The Battle of Camden, August 16, 1780
August 16th, 1780. A waning moon shone on the road, the pale light reflecting weakly from the riders’ leather saddles and boots. Dust rose with the passing of horse-mounted soldiers, and muggy, stultifying air hung heavy on their coats. A symphony of crickets sang to the late summer’s eve, oblivious to the mounted death that rode among them.
Near the head of the column rode Charles Armand Tuffin, marquis de la Rouërie. A Frenchmen by birth, but fighting for the Americans and their revolution since 1776, the 30-year-old commanded Armand’s Legion, and it was his troops’ job to locate the British army of Lord Cornwallis. For hours they had ridden south along the road to Camden, tense in the night, the riflemen of Maj. John Armstrong and Lt. Col. Charles Porterfield securing their flanks.
Shortly after 2:30 AM shots rang out, sharp shots, those of British pistols and carbines. Several of Armand’s cavalry fell from their horses. Screams pierced the night, a bugle sounded, and the British cavalry thundered towards Armand’s small force.
“They’re Legion,” one man cried. “Green coats, they’re Legion.” Armand’s troops met the charge, sabers rang and pistols cracked. More men slipped from their horses, blood streaming from wounds made by balls and swords. Armand’s cavalrymen fought well at first, but their losses mounted, and Tarleton’s troopers threatened to envelop them.
“Fall back,” a sergeant yelled.
One of Tarleton’s Tories shot the sergeant in the face with his light dragoon pistol, throwing him off his horse, showering blood on those nearby. Panic spread among the Americans, the retreat verged on rout—and then the riflemen fired.
Trailing Armand’s horsemen, it took Porterfield’s and Armstrong’s riflemen a few minutes to reach the battle. On the double, they ran to the scrub brushes lining the Camden road, knelt, and fired. The rifles shot flame 18 inches from their muzzle, each weapon’s discharge resembling a small flash of lightning in the humid air. The sound was thunderous, the effect immediate.
A dozen of Tarleton’s Legion dropped from the horses, and the charge stopped as abruptly as if striking a wall. The Tories returned fire with their pistols and carbines, pulled their wounded onto their horses, and galloped off into the night. Thus began the battle of Camden.
A Surprise Encounter
Both armies were surprised that humid night in August 1781. The Americans, commanded by General Horatio Gates, marched south looking for Lord Cornwallis, but not expecting to find him in the middle of the humid night. Gates wanted to reach the north back of Saunder’s Creek, and form a line there to await the British.
On the other hand, Lieutenant General Charles, Lord Cornwallis, struck north from his poor defensive position at Camden, hoping to inflict a decisive blow against the American army but not expecting to locate them quite so soon. An astute strategist and sound tactician, Cornwallis reasoned he couldn’t retreat. Doing so would abandon not only the 800 sick soldiers he protected, but also a considerable amount of supplies. Yet his concern didn’t end with his army. The southern colonies predominantly sided with British, and retreating to Charleston, South Carolina, would open the colonies and their inhabitants, to abuse by patriots and their army. So Cornwallis moved north to face an American army he believed to number at least 5,000, an estimation that was to prove grossly exaggerated.
Cornwallis couldn’t be faulted for his miscalculation. General Gates himself believed he commanded at least that many men. However, on August 15th, Gates ordered his subordinate commanders to assemble at Rugeley’s Barn to receive his orders. Colonel Otho Holland Williams, Gates’s adjutant, also requested that each officer bring a muster. After the Gates orders were read, Williams did the numbers, and presented them to his commanding officer. Gates commanded an army of 3,700. Disappointed by his own miscalculations, Gates nevertheless remained optimistic. “It will be enough for our purpose,” he stated.
Two-thirds of Gates’s command consisted of militia. From Virginia and North Carolina came equally large contingents; Brig. Gen Edward Stevens commanded the Virginians, and Brig. Gen. John Butler led the men from North Carolina. Of lesser number, but much greater experience were Gates’s Continentals. Two regiments from Maryland and Robert Kirkwood’s Delaware regiment, as well as light infantry under Colonel Porterfield, marched with Gates. Armand’s Legion of cavalry as well as eight 6-pounder guns rounded out Gates’s firepower.
In a manner of speaking, Cornwallis’s army was a mirror image of Gates’s contingent. Numbering approximately 2,200 soldiers, the regulars outnumbered the militia by over two to one. Furthermore, Cornwallis’s contingent of approximately 600 militia boasted better training, equipment, and leadership than their American counterparts, a fact that would prove key when the battle was joined. The 33rd and 23rd Regiment of Foot formed the backbone of the British force, with the elements of the 71st Highlanders, the complete Irish Volunteer Regiment, Tarleton’s famed legion, and a smattering of artillery, rounding out the 1,600-man muster of regulars and provincials. The militia included Lt. Col. John Hamilton’s North Carolina Regiment and Col. Samuel Bryan’s volunteers.
With two notable exceptions, the British and American soldiers carried similar weapons. Both sides employed the Brown Bess musket as their primary weapon, and the small numbers of dragoons and cavalry swung sabers and volleyed with pistols as well as short carbines. Conversely, the American light infantry under Lt. Colonel Charles Porterfield fought with long rifles, a weapon with easily twice the range of the British musket. Although the rifle played a key role at Guilford Courthouse and Cowpens, it never made a difference at Camden. Porterfield’s riflemen skirmished with the advancing British on the left side of the American line but soon fled with the routed militia.
