such sudden signs of intimidation in the militia general