By Anna Inbody, October 2, 2011
7. Camden Becomes a Battlefield
The Redcoats almost won the Revolutionary War. What’s more, their victory at Camden was the high-water mark of British power in colonial America. Yet, the Battle of Camden also paved the way for America’s ultimate triumph.
With the war stalemated in the North, the British launched a campaign to subdue the southern colonies, thereby forcing an American surrender. In May 1780, the British captured Charleston and the entire southern Continental Army. By quickly seizing Georgetown, Camden and Ninety Six, the British protected their prize and extended their conquest into the backcountry.
Gen. George Washington dispatched Gen. de Kalb with some of his best troops to save the Carolinas. Gen. Horatio Gates, charged with rebuilding the southern army by the Continental Congress, took over command. Their target? The British garrison at Camden, strategic center of the backcountry.
Loyalists, colonists who supported the king, warned Camden’s commander, Lt. Col. Francis, Lord Rawdon, of Gate’s approach. Gen. Charles, Lord Cornwallis, commander of the British army in the South, rushed from Charleston to assume command. Starving, exhausted and ill, the Americans made their final push late on August 15, 1780. They were unaware that the enemy was heading directly toward them under cover of darkness.
In a prophetic statement to Gates on his appointment to the southern command, General Charles Lee counseled him to:
“Take care lest your Northern laurels turn to Southern willows.”
Convinced that he must threaten Camden while British troops were temporarily dispersed, Gates chose the most direct route for his advance.
However, doing so took his troops through areas where food could be found.
Who’s Who at Camden
Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis (1738-1805)
Prominent English nobleman and British army’s second-highest ranking officer in America.
Numerous 1776-1778 campaigns
In 1780, became commander of British forces in the South.
Despite distinguished record, best known for 1781 surrender to Washington at Yorktown.
Lt. Col. Francis, Lord Rawdon (1754-1826)
Established provincial unit of Loyalists, the Volunteers of Ireland, in Philadelphia in 1777
Commander of Camden Garrison
Followed victory at Camden by defeating Nathanael Greene at nearby Hobkirk’s Hill in 1781
Gen. Baron Johann de Kalb (1721-1780)
German peasant, served in French army
Commissioned Maj. General of Continental army in 1777
At Camden, shot, bayoneted, captured and died three days later.
Gen. Horatio Gates (1728-1806)
English - born, in British army before immigrating to America
In 1775, commissioned Brig. General and Adjutant General in Continental Army
Hero of Battle of Saratoga, 1777
After Charleston fell, appointed commander of American forces in the Southern theater
Cornwallis Picture Caption: “General Charles, first Marquis and second Earl Cornwallis, Commander of the British Forces,” by Werner Willis, Werner Willis Fine Art.
Rawdon Picture Caption: “Earl of York, Francis, Lord Rawdon, engraved by I. Jones, after Reynolds. Courtesy of South Caroliniana Library, USC, Columbia (SC)
De Kalb Picture Caption: “Johann, Baron De Kalb by Charles Willson Peale, from life, 1781 - 1782.” Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park
Gates Picture Caption: “Horatio Gates by Charles Willson Peale, from life, 1782.” Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park