The second key armament exception was the bayonet. All the British and American regulars (as well as many of the British provincials) possessed and employed the 18-inch bayonet on the muzzle of their Brown Bess muskets. The Yank militia either did not have, or were not trained in the use of, the bayonet.
The early morning skirmish between Armand’s and Tarleton’s legions seriously shook Armand’s men. It took time for them to reform, and then more time for Gates to appraise the situation and deploy his troops. Gates’s deployment was unimaginative at best, foolish at worst.
The American troops straddled the Camden road, their flanks anchored on the swamps that flanked the pike. Camden lay south, behind the British. On the left, or east, side of the American line, Gates placed the North Carolina and Virginia militia. The Virginians stood closest to the swamp, and the North Carolinians formed to their right, occupying the remainder of the flank and center of the American line. Armand’s Legion secured the Virginians’ left flank, and Porterfield’s light infantry formed a skirmish line in the light woods to their front.
As was the European practice of the day, Gates positioned his best troops on the right of his line. The 2nd Maryland Regiment, flanked by the Continentals from Delaware formed there. The 1st Maryland and a company of the men from Delaware formed the reserve.
Cornwallis deployed in a similar manner, with the crack 23rd and 33rd Foot forming on the right, or east, or the British line. The Irish Volunteers took the center, and the Royal North Carolinians stood on the left. Bryan’s Volunteers stood in reserve on the right side of the line, whereas Tarleton’s Legion and the 71st Highlanders formed the left wing reserve.
In retrospect, the flaw in Gates’s logic was obvious. Expecting untried militia to withstand a determined charge by British regulars was wishful thinking. Of course, Cornwallis also placed his irregulars on the left side of his line, but the British provincials and Tory militia were better trained than their American counterparts, and were frequently led by regular British officers.
The Americans troops set first, as Cornwallis marched his troops by column to their assigned positions in the British battle line. Upon spotting this, Gates ordered Steven’s Virginia militia to attack in hopes of hitting the British troops while still in column. Unfortunately, the British deployed quickly, and upon seeing the futility of the attack, the Virginians halted, satisfying themselves by sniping at the British with about 50 rifle-equipped skirmishers.
Shortly after forming up, the 23rd Welsh Foot stepped off. The Virginian skirmishers did little to slow the attack, and soon the Welshmen marched into musket range of the Virginians’ line. There they stopped and fired, their muskets thundering. The fusillade did little damage, but the sound, the glint of the sun off the Welsh bayonets, and the Redcoats’ war yell unnerved the Virginians, who threw down their muskets (most of them still loaded) and ran.
On seeing the men to their left turn tail, the North Carolinians also decided that discretion was indeed the better part of valor and ran, with the exception of a militia regiment commanded by Continental officer Lt. Col. Henry “Hal” Dixon, leaving the two Maryland brigades to fight the entire British army.
On seeing the collapse, General Gates spurred his horse into the middle of the routed militia, attempting to rally them in order to cover the Continentals’ retreat. However, neither Gage nor Stevens, could turn the tide of the rout, and as both men continued to try they were carried farther and farther from the front.
Meanwhile, on the American right, the 2nd Maryland executed a slow, measured attack against the Irish Volunteers, the Royal North Carolinians, and foot soldiers from Tarleton’s Legion. The attack made progress but unlike the American militia, the King’s troops did not break. Back on the Americans’ left flank, the 23rd Foot, 33rd Foot, and British light infantry did not pursue the militia, but rather wheeled left and assaulted the flank of the Continental line. This pressure forced the Marylanders to cease their attack and withdraw to the original line. There, led by Maj. Gen. William Smallwood and Maj. Gen. Johann de Kalb, both Maryland brigades with support from the Delaware regiment fought hard against the Redcoats until Tarleton’s cavalry looped around the left flank, attacked them from the rear and scattered them, effectively ending the Battle of Camden.
The British soundly defeated the American army at Camden. Almost without firing a shot, little more than two British regiments, the 23rd and 33rd Foot, in addition to some light troops, routed approximately 2,000 militia.
Much has been made of General Gates’s personal retreat. Some claim he ran with the militia, not halting until he reached Charles Town, 65 miles to the north. Although it is true that he bedded in Charles Town on the night of August 16, it is unlikely that a veteran and successful general such as Gates would have joined in the militia’s panic. More likely is the scenario presented above. When the militia routed, Gates rode to the scene to rally the men. As they continued to run, Gates fell back with them, ever hopeful to restore at least a semblance of order.
Whatever the truth, this much is undeniable: Camden was simply the worst American defeat of the Revolutionary War, and led to Gates’s dismissal as the American commander in the south, a dismissal that cleared the way for Nathan Greene to take command and for the ultimate defeat of Cornwallis.
This is the third of four articles about Southern battles of the American Revolution written exclusively for ArmchairGeneral.com by Mark H. Walker. Click here to read Guilford Courthouse, Cowpens, and Kings Mountain.
About the Author
Mark H. Walker is a former US Naval Officer, the author of 41 nonfiction books and three novels. He is a games editor for Armchair General magazine. He founded the award-winning game company Lock ‘n’ Load Publishing; among its publications is Flintlock, Black Powder, Cold Steel—Vol. 1: Carolina Rebels, reviewed by ArmchairGeneral.com in October 2009.