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Battle of Camden

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol II.  Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

August 16.—Early this morning the advanced parties of the British under Cornwallis, and the Americans under General Gates, met in the woods near Camden. The result is not altogether known, but from every quarter we hear of the total rout of Gates and his ragamuffins.1 A correspondent at Salisbury, in North Carolina, gives the following account of Gates’s defeat, together with a sketch of the movements of the American army during the few days preceding the battle:

“It is natural for mankind, who have lost their country and property, to be too anxious in their pursuits to regain them, and while they partially grasp at the shadow, lose the substance. Men of this complexion, constantly surrounding the commander-in-chief, lessening his difficulties, the number of the enemy, and pointing out the certainty of success, excite measures which in the event become fatal. We marched from Hillsborough about the 1st of July, without an ounce of provision being laid in at any one point, often fasting for several days together, and subsisting frequently upon green apples and peaches; sometimes by detaching parties, we thought ourselves feasted, when by violence they seized a little fresh beef, and cut, threshed out, and ground a little wheat; yet, under all these difficulties, we had to press forward.

“Just before, and on the arrival of General Gates, both he and the Baron De Kalb seemed disposed to give the army a little respite, but General Caswell, with the North Carolina militia, having moved over the Pedee, we were obliged to make a six days’ hard march, before we could form a junction with him; this effected, our march was rapidly continued for six days longer, when we arrived at Clermont, within thirteen miles of Camden, on the 13th instant.

“Our supplies here began to come in more amply, and had we waited a few days, our forces must have been considerably augmented, which would have enabled us to have harassed the enemy, and in a great measure cut off their resources; this must have effected our purpose in the event without risking a general engagement, the last step in my opinion to be taken, where so much was to be risked. We were ordered down on the evening of the 15th to attack the enemy, and General Sumpter was to proceed down to the ferry opposite to Camden, to create a diversion in that quarter, to facilitate our making an impression on Camden. Here the British had collected their whole force, and gaining intelligence of our position, moved out at nine o’clock in the evening to meet us; forming an ambuscade on the road, they surprised us about one o’clock in the morning on our march. Our advanced and flanking parties endeavored to resist the shock, but were broken, and this threw the continental brigades into disorder; but they rallying immediately, advanced, engaged and forced the enemy to give way in turn; this gave respite to the troops to form, and so we remained in anxious expectation till near daybreak, nothing material occurring, but partial firings from the advanced and reconnoitring parties of each army, when the general ordered the first Maryland brigade to form a corps de reserve, about two hundred yards in the rear of the centre of the line; this was immediately effected, and the troops rested upon their arms till a little after daybreak, when the action recommenced.

“The attack was made by Lord Cornwallis from the right and centre, on the centre and left wing of the front line of the Americans, which was altogether composed of militia, who upon the first fire gave way, and were pursued by the British. This threw the corps de reserve into disorder; but they rallying immediately under a very hot fire, charged the British so warmly, that they entirely broke their centre. By this time the fire commenced very hot on the right, where the second Maryland brigade behaved with great gallantry and firmness, but the enemy’s line of regular troops being far more extensive on the right than the Americans on the left, after the militia had given way, exposed the left flank and rear of the first brigade, notwithstanding which they manfully maintained their ground, till the left wing was ordered to retreat to a point in view, about eighty yards in the rear, at the extremity of the flanking party. Here it instantly formed, renewed, and continued the attack with great vigor; but being again hard pressed in front, flank, and rear, retreated a second time, formed, and disputed the ground with great obstinacy, till, borne down by numbers, they were obliged generally to retreat. At this time the second brigade, which before had not been so hard pressed, was also borne down by superior numbers, after behaving with the greatest firmness and bravery. The retreat now became general, and the militia by this time had got six or eight miles in the rear, some of whom, together with our camp women, wagoners, and some scattering light horse, plundered all our baggage.

“General Smallwood endeavored to cover the retreat, and is collecting the remains of our scattered troops, for which purpose he has established posts at Salisbury and Charlotte, and has prevailed on a considerable body, not less than one thousand volunteers, to make a stand at Charlotte.2 The British loss hath been much more considerable than the Americans. Lord Cornwallis, or some other British General, it is conjectured, is amongst the slain. Notwithstanding this misfortune, General Gates, whose head-quarters are at Hillsborough, is collecting a force much superior to his late army, and appears resolved to try the fortune of another day.”3


1 Andrew Helm to P. Van Schaak.
2 New Jersey Journal, September 17th.
3 Pennsylvania Gazette, September 6.