Winner or Runner? Gates at Camden

Critical Thinking

April 8, 2014
by Wayne Lynch Also by this Author


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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.”[1]  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.”[2]

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. . .”[3]  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.[4]

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.[5]

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.”[6]

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.”[7]

Battle of Camden; Death of de Kalb. Source:
Battle of Camden; Death of DeKalb. Source:

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.[8]

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.”[9]

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.”[10]

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]

[1] Hamilton to Duane, 6 September 1780, reprinted in part in Jim Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, a Documentary History, (Charleston,SC: History Press, 2006), 112.

[2] Williams to Hamilton, 30 August 1780, reprinted in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 25.

[3] 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.

[4] Jefferson to Washington, 3 September 1780, reprinted in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 104 – 105.

[5] Iredell to Hannah Iredell, 28 September 1780, reprinted in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 103.

[6] Gates to Huntington, 20 August 1780, reprinted in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 20.

[7] Journal of John Christian Senf, reprinted in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 22 .

[8] Pinckney to Johnson, 27 July 1822, reprinted in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 41.

[9] Magill to Magill, undated, reprinted in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 44.

[10] Guildford Dudley, A Sketch of the Military Services Performed by Guilford Dudley, (Southern Literary Messenger, March – June 1845), 144 and reprinted in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden , 82.


  • Gates laughed at Lt. Col. Francis Marion and his men. Thank goodness Gates ordered Marion to burn boats along the Santee and Black Rivers the day before this battle. After this great defeat the British really thought they had South Carolina in their hip pocket. Marion changed their thinking pretty quick. Thanks for this great article. South Carolina had more battles and more blood spilled here than all of the other colonies combined!

    1. Thanks Cathi. On Marion, the original plan by Gates at Camden had been to take a position such that Cornwallis would be between Sumter and Gates with Marion ‘to the south’ cutting the supply line and thereby trapping the British army forcing them to attack Patriots at a preselected site. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out as the armies collided during the night march resulting in the Battle of Camden.

  • Excellent column! It’s interesting that there are numerous credible sources that can vouch for Gates actions. I wouldn’t think of Gates as being a coward, so in hindsight his actions in Camden do make more sense if we are to at least take some of these sources (i.e. Colonel Williams) at their word. That being said, his leadership skills as a field commander don’t improve by any stretch even when given the benefit of the doubt in this battle.

    There’s no doubt that Gates was an excellent adjutant general, but over the course of his career he comes off as an overly ambitious schemer that was way over his head as a field commander. We know that he bided his time to get his way in leading the northern army until Schuyler could be ousted, and simply ignored congress’s orders for him to report there with Saratoga just around the corner. He also gave the excuse of being sick in not joining Washington for the Battle of Trenton. Gates, ever the conservative when it came to battle tactics, was of the opinion that the army should retreat further west when Washington asked for his advice.

  • Wayne,
    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of Gen. Horatio Gates’ actions at the Battle of Camden. Gates was roundly pilloried in the press after his defeat, with the clear inference that his ride to Hillsborough was an act of personal cowardice. Armchair generals have also questioned Gates’ decisions of route of march to South Carolina, deployment of the militia, issuing the men a small amount of molasses, and order of night march to reposition his Army on August 15th. These criticisms are well-addressed in Gen. Thomas Pinckney’s letter referenced in your article.
    There are several other factors which need to be considered. First, Gates’ chief critics, many well-connected staff aids to George Washington, used their press and Congressional connections to once and for all stomp out this potential Washington political and military rival. Gates’ involvement in the Conway Cabal no doubt outraged George Washington and many of Washington’s friends who could not directly attack this true hero of the Revolution until his defeat near Camden. Second, after the failed attempt to make a stand at Grannies Quarter Creek on Henry Rugeley’s Clarmont Plantation, Gates stopped in Charlotte (a small country village) to rally his defeated troops but soon realized that it was indefensible and the North Carolina government was not close to offer military or logistical support and facilitate communications with Virginia and Congress. In the fall of 1780 while partisan troops took the offensive in South Carolina and North Carolina troops made Lord Cornwallis’ unwelcomed in Charlotte, Gates tirelessly reorganized his decimated Southern Continental Army as pieces drifted into Hillsborough, and moved a defensive force forward to help defend the North Carolina government and detached an offensive force in South Carolina by the time Gen. Nathaniel Greene reported to Charlotte for the change of command. It was Gates who recruited Gen. Daniel Morgan back to active duty and detached Morgan and Lt. Col. William Washington into offensive operations in South Carolina thereby setting the stage for the American victory at Cowpens.
    One man’s opinion: A complicated man. Personal coward, I don’t think so. Strategic-minded general officer, I’d say yes. Great battlefield commander, clearly not. Personally ambitious, oh yes.
    Charles B. Baxley

    1. Charles, delghted to hear from you. Hope everything at the SCARS website is going well. I check in with you on a regular basis to see what is going on with revolutionary war fans south of the Mason Dixon. Great work.

      Just to let you know, I have a submitted a follow-up article that directly addresses the debate between Williams and Pinckney concerning what went wrong at Camden. Considering your comments here, I am fairly certain you will like it as well.

  • This is a very well researched and written column. Much of what the general public hears and is taught about General Gates is skewed to the side of his cowardice and inability to direct the Colonists to victory in the way he had in previous battles, such as Saratoga (as you stated in your post). Although it is uncertain of exactly what happened that day at Camden, the evidence you found is enough to at least lessen the criticisms of Gates and his action. I believe that slights against his character and accusations of cowardice can be dialed back to a more neutral ground given some of the accounts that stated his attempt to rally the militia, although they were ultimately unsuccessful.

  • I am neither a fan nor a detractor of Gates. He is simply another American officer who got caught up in the events and atmosphere of the times. At Camden, one has to consider what he had to work with. Looking at pure numbers, it would appear he had a distinct advantage but about 60 percent of his force consisted of militia. He had to put them somewhere and no matter where he positioned them, he risked their bolting leaving him outnumbered. He had the bad choice of putting them opposite the regulars or the worse choice of against the loyalist units made up of their former friends, neighbors, and relatives. Knowing something of the nastiness of the loyalist/patriot animosities in the south, I suspect Gates opted for the lesser evil. At least his initial positioning forced the Brits into a frontal attack and prevented a large flanking maneuver.

  • By coincidence JAR is now considering my “John Butler’s ‘Want of Good Generalship'” in which I use aged veterans’ recollections in the SOUTHERN CAMPAIGNS pension applications to try to write a piece of history from the “bottom-up,” as JD Lewis says. I was going to start writing something else, actually have an opening paragraph, but now I have to spend some time seeing what the men say about Gates at Camden. I already know they won’t say “coward,” because I have searched that word on Graves’s and Harris’s great site. The point of the Butler piece is to encourage people to use the pension applications, so I don’t have any choice. I have to look. I will come up for air in a few days, and I may not have found anything worth talking about. But I have to look.

  • I can’t see how to make a comment on Hugh T. Harrington’s 7 January 2013 “General Nathanael Greene’s Hat,” but this should be appended to his article.

    Pension application of Benjamin Taylor R10407 as transcribed by Will Graves: “He recollects that General Greene was a little above the middle size, about 5 feet eight or nine inches high, with sandy hair and teeth that showed prominently when he talked, and was the politest man this deponent ever saw, as he would take off his hat to his soldiers.”

    On Google I see this quoted in “John Vaughan Soldier of the American Revolution” but not elsewhere. I came upon it while looking at Gates’s Defeat.

  • Just a brief follow-up to this article. While reading through the Nathaniel Greene papers, I read the sections regarding Gates’s request for Court of Inquiry. He wanted it done before he left the camp but the officers did not believe it should be held. They needed another general officer and the times were simply too dangerous to stop and hold an inquest. Besides, by the time Greene arrived, the officers had already determined that Gates was not a coward. This tidbit from NG to Nathaniel Peabody on December 8, 1780. “General Gates left us this to day, on his way to visit his family. Many think him more unfortunate than criminal and I believe his long retreat was the only fatal stab to his reputation. The loss of his son upon the back of his misfortune, has almost broken his heart: it has effectually his spirits.”

  • Wayne, since you have posted anew on this still controversial topic, I have recalled from my reading in 2014 a couple of comments from the men who were at Camden. Once again, I draw on Will Graves’s and my cousin C. Leon Harris’s treasure trove of pension applications under the 1832 law. The witness is Benjamin Taylor R10407, as in Fold3 [apostrophe doubtfully placed]: “He remembers that Gates’ defeat was the first battle he was engaged in, and he saw Gen. Gates with one foot in his stirrup ready to mount when he gave the order for his men to advance, Gates then immediately mounted his horse and fled to Camden.” I tend to trust half century old memories when they are quite specific and especially when they involve visual images. “One foot in his stirrup” is a powerful image.

  • Wayne, a postscript. In 2014 I gathered comments by the men on Gates’s behavior at Camden but figured my Butler debunking was enough. However, I still have the pension applications in a file and see that many of the surviving men remained contemptuous half a century and more later. If there is great popular demand, I could write it up, though some won’t like it! For now, let me give a couple of comments by veterans (not checking to Fold3) and a comment by that great equestrian-historian, the late Christopher Hibbert.

    Henry Marsh: “He recollects well that General Gates killed three horses in traveling back to Hillsborough, he Gates having left the troops shortly after the commencement of the battle.”

    Peter Francisco: “the British charged upon us and in a few moments dispersed the great Gen’l Gates’ army & he himself (the Genl) killed two horses in making his escape to Hillsborough.”

    Christopher Hibbert in the 2002 Norton paperback of REDCOATS AND REBELS:
    “[Gates] himself escaped and fled nearly two hundred miles on a panting horse.”

    The rider may have been sufficiently praised, but not that marvelous horse.

    1. Greetings Hershel, It was my pleasure to meet your cousin Leon a few weeks ago on the Francis Marion Swamp Fox tour in Georgetown. I totally agree with your that the pension files are a great resource. These quotes reflect the memory of a story these men were told that is consistent with the rumors that flew about. Rumors fed by Williams letter to Hamilton and the similar correspondence that may have been premature. For instance, the men seem to consistently remember Gates riding horses to death on the way north. Unless they personally accompanied him, they are remembering the story they were told. It is without question that Gates faced these accusations.

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