Unlucky or Inept? Gates at Camden

Critical Thinking

May 1, 2014
by Wayne Lynch Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

At the battle of Camden in August of 1780, Lord Cornwallis dealt the Americans under General Horatio Gates a shocking defeat.  Also known as the Hero of Saratoga, General Gates had recently proven a serious competitor to George Washington’s command of the Continental Army.  Because of the debate over command, the defeat drew all sorts of attention, most of which focused on determining the cause of defeat and the individuals responsible for the result. We recently examined the issue of whether Gates exhibited cowardice by his rapid flight from the scene, but it’s also important to consider whether his handling of the army prior to the battle was also at fault and led to the defeat.

The short version of Camden goes something like this.  While on a night march from Rugeley’s Mill to a location closer to Camden, South Carolina, the American army ‘bumped’ into a British column.  A sharp skirmish resulted and both armies stopped to wait until morning at which time General Gates formed his line with militia regiments on the left and in the center.  The disposition exposed the militia to Lord Cornwallis’s strong right flank which consisted of British Regulars from the 23rd and 33rd Regiments.  As the battle commenced, Gates ordered the Patriot line to advance.  Cornwallis countered with bayonets thereby sending an early panic through the North Carolina militia regiment in the middle of Gates’s line.  They were routed immediately and fled the field, sweeping General Gates and a number of other officers along with them and leaving the Continental regiments to face the entire British line.  The Continentals were soundly defeated and General De Kalb killed in the process.

Naturally the participants began explaining the defeat (placing blame) immediately following the battle.  Early accounts blamed the militia forces.  One of General Gates’s aides wrote, “We owe all misfortune to the militia; had they not run like dastardly cowards, our army was sufficient to cope with them (the British).”[1]  Another of the aides lamented that all their “hopes, wishes, and confidence were withered & blasted, by the uncommon and most unheard of Cowardice of the Militia.”[2]  Even one of the militia’s own generals indicated that, regarding “their Rascally Behaviour they deserve no pity.  Their Cowardly Behaviour has indeed given a Mortal Wound to my Feelings.”[3]

Was it the militia’s behavior that caused the misfortune at Camden, or was General Gates’s choice to do battle the real cause of the catastrophe?

Otho Holland Williams

Colonel Otho Holland Williams served as Gates’s Adjutant General during the brief campaign to Camden.  He jumped on the bandwagon of blaming the militia right away with his famous observations to Alexander Hamilton concerning their “infamous Cowardice”.[4]  However, a few months later Williams returned to his pen with a more thoughtful approach that focused more attention on the strategic decisions of General Gates.  He got right to the point.  “But the catastrophe being over. . . . it may be excusable to consider, whether the measures which led to the necessity of fighting a general battle were justifiable? And whether such an event might not have been avoided, at almost any time before the two armies were actually opposed.”[5]

The first question posed by Williams suggests that Gates should have known his army was outmatched by the British.  In spite of this obvious weakness, Gates showed “no more apprehension of meeting the enemy in force, than the least informed man of his army. . .. “  On the move into South Carolina, Williams felt that all Gates needed to do was show more caution by crossing the Wateree river to place it between Gates and Cornwallis.  Even though the Wateree was fordable in many places, any river crossings would leave the British magazine and post at Camden vulnerable to attack as well as provide defensive positions for the Continental Army.  In any event, crossing the river before approaching the British positions near Camden “would have rendered more practicable the avoiding of a general engagement.”[6]

In addition to finding Gates negligent in not showing more caution on his route into South Carolina, Colonel Williams felt that “time was, of all things, the most important to the success of General Gates’ army.”  In other words, Gates rushed an army of untrained militia into a battle against Cornwallis without “considering the disposition of citizens generally” and their lack of military discipline.[7]   Williams was totally unsatisfied by General Gates’s condescending explanations that “the fate of battle is uncontrollable” and, as to the militia, “a man may pit a cock, but he can’t make him fight.”

Major Thomas Pinckney

When Colonel Williams’s comments concerning General Gates got published in1822, another of Gates’s aides came forward with a prompt defense.  Major Thomas Pinckney previously served with the South Carolina continentals during the 1780 siege of Charleston but had been in the backcountry recruiting militia when the American army defending the city surrendered.  During the Camden campaign, Major Pinckney was on a “confidential footing” with General Gates and “may have been acquainted with his views & intentions, although they were not disclosed even to coll. Otho Williams, who acted as Adjutant General.”[8]

Battle of Camden; Death of de Kalb. Source: Carolana.com
Battle of Camden; Death of de Kalb. Source: Carolana.com

In his defense of Gates, Pinckney explained the details of the general’s strategic plan in approaching Camden.  Rather than push for a battle with Cornwallis, Gates intended to occupy a strong natural position a few miles out.  It would be close enough to menace Camden and could be strengthened with “a Redoubt or two & an Abbatis.”   At that point, Cornwallis would be caught between General Sumter and General Gates.  “With such a force at his front & Gates’ Army so close to his rear, the Enemy could scarcely have effected his passage of the river without serious loss.”[9]  In fact, Gates never intended to attack Cornwallis at Camden.  Instead, he planned to work in unison with the South Carolina partisans to run the British out “for lack of provisions.”

