Following the British defeat at Saratoga in 1777 and French entry into the American Revolutionary War in early 1778, the British decided to renew a “southern strategy” to win back their rebellious North American colonies. This campaign began in December 1778 with the capture of Savannah, Georgia, and gained further ground in January 1780, when General Sir Henry Clinton led an army and captured Charleston, South Carolina. Clinton returned to New York, leaving Earl Charles Cornwallis the task of fortifying the South and raising the anticipated large numbers of Loyalists. The Continental Army in the south, most of which had surrendered at Charleston, was completely driven from South Carolina in the May 1780 Battle of Waxhaws.
The only Patriot resistance remaining in South Carolina were militia partisan companies under commanders like Thomas Sumter, William Davie, and Francis Marion. The Continental Army began to reform at Charlotte, North Carolina under Horatio Gates, the “hero of Saratoga”. Gates arrived in late July, and met with the local militia and Continental Army commanders. Against the advice of council, Gates, even before he knew the full capabilities of the troops under his command, ordered a march into South Carolina through an area he had been advised had strong Loyalist tendencies. A significant number of his troops were relatively untested militia companies, and even some of the Continentals under his command had little battlefield experience.
Because of its crossroads location, Camden was considered a key to controlling the back country of the Carolinas. On July 27, Gates advanced into South Carolina, heading towards Camden, then garrisoned by about 1,000 men under Lord Rawdon. Gates established a camp at Rugeley’s Mill, north of Camden, where he was joined by militia companies from North Carolina and Virginia. The weather was extremely hot, and a significant number of troops were put out of action by the heat and diseases like dysentery. While Gates had over 4,000 men in camp, only about 3,700 of them were effective for combat, in part because Gates further reduced their numbers by sending several hundred men in support of operations by Sumter and Marion.
General Cornwallis, alerted to Gates’ movement on August 9, marched from Charleston with reinforcement, arriving at Camden on August 13, bringing the effective British troop strength over 2,000 men.
Gates formed up first on the field. He had around 3,700 troops, of which around only 1,500 of them were regular troops. On his right flank he placed Mordecai Gist, Johann de Kalb’s 2nd Maryland and a Delaware Regiment. On his left flank, he placed 2,500 untried North Carolina militia under Colonel Richard Caswell. Gates stayed with the reserve force, the 1st Maryland Brigade under William Smallwood. Gates placed seven guns along the line. Behind the militia, he placed companies of cavalry and light infantry. With this formation, Gates was placing untested militia against the most experienced British regiments.
Cornwallis had around 2,100 men, of which around 600 were Loyalist militia and Irish Volunteers. The other 1,500 were regular troops. Cornwallis also had the infamous and highly experienced Tarleton’s Legion, around 250 cavalry and 200 infantry who were formidable in a pursuit situation. Cornwallis formed his army in two brigades. Lord Rawdon was in command of the left wing, facing the Continental Infantry with the Irish Volunteers, Banastre Tarleton’s Infantry and the Loyalist troops. On the right was Colonel Webster, facing the inexperienced militia with the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers and the 33rd Regiment of Foot. In reserve, Cornwallis had two battalions of the 71st Regiment of Foot and Tarleton’s cavalry force. He also placed four guns in the British centre.
Both armies advanced at each other just after dawn. The British troops opened the battle, when the right flank fired a volley into the militia regiments, causing a significant number of casualties and then launched a bayonet charge. The militia, lacking bayonets, fled before the British regiments even reached them. Only one company of militia managed to fire a volley before fleeing. The panic quickly spread to the North Carolina militia, and they fled. Seeing his left flank collapse, Gates fled with the first of the militia to run from the field. Within a matter of minutes, the whole American left wing had evaporated. The Virginia militia ran away so quickly that they suffered only three casualties.
While the militia was routing, and before Gates’ flight, he ordered his right flank under de Kalb to attack the opposing British militia forces. Rawdon’s troops advanced forward in two charges, but a heavy fire repulsed his regiments. The Continental troops launched a counter attack which came close to succeeding and Rawdon’s line was beginning to falter. Cornwallis rode to his left flank and steadied his men. Instead of pursuing the militia and repeating an event similar to the Battle of Naseby, Webster wheeled around and launched a bayonet charge into the left flank of the Continental regiments.
The North Carolina militia that had been stationed next to the Delaware regiment held its ground, the only militia unit to do so. The Continental regiments fought a stiff fight for some time, but only 800 Continentals were facing over 2,000 British troops. Cornwallis, rather than fight a sustained fight with a heavy loss, ordered Tarleton’s cavalry to charge the rear of the Continental line. The cavalry charge broke up the formation of the Continental troops, and they finally broke and fled.
De Kalb, attempting to rally his men was shot eleven times by musket fire. After just one hour of combat, the American troops had been utterly defeated, suffering over 2,000 casualties. Tarleton’s cavalry pursued and harried the retreating Continental troops for some twenty miles before drawing rein. By that evening, Gates, mounted on a swift horse, had taken refuge 60 miles away in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The Camden Battlefield, located about 5 miles (8.0 km) north of Camden, is owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and is undergoing preservation in a private-public partnership. The site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
Aspects of the battle were included in the 2000 movie The Patriot, in which Ben and Gabriel Martin are seen watching a similar battle. Ben comments at the stupidity of Gates fighting “muzzle to muzzle with Redcoats”. The film is not historically accurate, depicting too many Continental troops relative to the number of militia, and that the Continentals and militia retreated at the same time.