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Ldot Vets - The American Revolution 1775-1783

The Battle of Camden

August 16, 1780

Early in the dawn hours of 16 August 1780, Otho Williams, surveying the American line, noticed the British advancing up the road. He consulted Captain Singleton of the artillery and it was determined that the British could be no more than 200 yards off. Williams gave the order for an artillery barrage and the British quickly unlimbered their guns and replied. The Battle of Camden had begun in earnest.

Stevens, on the left, was ordered to move the Virginians forward and the inexperienced and seldom reliable militia responded with hesitation. Williams called for volunteers, led 80 or 90 troops to within 40 yards of the deploying British, and delivered a harassing fire from behind trees. Lord Cornwallis, positioned near the action and always alert, had noticed the Virginians' hesitation and ordered Webster to advance on the right. In what was one of the worst mismatches in military history, two of the best regiments to ever serve in the British Army, the 33rd Regiment and the 23rd Regiment, with the best trained light infantry in the world, came up against untrained and unreliable troops on the American left. Seeing the perfectly formed line sweep toward them with a mighty cheer then terrible silence, save the clanking of cold steel bayonet on musket barrel, the Virginians broke and ran. A few managed to get off a few shots and several of the British troops went down. However, the pell-mell panic quickly spread to the North Carolina militia near the road and soon the militia broke through the Maryland Continentals, stationed in reserve, and threw that normally reliable troop into disarray.

Seeing the wholesale panic of his entire left wing, Gates mounted a swift horse and took to the road with his militia, leaving the battle to be decided by his more brave and capable officers. Incidentally, Gates covered sixty miles in just a few short hours! Although the Congress later exonerated him for his misconduct and cowardice, Gates never held a field command again.

Johann de Kalb and Mordecai Gist, on the American right wing, and the Maryland Continentals were still in the field. One regiment of North Carolina militia did not take part in the flight and fell back into the fighting alongside the Delaware Continentals. Williams and de Kalb tried to bring Smallwood's reserve to the left of the 2nd Brigade to form an "L." However, Smallwood had fled the battle and the troop was without leadership. In the meantime, Cornwallis had advanced strong troops into the gap and between the two brigades. At this point Lord Cornwallis sent Webster and his veteran troops against the First Maryland troops. Much to the credit of the Americans, they stood fast and went toe to toe with the best regiments in the world for quite some time. However, after several breaks and rallies, they were forced from the field and into the swamps. Most of the Maryland troops, because of the inability of Tarleton's horse to pursue in the terrain, escaped to fight another day.

Only the Second Maryland Brigade, the Delaware Continentals and Dixon's North Carolina militia continued the battle. At this point, it was some 600 men against 2000. They had managed to check Rawdon's left and had even taken a few prisoners. It should be noted here that in one of those strange battlefield occurrences, the American's most experienced Continentals were facing the British army's most inexperienced troops, the Royal NC Regiment. Johann de Kalb personally led bayonet charge after bayonet charge for over an hour. His horse had been shot out from under him and he had suffered a saber cut to the head. In a final assault he killed a British soldier and then went down to bayonet wounds and bullet wounds. His troops closed around him and opposed yet another bayonet charge from the British. However, at this point, Tarleton returned with his horsemen from the pursuit of the fleeing militias and Cornwallis threw his horse troops on the American rear. The remaining American troops stood for a few minutes and fought the onslaught from all sides but finally broke and ran. The Battle of Camden was complete. About 60 men rallied as a rear guard and managed to protect the retreating troops through the surrounding woods and swamps. It should be noted that in the manner of warfare in the 18th Century, Lord Cornwallis took Baron de Kalb back to Camden and had him seen after by his personal physician. Unfortunately, the Baron succumbed to his wounds. He is buried in Camden and a monument has been erected to his memory on the old battlefield. Casualties for the Battle of Camden for the British were 331 out of all ranks for 2,239 engaged. This included 2 officers and 66 men killed, 18 officers and 227 enlisted wounded, and 18 missing. The American casualties have never been fully reckoned; however 3 officers died in battle and 30 were captured. Approximately 650-700 of Gates soldiers were either killed or taken prisoner out of 3,052 effectives engaged. The loss of arms and equipment was devastating to the American cause.

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