One of the most striking aspects of the Battle of Camden is the vast amount of material that was written about it. Officers and soldiers who fought in Revolutionary War battles always wrote something about their experiences, but in regard to the Battle of Camden, they wrote much more than they did about other battles: a greater number of participants wrote about this battle, and they wrote at greater length and in more detail. Even more unusual is the amount of commentary on the battle written by those who did not fight at Camden. This is true of American, British, Hessian, and French observers, and extended to a variety of accounts from newspaper reports to letters and diary entries. The commentators ranged from members of Congress, General George Washington, several state governors including Thomas Jefferson, and ordinary people who recorded their thoughts and observations. British government officials and the Loyalist press in America also commented extensively on the battle and its expected consequences. But the repercussions of the Battle of Camden were more than just newsworthy – they had serious effects on the lives and careers of several important officers on both sides, as well as for the future course of the war.
One reason why this battle was considered so important was the high hopes that General Horatio Gates’s operations had raised among American revolutionaries, and the corresponding concerns that developed among the British and Loyalists. After the British capture of Charleston in May 1780 and the subsequent occupation of South Carolina and Georgia, American morale plummeted while British hopes for victory soared. When Gates took command of the combined force of Continental troops and militia, Americans had great confidence in his ability to reverse the tide of defeat in the South. Gates was the hero of Saratoga, and his success there had added a new word to the American vocabulary: “burgoyne,” meaning to surround and capture a British force as Gates had done to General John Burgoyne’s army in October 1777. Such a maneuver was called a “burgoynade,” and many Americans expected Gates to repeat his success. Only one former officer seems to have expressed concern; Major General Charles Lee, cashiered after his dispute with George Washington at the June 1778 Battle of Monmouth, is said to have told Gates when the victor of Saratoga passed through Lee’s home state of Virginia on the way to his new command, “take care that your northern laurels do not turn into southern willows.”
That is in effect what happened, as Gates’s defeat at Camden not only dashed American hopes of quickly regaining control of the South, but ruined Gates’s own career as well. Gates was on tenuous ground when he assumed the southern command. After his victory at Saratoga, which stood in sharp contrast to Washington’s nearly uninterrupted string of defeats in New York and Pennsylvania, Congress appointed Gates to the Board of War, a joint civilian-military commission charged with formulating strategy, among other tasks. Many members of Congress believed that Gates, who was popular with his troops and a highly capable administrator, should replace Washington. So did General Thomas Conway, who expressed his thoughts in a letter to Gates. Gates wrote a cautious, noncommittal reply, but Washington and his protégés in the army, especially his aides Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, and independent field commander Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, believed that Conway, Gates, and several Congressmen were conspiring to replace Washington with Gates. Although no shred of evidence has ever been found to prove the existence of this so-called Conway Cabal of 1777-1778, Washington and his supporters believed the conspiracy was real, and succeeded in having Conway dismissed from command. Gates was too popular to be undermined, so Washington’s supporters eagerly awaited an opportunity to attack Gates. That opportunity would come after the Battle of Camden.
The American defeat at Camden was disastrous, and Americans recognized this. William Dobein James, a teenage soldier in Francis Marion’s partisan corps, later wrote that “no event which had yet happened, was considered so calamitous.” George Washington observed, with characteristic reticence, that “the stroke is severe,” and that it would be very difficult to rebuild the southern army. New York Congressman James Duane lamented “so deplorable a catastrophe.”
Gates’s abilities were immediately called into question. Some Americans believed he had advanced into South Carolina too rapidly, some said “recklessly.” Others questioned his choice of route, and his deployment of the militia on the left of his front line rather than on the right. In fact, Gates had good reasons for what he did. He chose the route toward Camden that would unite his army with General Richard Caswell’s North Carolina militia, which was roaming about in northern South Carolina and in danger of being cut off and annihilated by the British. Caswell had ignored orders from both Baron De Kalb, and later Gates, to unite with the main army. Also, a rapid advance would deprive the British of the time they needed to consolidate their positions and organize Loyalist forces, while inspiring South Carolinians and assisting Marion’s and Thomas Sumter’s partisans. As for his deployment of the militia, they would have fared no better had they been posted on the left flank, where the British fought the best of the Continentals to a standstill and certainly would have routed the militia.