As to Gates not understanding the limitations of the militia, Pinckney says it simply isn’t true.  Gates never intended offensive actions with the militia regiments and felt the current number already sufficient to defend the fortifications they planned to build.  Pinckney also pointed out that General Caswell of the North Carolina militia forced the advance with his continued delays in joining his army with Gates.  The route taken into South Carolina was the “only means of securing this accession to the Army.”[10]

For the actual cause of defeat, Pinckney tends to agree with General Gates’s assessment that fate of two armies bumping into each other in the darkness brought on the battle.  Even though marching from Rugeley’s in the middle of the night was necessary under the circumstances, if they had marched two hours earlier or two hours later, “the event of the contest would probably have been very different.”  However, under the conditions existing at 2am on the morning of August 16, trying to march the militia-dominated Patriot army away from the British was simply not possible.  Gates had never intended a battle against Cornwallis but was victimized by fate brought on by a lack of good intelligence about the British at Camden.  Pinckney went on to say that Gates did what he could to obtain information but was handicapped by a lack of funds from Congress with which to pay informants.[11]

A Modern Approach

Modern treatments of the Battle of Camden tend to focus on Gates’s initial deployment on the morning of the 16th.  Specifically, placing the militia to face the British right flank is considered a major blunder that caused the defeat.  It’s interesting that, in reviewing the participant accounts, the deployment issue remains in the background.  As Pinckney put it, “no objection is made to the order of battle.”  Perhaps the officers present realized the simple truth that Gates did not have sufficient Continental regiments to cover both sides of the line.  In order to have the Continentals on his own right available for an advance against the Loyalist regiments on Cornwallis’s left, Gates had to use his best on the right – sort of the reverse of Cornwallis’s strategy at Camden.  Unfortunately for Gates, even though his Continentals did pressure the British left flank, they did not cause anything like the total collapse that happened on the American left.


In reviewing the materials for Camden and comparing the accounts from Otho Holland Williams and Thomas Pinckney, it truthfully appears that Pinckney has the better explanation.  Documents from the papers of Horatio Gates[12] and accounts from other participants support Pinckney’s assertions that Gates never intended to bring on a general battle and that Gates did indeed have trouble rounding up General Caswell and the North Carolina militia.  The real problem at Camden resulted from the misfortune of bumping into Cornwallis in the middle of the night.

With that conclusion accepted, should Horatio Gates be exonerated from blame at the battle?  Not really.  While most of Gates’s decisions can be understood and explained in a reasonable manner, it just seems premature to place him in the ranks with George Washington or Nathaniel Greene.   When Gates called an officers meeting at 2:30AM on the 16th, he let a hasty statement concluding that they had no choice but to stand and fight go unchallenged.[13]  At that point, a prisoner provided the information that Cornwallis was present and in enough strength to easily defeat the American army.  One simply cannot see Washington or Greene accepting a general engagement at that moment.

So, in the end, Horatio Gates was defeated and will remain among the ranks of lesser Patriot generals of the revolution.  He probably doesn’t deserve many of the critical or scornful comments made at the time and in the 200 years since.  Gates was not an amateur running around making silly mistakes.  However, that said, he remains the commander of an incredibly embarrassing defeat and, while historians debate precisely what went wrong, there seems no way to spin the Camden story into one where General Horatio Gates comes out as a shining star.  His command represents just another failure for the Southern Dept. of the Continental Army in the footsteps of Charles Lee, Robert Howe, and Benjamin Lincoln.

[Featured image at top: Horatio Gates. Source: National Park Service]

[1] Undated letter from Charles Magill to his father “within eight miles of Camden”, reprinted in Jim Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, A Documentary History, (Charleston SC, The History Press, 2006), 43 – 44.

[2] Christopher Richmond to Thomas Sim Lee, 30 August 1780, reprinted in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 45.

[3] Edward Stevens to Thomas Jefferson, 20 August 1780, reprinted in Julian Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1951), 558 – 559.

