Lord Cornwallis dealt General Horatio Gates a terrible defeat at Camden in South Carolina. The battle represented a rather rude jolt to the reputation of the American general who had orchestrated the victory at Saratoga a few years earlier; to make matters even worse, rumors of personal cowardice followed the general for the rest of the war. Not to mention for the next 234 years.
At Camden, General Gates famously lined up his militia in front of the British right flank where Cornwallis had placed his fearsome British regulars. As one who often reads about militia battles might imagine, this one lasted about as long as it takes for men to turn and run from the field. A disaster quickly developed with militia abandoning the ground and leaving two good brigades of Continentals to stand alone and face the entire British army. How could such a thing happen to the hero of Saratoga who owed his opportunity in that campaign to a fine reputation among the militia.
Accepted history of the Battle of Camden generally includes Alexander Hamilton’s famous quote about General Gates. “But was there ever an instance of a General running away as Gates has done from his whole army? And was there ever so precipitous a flight? One hundred and eighty miles in three days and a half. It does admirable credit to the activity of a man at his time of life.” Indeed, authors, historians, and interested readers often delight in jokes and snide comments at Gates’s behavior during the battle of Camden. However, are these jokes and comments actually warranted or is Gates simply the target of a Hamilton political attack on General Washington’s rival for command?
Hamilton’s assertion that General Gates exhibited cowardice at Camden seems well supported considering his information came from Colonel Otho Holland Williams who acted as deputy adjutant general to Gates. A few days after the battle, Williams told Hamilton that “General Gates used the utmost expedition in getting from the lost field to this place. As this step is unaccountable to me you must expect to know the reason another time and from better authority. An unfortunate Genl. usually looses the Confidence of his Army, and this is much the case with us at present.”
However, the reader shouldn’t be too quick to jump on a rash conclusion. Colonel Williams himself also told the story quite a bit differently when writing a more detailed account of the battle later in the year. This time, Williams focused on the cowardice of the militia and Armand’s corps instead of Gates personal behavior at the battle. “The torrent of unarmed militia, bore away with it, Generals Gates, Caswell, and a number of others, who soon saw that all was lost. General Gates, at first conceived a hope that he might rally at Clermont, a sufficient number to cover the retreat of the regulars; but, the farther they fled the more they were dispersed; and the generals soon found themselves abandoned by all but their aids. . .” In this second version, Gates doesn’t stop trying to rally the men until abandoned.
Only a few days behind the correspondence of Williams to Hamilton, Governor Thomas Jefferson of Virginia sent George Washington an official account of the battle. Of Gates personal conduct during the battle, Jefferson indicated, “Such was the panic diffused through the whole that the utmost and unremitting exertions of the Generals Gates Stevens Caswell and others. . . to rally them. . . proved ineffectual.” Jefferson indicated his account came from reports received from General Gates, General Stevens, and Governor Nash of North Carolina.
In spite of Jefferson’s official account, negative opinions of Gates’s conduct continued. North Carolina’s attorney general said “Genl. Gates’s conduct is much censured, and I am told by his officers in general, so that I fear there are too much grounds for it. The report is, that upon the Militia giving way, he immediately fled without sending any orders to the Continental troops to retreat”. He believed the Continentals could have retreated “in good order” and saved the supply wagons.
As for the General himself, Gates sent his first report on the battle to Congress three days afterwards when he reached Hillsborough. He says that once the “Left Wing and North Carolina Militia gave way, General Caswell and Myself, assisted by a number of Officers did all in our power to rally the broken Troops, but to no purpose; for the Enemy’s Cavalry, coming round the Left Flank of the Maryland Division, completed the Rout of the Whole of the Militia, who left the continentals alone, to oppose the Enemy’s Whole Force.”
Colonel John Christian Senf was a volunteer from Europe who served with the southern army as a consultant to Gates. In his account of the battle Gates was in the rear of the 2nd Maryland Brigade when the Militia broke and started to run. At that moment General Gates “rode to the militia & Endeavoured himself with the assistance of General Caswell and Aids to bring the Militia into order and fire, but all in vain, the Enemy’s Horse then came so close upon the General & Col Armand obliged to wheel. The General then hop’d to bring them to order at some distance, but neither this would do, the militia was struck with such a Panick and obeyed no more command.”
Two of Gates’s aides left accounts of the battle of Camden that provide insight into the general’s conduct during the engagement. First, Major Thomas Pinckney started by describing the general during the pre-battle clash in the darkness. “I saw no indication of want of presence of mind. As soon as the firing in the night commenced, he [Gates] hastened to the head of the Line, where he met Armand retreating, who urged the General to retire, as a smart firing was carried on where he was. The General answered that it was his duty to be where his orders might be necessary; & he remained there until the firing grew slack & the troops were beginning to be formed.” Pinckney went on to comment on Gates’s confident and composed manner in giving orders at the start of the battle when Pinckney himself left to give instructions to Baron DeKalb.
Also serving as an aide to General Gates, Major Charles Magill wrote a letter to his father a few days after the battle. “upon the first fire the whole line of militia broke and ran; the firing upon our right had begun; I was there with Genl Gates, who perceiving the militia run, rode about twenty yards in the rear of the line, to rally them, which he found impossible to do there; about half a mile further, Genl Gates and Caswell made another fruitless attempt, and a third was made at a still greater distance with no better success.”
Getting back to the beginning of the article, the question proposed is whether Gates acted with personal cowardice at Camden such as to deserve the attack on his reputation that began with Alexander Hamilton and continues to the present day. The answer seems to be that, judging from the eyewitness accounts and Gates’s personal testimony, his behavior did not warrant any allegations of personal cowardice. So Gates should be let off the hook, right? Or does the controversy deserve to continue?
Well, it is really difficult to say for certain. Just before the passing of the revolutionary generation, another eyewitness account surfaced. This time a soldier named Guilford Dudley from the North Carolina militia described himself approaching some of General Caswell’s aides during the retreat. “I hastened up to them while they were engaged in the vain attempt to stop the torrent of flying militia, and eagerly enquired for General Gates, whom I supposed to be somewhere on the ground; the answer was, “he’s gone.” “Gone where?” I rejoined. “He has fled and by this time is past Rugeley’s mill.” “And where is General Caswell?” “He is gone, too,” was the reply; for Gates had posted himself about the centre of the army near the reserve under General Smallwood. Seeing how matters were going on our left, the hero of Saratoga being panic-struck, rode up hastily to Major General Caswell, who was near him, and in much agitation observed to him, “Sir, this is not place for us,” and without waiting for a reply, wheeled his horse and putting spurs to him, dashed up the Waxhaws road at full speed and was instantly lost sight of.”
When the dust settles and the General’s horse is watered and rested, I personally believe Gates did not run away at the Battle of Camden in a shocking display of personal cowardice. Despite that belief, it would be foolish not to admit that enough evidence exists to create doubt and prevent any concrete conclusion. In any event, even if the allegations of cowardice were nothing more than an exaggeration of circumstances made for political purposes in the struggle for command of the Continental Army, General Gates’s wonderful reputation as the hero of Saratoga lay in ruins.
The eyewitness accounts and period statements used herein can all be found in Professor Jim Piecuch’s excellent resource, The Battle of Camden, A Documentary History (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2006).[Featured image at top: Horatio Gates. Source: National Park Service]
 Memoir of Williams from William Johnson, Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathaniel Greene, Major General of the Armies of the United States, in the war of the Revolution (Charleston, A. E. Miller, 1822), 485 – 502, and also reprinted in part in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 32.