Perhaps Gates could have retained his command despite these accusations, but another circumstance ruined him. When the militia broke, Gates and the militia commanders, Caswell and General Edward Stevens of Virginia, rode in among the fleeing men to try and rally them. Not only did their efforts fail, but they were swept up in the tide of running men and carried from the battlefield. By the time Gates had extricated himself from the mob, the sound of firing from the battlefield had ceased. Deciding that he could accomplish nothing with the battle over, Gates rode to Charlotte to rally any survivors and organize a defensive position. But when he got there, he found only a handful of militia and no equipment, so he rode to Hillsborough, to seek help from the North Carolina legislature that was meeting there. That took him 180 miles from the battlefield in three days, and it was this that his enemies seized upon to discredit him. Alexander Hamilton was among the most vociferous critics of “so precipitate a flight,” and what was a justifiable if unwise move was cast as an act of cowardice. American accusations were supported by even wilder charges in the Loyalist press. One account described Gates as having hidden in a cellar to escape pursuing British cavalry, and another asserted that he had been arrested for misconduct. Perhaps the most humorous, and similarly damaging, jab at Gates came in the form of an advertisement like those placed by people seeking the return of lost or stolen property. The ad offered a reward of “Millions” in Continental paper currency for information leading to the recovery of “a whole army, consisting of horse, foot, and dragoons, with all their baggage, artillery, wagons, and camp equipage.” The missing army was reported to have been last seen near Camden, South Carolina, and the notice stated that the advertiser has strong suspicions “that a certain Charles Earl Cornwallis was principally concerned in carrying off the said army.” The ad went on to say that no reward would be paid for the return of the militia, as it was useless in battle, and the ad bore Gates’s alleged signature.
As a result, Congress removed Gates from command in October, and Washington’s last rival was gone. Washington named Nathanael Greene as Gates’s replacement, and Congress ordered Greene to hold a court of inquiry to judge Gates’s conduct. In fact, by the time Greene arrived in December, Gates had done much to rebuild the southern army. He had created a corps of light troops that would prove of great value to Greene, had inspired many formerly demoralized southerners to return to the field as partisans by showing that Congress and the Continental Army had not abandoned the south, and most important of all, he had convinced Congress to bring his old friend Daniel Morgan out of retirement and promote him to brigadier general. Morgan arrived too late to fight at Camden, but he would win a decisive victory at Cowpens in January 1781. Had Gates not been given the southern command, Morgan would have remained home in sulky retirement and the war might have taken a different course. Greene, who had supported Washington, was, if not an outright enemy of Gates, certainly not well disposed to his predecessor. However, after seeing the ground where Gates fought, he declared that he could not see that Gates had made any errors, and said that he would have fought the Battle of Camden the same way. He then refused to try Gates, claiming that he did not have enough high ranking officers to convene a court of inquiry. After his own defeat near Camden, at Hobkirk’s Hill in April 1781, Greene went even further, and opened a correspondence with Gates, commiserating in the failures both had suffered in the same area.
Gates was not the only American officer to suffer ill consequences from the battle. Major General William Smallwood, who commanded the 1st Maryland Brigade at Camden and after the battle was the highest ranking officer in the southern army, expected to succeed Gates. However, when inquiries were made about his leadership at Camden, it turned out that not a single American soldier could recall seeing him on the field from the time he ordered his brigade to advance until he arrived in Charlotte a few days later. This took him out of consideration for the command, and after learning of Greene’s appointment, he left the southern army and returned to Maryland to supervise recruiting.