[4] Otho Holland Williams to Alexander Hamilton, 30 August 1780, reprinted in Harold Syrett, ed., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, (New York, Columbia University Press, 1961), 385-388.

[5] Otho Holland Williams narrative in the appendix to 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, Miller, 1822), 485 – 502.

[6]  Otho Holland Williams narrative in the appendix to , Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathaniel Greene, 485 – 502.

[7] Otho Holland Williams narrative in the appendix to , Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathaniel Greene, 485 – 502.

[8]  Thomas Pinckney to William Johnson, 27 July 1822, reprinted in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 36 – 43.

[9]  Thomas Pinckney to William Johnson, 27 July 1822, reprinted in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 36 – 43.

[10] Thomas Pinckney to William Johnson, 27 July 1822, reprinted in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 36 – 43.

[11] Thomas Pinckney to William Johnson, 27 July 1822, reprinted in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 36 – 43.

[13] Otho Holland Williams narrative in the appendix to , Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathaniel Greene, 485 – 502, and Thomas Pinckney to William Johnson, 27 July 1822, reprinted in Piecuch, The Battle of Camden, 36 – 43.


  • Interesting article and apparently fair (I have not read any of the sources).

    However, are there those today who see Horatio Gates as “the Hero of Saratoga”?

    1. These references to Gates stirred a memory causing me to look up a small spat he got himself into with Gen. William Heath only days before the Saratoga events.

      On September 11, eight days before the first battle, the Independent Chronicle blasted out an announcement from Gates relating an August 31 order in which he condemned what he thought were malingering officers “loitering in Boston” and threatening suspension and charges if they did not return to duty. The only problem was, they were not loitering.

      In a September 15 letter, Heath took Gates to task, telling him that he had charged these officers publically in such a heavy-handed manner that there was “no small uneasiness” among them.” Heath then went on to explain that, with Washington’s approval, they were in town for recruiting purposes and were only obeying orders. Heath sought to prevail on Gates to understand the actual situation and not to take action against them, “I must therefore beg that they may not be censured, as you are fully senseable [sic] nothing can more dispirit the officer who is aiming to do his duty.” (https://archive.org/stream/collectionsofmas74mass#page/154/mode/2up/search/gates)

      I find it interesting, perhaps not on the macro level, but on the psychological that Gates took such public action in such a manner without knowing what the true facts were. I have little knowledge of the man, but it seems like this is something he could have learned the truth about before disparaging hardworking officers who were doing nothing wrong. An innocent mistake perhaps when he was preparing for his meeting with Burgoyne, but with some foresight, a lot of ill-will could have been avoided.

      Unlucky or inept?

  • The ‘Hero of Saratoga’ label comes from pre-Camden times. Which (I think), then led to the labeling of Arnold as the ‘Real Hero of Saratoga’.

  • Anyone with a bit more specific knowledge on those nicknames is more than welcome to chime in. 🙂

    1. It appears the “Hero of Saratoga” label came from the fact that Gates took full credit for the victory in his correspondence with Congress. The correspondence on the events of September 19th failed to mention Arnold or his division, which pretty much did all the fighting that day. Then on October 7th, Gates report did finally mention Arnold, though this was likely because it was almost impossible not to. His leg was shattered after leading charge after charge on Breymann and Balcarres redoubts; witnessed by multiple participants. So the “Hero of Saratoga” was in all likelihood a label generated from Congress, which adored him, rather than from any of the American or British participants in the battles.

      1. Jeff, I think you are likely correct about the ‘Hero of Saratoga’ label coming from Congress. I remain interested if anyone can see it applied early on.

        I think there may be a different perspective available on the question of whether Gates took ‘full credit’ for the victory at Saratoga. In his report for the 19th, Gates named Daniel Morgan as the first regiment into the fray. Strong indications from the eyewitness sources indicates that Arnold remained at headquarters with Gates and the regiments went into combat under the command of their respective Colonels. Perhaps Gates might have been generous and named them off. However, to name them all under the heading of ‘Arnold’s Division’ would leave some out. While most came from Arnold’s Division, there were also some others. In his complaint letter, Arnold really only complains that his division should have been named. Arnold didn’t claim any personal contribution at the battle. To name him would take attention away from Morgan and tend to eliminate the contributions of others. Not to mention elevating Arnold to a status not earned.