Baron Johann De Kalb, the major general commanding the two Continental brigades, was mortally wounded and emerged as the greatest American hero of the battle. His death, while tragic, may have saved his reputation. As the ranking officer after Gates during the battle, he had responsibility for both Continental brigades, an important role considering Smallwood’s mysterious absence. But De Kalb remained with the 2nd Maryland Brigade throughout the battle, fighting bravely but ignoring the other brigade that he commanded. He was probably unaware that Gates had left the field, but his failure to maintain any contact with his second brigade, especially after he received no orders from Gates concerning it, was a serious lapse. Yet it has never been seriously questioned.
While Congress, Washington, Gates, and later Greene dealt with the consequences to the army, governors Abner Nash of North Carolina and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia had to deal with the possible threat of British invasion, as well as the indignity of their militia’s behavior. Both made great efforts to send additional militia to reinforce Gates. Maryland Governor Thomas Sim Lee and his counterpart in Delaware, Caesar Rodney, scrambled to find accurate information of what had happened in South Carolina, while the families of the troops in their states’ regiments clamored for information about the fate of their loved ones. Nearly a month passed before they could obtain reliable information, and even then it was incomplete. No accurate tally of American losses at Camden was ever made.
The repercussions for the Americans extended across the Atlantic, where their French allies began to doubt the Americans’ ability to hold the South or even to win the war. In Amsterdam, John Adams had nearly finalized a loan from the Dutch government to Congress, but when the Dutch learned of the disaster at Camden, they decided not to make the loan.
The reaction was quite different in Britain, where public support for the war soared and predictions of imminent victory abounded. Lord Cornwallis was praised for his success, and some of his subordinates: Lord Rawdon, Banastre Tarleton, and James Webster, were also lauded for their parts in the victory. Loyalists and British troops in New York and Charleston celebrated the victory with toasts and artillery salutes. As noted, Gates was ridiculed, as was the rebel army. Lord George Germain, the Secretary of State for the American Department and minister responsible for directing the war, declared that the victory at Camden had guaranteed Britain’s hold on Georgia and South Carolina. He also relayed King George III’s opinion that Cornwallis’s victory over a much larger American force “distinguished this victory from all that have been achieved since the commencement of the rebellion,” because it showed that despite all their improvements in training, equipment, and experience, the Americans, no matter how many, could never triumph over the skill, valor, and spirit of British troops, even when the King’s soldiers were badly outnumbered.
Events, however, did not turn out as either side expected. Daniel Morgan, learning from the militia’s terrible performance at Camden, devised a better system of employing the militia, tested it successfully at Cowpens, and it was later adopted by Greene. Cornwallis was confirmed in his belief that the war could be won by British and provincial troops alone, and that the best tactical plan was a frontal assault. This led him to neglect the Loyalist militia, contributing to its near annihilation at Kings Mountain in October 1780. Cornwallis again resorted to a frontal assault at Guilford Courthouse in March 1781. It worked, as he drove Greene’s larger army from the field, but at a cost of more than a quarter of his army. These heavy losses contributed to Cornwallis’s decision to march to Virginia and unite with a stronger British force there, and his subsequent surrender at Yorktown. Greene, meanwhile, marched to South Carolina. Rawdon had been fighting a fairly successful but costly series of campaigns against the partisans there, partisans, Rawdon noted, who had been inspired by Gates. “The approach of General Gates’s Army unveiled to Us a Fund of disaffection in this Province, of which we could have formed no idea; and even the dispersion of that force, did not extinguish the ferment which the hope of its support had raised,” Rawdon observed two months after the Battle of Camden. Barely able to keep these partisans in check after Cornwallis left South Carolina with the bulk of the British mobile forces (not in garrisons), Rawdon found he now had to contend with Greene as well. Rawdon won battles, but he could not end the rebellion that Gates had reignited. Once Rawdon returned to Britain because of illness in the summer of 1781, Greene and the partisans badly bloodied his less competent successors and soon forced the British back to the vicinity of Charleston. If Rawdon were to assess the most important consequence of the Battle of Camden, he would probably say that Gates sowed the seeds of American victory, leaving first Daniel Morgan and then Nathanael Greene to reap the harvest.