        A close examination of the letters and evidence of the feud between Gates and Arnold shows the lack of credit to Arnold’s Division to be more of a problem for Varick and Livingston than for anyone else. When I read the letters, I got a feeling that Arnold was more angry about Gates not taking his advice and/or respecting him. Also for not wanting to release more regiments so that Arnold could attack the British aggressively instead of being held to more of defensive stance. I think all of the emphasis on not giving Arnold credit is less important than sometimes given. In his letter to Gates, one section seems more important to me. Not sure why:

        “From what reason I know not (as I am conscious of no offense or neglect of duty,) I have lately observed little or no attention paid to any proposals I have thought it my duty to make for the public service, and when a measure I have propose has been agreed to, it has been immediately contradicted. I have been received with the greatest coolness at headquarters, and often huffed in such a manner as must mortify a person with less pride that I have and in my stationed in the Army. You observe you expected general Lincoln in a day or two, when I should have no commanded the division, you thought me of little consequence to the Army, and that you would with all your heart give me a pass to leave it, whenever I thought proper. As I find your observation very just, that I am not or that you wish me of little consequence in the Army, and as I have the interest and safety of my country at heart I wish to be where I can be of the most service to her. I therefore, as General Lincoln is arrived, have to request your pass to Philadelphia with my to aid-de-camps and their servants, where I propose to join general Washington, and may possibly have it in my power to serve my country, although I am thought of no consequence in this department.”

        As to the October 7 battle, Gates spoke first of Arnold “The loss on our Side is not more than [?] killed and Wounded, amongst the latter is the Gallant Major General Arnold, whose Leg was fractured as by a Musket Ball, as he was forcing the Enemy’s Breast Work – Too much praise cannot be given to the Corps commanded by Col. Morgan, consisting of the Rifle Regiment and the Light Infantry under Major Dearborn; but it would be injustice to say that the whole Body engaged did not equally deserve the honour and Applause due to such exalted merit.” I simply do not see any lack of proper credit to the participants of that battle.

        1. Wayne, I agree with you on Varick and Livingston. Both despised Gates, especially Livingston after what happened in an incident at Ticonderoga. That leads to your comments from another post on the whole dispute with Gates and Arnold. The topic is an interesting one in that the two leading Continental generals had an epic clash throughout the battles that would become the “Turning Point” of the revolution. A whole study on that topic is a fascinating one in itself.

          In terms of the Gates taking “full credit”, I certainly did overstate what Gates had written in his actual correspondence to John Hancock and Congress. Your right, his October 12th report does spread around the praise for various leaders and the army as a whole. Although, his September 22nd report, does little justice to who actually deserved the honors for the 19th, which is typically standard protocol in writing up the honors in a battle of that magnitude.

          In terms of Arnold actually being on the battlefield on September 19th, I agree that most evidence suggests he was not. Accounts, such as Captain Wakefield’s, seem to mix up Arnold’s field commanding actions on September 19th with those of October 7th. Arnold was likely with Gates at their base, and commuting between there and the outskirts of the battlefield. That being said, I don’t think it’s relevant whether Arnold was actually on the field commanding his division on September 19th. He was the commanding officer of left flank division. His duties were to give orders/direction to the leaders of the battalions under his command, while taking account of not over-stepping his superior officer. From Arnold’s position, he was able to communicate orders and receive updates through aides and couriers, as reports of the action came in. I’m not sure what else Arnold could possibly be doing during this time if he wasn’t giving commands and seeking permission from Gates in the process.

          In his letter to Gates on the 22nd, he writes: “on the 19th, when advice was received that the enemy were approaching, I took the liberty to give it is my opinion that we ought to march out and attack them. You desired me to send Colonel Morgan and the light infantry and support them. I obeyed your orders and before action was over, I found it necessary to send out the whole division to support the attack. No other troops were engaged that day except Colonel Marshall’s regiment of General Pattison’s brigade…” This tells me that after prodding Gates basically “relented” to Arnold’s pestering to send out Morgan’s rifleman and light infantry for reconnaissance to the northwest of their fortifications, with the idea to prevent the enemy from entrenching on the higher ground, which lead Arnold to send out more troops as the engagement got more intense. The problem was that Gates restricted the troops at Arnold’s and his disposal. Even though he had plenty of troops fortifying his center position, which was under no immediate threat, he didn’t even go after Riedesel on the right. This being the case even after Riedesel left with some of his men to save Burgoyne, leaving provisions, munitions, and such behind.

          Gates background had very little field command experience, so he may have been unsure of himself in such an engagement, leading to the “Indecisive” and “Inactive” behavior categorized by some historians, such as Stone. Gates seems to have had the mentality of a traditional British commander. He did not feel that American troops, especially the militia, could stand up to the British regulars in an open field battle. By almost all accounts, Gates plan was to hold position behind the fortifications at Bemis Heights and let Burgoyne come to him. In certain situations this could make tactical sense, but not when you have the advantages that his army had over Burgoyne’s.

          There’s little doubt, at least in my mind, that Gates held Arnold back from participating on the field. Arnold lead every other battle he was in, including the recent and under-rated “Battle of Ridgefield”; where he lead local militia units out in front, with relentless attacks on the Tyron’s regulars. He knew firsthand how the militia needed up front leadership to engage the enemy, something that Gates had no experience in knowing.

          1. Jeff, a well stated response to be certain. However, a different perspective might point out that Gates won the campaign against Burgoyne with a patient approach started by Schuyler and carried to completion. The battle of the 19th was a success without need for undue risk of defeat. Arnold had an unfortunate history of risking defeat in the name of possible glory and instant victory. I think Gates was correct to hold Arnold back on that afternoon. It is hard to argue with success.

            As to his work with militia, Gates was chosen for the command at Saratoga because of his high standing with and ability to recruit the New England militia. While Arnold may have had some small success leading a militia unit in an assault, the history of militia does not suggest that to be a winning tactic. Militia tended to need a protective defensive position of some type to show much success against the British. A point which, brings me nicely back to the article here on Camden where Thomas Pinckney (and others) tell us that Gates had no plan to use militia in an assault at Camden. The plan was to adopt some easily defended positions in a position close enough to menace Camden and cut supplies putting Cornwallis in position to either withdraw or attack. Similar to what happened at Saratoga resulting in one of the two great victories of the war.

  • Gates dithered before and during both battles at Saratoga. His inclination was to find a strong defensive position and let the enemy come to him. In neither battle at Saratoga did the enemy every reach the American lines, but that was because of the precipitous actions of others, such as the narcissistic and always decisive Arnold, often without orders from Gates and sometimes in violation of his orders. Gates had difficulty thinking quickly on his feet and being decisive, and this allowed other forces to take over. It sounds like that’s what happened during the night just before the battle at Camden.

    1. Dean, I have a couple of older articles about Arnold at Saratoga that you might like. They are in Aug, Sep, or Oct of last year. Otherwise, I also have a follow-up piece that directly concerns the famous feud between Gates and Arnold that was too long and didn’t really make it to publication. I would be happy to let you see it if interested. Probably should contact me directly at ly******@ya***.com.

  • Very interesting and thought provoking article!

    I wonder if Gates’ real failure was inadequate situational awareness brought on by lack of scouting, intelligence gathering and a misunderstanding of the implications of the open terrain of the Carolinas. At Saratoga, the ponderous moving Burgoyne was easy to spot as he traveled along a well worn invasion route. The fleet-footed Cornwallis had many avenues of advance/ attack prior to the battle of Camden. Greene always put his army one step ahead of the aggressive pursuit of Cornwallis and therefore was successful.

    1. Gene, interesting observation. While I did not mention it in the article (for the sake of keeping within length guidelines), there was certainly a complaint from the aides that Gates was not given enough cash to pay for intelligence and reports. Yet another problem at Camden.

  • I am not a student of the southern campaigns so my observations may well be unsupportable due to conditions beyond my ken … and my kin, for that matter. I welcome feedback on the following comments from those who might know better than I.

    When I look at the battle, I see some elements that might support Gates’ choice to do battle. For one, he had the numbers–around 2 to 1 (like at Saratoga with mostly militia against mostly regulars). He also seems to have had a decent position geographically what with rough ground for the enemy to pass on both his flanks (like at Saratoga). Lastly (and unlike Saratoga), if he retreated in the face of the enemy, they would have just ridden down his column from the rear especially considering the Americans would have had to cross a stream in their retreat.

  • This week I’ve looked at 250 pension applications, so far, on Gates at Camden and want to point out that the voices of the men deserve to be heard. There are a number of disturbing comments that historians seem not to have taken into account. Here is just one. [Gate’s= sic]

    Benjamin Taylor R10407—Transcribed by Will Graves and checked to Fold3: . . . he was at Gate’s defeat, and recollects that Gates ordered his men not to fire, and that the British advanced within a few paces and had the first fires, by which many of the Americans were killed. He remembers that Gate’s 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.

    1. Mr. Taylor’s battle description doesn’t track well with other accounts but I think it speaks volumes toward the damage done to Gate’s reputation after the defeat. He reports being one of the Maryland men under Otho Williams. Interesting to note that Williams seems to be the original source of accusation and bitterness toward Gates after the battle. It was his letter to Alexander Hamilton that seems to have sparked the famous observation about Gates speedy flight to Congress doing credit to the energy of such an old fellow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *