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The Battle of Camden, Part 2

When General Clinton and Admiral Arbuthnot departed from Charleston on the 5th day of June, to return to New York, General Cornwallis was left in command of the British expeditionary force in South Carolina. His headquarters were in Camden, but the troops with him, being totally destitute of military stores, clothing, nun, salt, and other articles necessary for troops in the operations of the field, and provisions of all kinds being deficient, almost approaching to a famine in North Carolina,” it was impossible for the Army to penetrate into the latter Province before the harvest. Cornwallis therefore employed himself in establishing posts from the Peedee to the Savannah Rivers for the purpose of awing the disaffected and encouraging the loyal inhabitants, in raising some provincial corps, and in establishing a militia both for the defense as well as for the internal government of South Carolina.

Major Harrison was commissioned to raise a provincial corps between the Peedee and Wateree. Another was to be raised in the district of Ninety Six, for which Lieutenant Colonel Cunningham was commissioned. The First South Carolina Regiment, composed of refugees who had returned to their native country, was recruited. In the district of Ninety Six, by far the most populous and powerful in the Province, Lieutenant Colonel Balfour, by his great attention and diligence and by the active assistance of Major Ferguson, who

had been appointed inspector general of the militia of South Carolina by Clinton, had formed seven battalions of militia consisting of about 4,000 men, which were so regulated that they could with ease furnish 1,500 men at short notice for the defense of the frontier or for any other home service.

Many other battalions of militia were formed along the very extensive line from Broad River to the Cheraws— but they were in general either weak, or not much to be relied on for their fidelity. The very limited service to which the militia could be put was well understood by the British. They were of but little use for distant military operations, as they would not stir without a horse, and on that account it was impossible to keep a number of them together without destroying the country.

In order to protect the raising of Harrison’s corps and to awe a large tract of disaffected country between the Peedee and Black Rivers, Major McArthur, with the Seventy-first Regiment and a troop of dragoons, was posted at Cheraw Hill on the Peedee, where his detachment was plentifully supplied with provisions of all kinds. Other small posts were likewise established in the front and on the left of Camden, where the people were known to be ill, disposed, and the main body of the army— was posted at Camden, which, for this country, is reckoned a tolerably healthy place, and where the troops could most conveniently subsist, and receive the necessary supplies of various kinds from Charleston. Having made the above arrangements, and everything wearing the face of tranquillity and submission, Cornwallis set out for Charleston on the 21st of June, leaving the command of the troops on the frontier to Lord Rawdon, who was, after Brigadier General Patterson, the commandant of Charleston, the next officer of rank in the Province.

The information which Cornwallis had at this time of the American forces was that General de Kalb was entering North Carolina

at the head of 2,000 Maryland and Delaware Continentals and that he meant to make Hillsboro his headquarters; that a corps of 300 Virginia Light infantry under Lieutenant Colonel Porterfield was somewhere in North Carolina, some militia at Salisbury and Charlotte Town under General Rutherford and Colonel Sumter, and a large body at Cross Creek under General Caswell. All of these corps being at a great distance from the British, Cornwallis did not expect that any of his posts on the frontier would be much disturbed for two months, as he believed the Americans would find it impossible to march any considerable body of men across the Province of North Carolina before the harvest.

There was much business to be attended to in Charleston by Cornwallis in regulating the civil and commercial affairs of the town and country, in organizing militia in the lower districts, and in forwarding supplies to the army around Camden. He planned to begin active operations about the beginning of September, at which time he expected that South Carolina could be left in security, while he moved with the main body of the troops into the back part of North Carolina— with the greatest probability of reducing that province to its duty.

Having in mind Clinton’s instructions that troops which could be spared later would be used at a probable early date on the Chesapeake, Cornwallis wrote in regard to his contemplated move into North Carolina:

I am of opinion that (besides the advantage of possessing so valuable a province) it would prove an effectual barrier for South Carolina and Georgia; and could be kept, with the assistance of our friends there, by as few troops as would be wanted on the borders of this province, if North Carolina should remain in the hands of our enemies.

This hopeful view of the situation, based largely upon the success of the royal arms up to this time, was soon to be shattered. While Cornwallis was still at Charleston his intelligence reported that Sumter, with about 1,500 militia, was advancing from the

north as far as the Catawba settlement, and that many disaffected South Carolinians from the Waxhaws and other settlements on the frontier, whom Lord Rawdon at Camden had put on parole, were availing themselves of the general release of the 20th of June and joining Sumter. It was also reported that De Kalb’s army was continuing its movement south, followed by 2,500 Virginia Militia. Cornwallis informed Clinton of these developments in a letter dated July 14, stating:

The effects of the exertions which the enemy are making in those two provinces, will, I make no doubt, be exaggerated to us. But upon the whole there is every reason to believe that their plan is not only to defend North Carolina, but to commence offensive operations immediately; which reduces me to the necessity, if I wanted the inclination, of following the plan which I had the honour of transmitting to your Excellency in my letter of the 30th of June, as the most effectual means of keeping up the spirits of our friends and securing this province.

The plan referred to by Cornwallis was the occupation of North Carolina and holding it as the frontier of the southern district.

The work of supplying the base at Camden with salt, rum, regimental stores, arms, and ammunition was under way, so that a more distant advance of the army beyond that point would be safeguarded. Due to the distance of transportation and the excessive heat of the season, the work was one of infinite labor, requiring considerable time. Then, too, the several actions in which his forces had been engaged made Cornwallis more and more doubtful as to the value of his militia. He wrote to Clinton that dependence upon these troops for protecting and holding in South Carolina, in case of an advance of his army into North Carolina, was precarious, as their want of subordination and confidence in themselves would make a considerable force always necessary for the defense of the Province until North Carolina was completely subjugated.

In the plan of campaign for the Crown forces to the north it was contemplated using Ferguson’s corps, augmented by militia of the Ninety Six district, which was being trained by him, as a left covering force to advance to the borders of Tryon County, now

Rutherford and Lincoln, paying particular attention to the mountain regions, in securing protection for the advance of the main body from Camden. Lieutenant Colonel Cruger, who succeeded Balfour in command of Ninety Six, was to retain his post. Colonel Innes, with the remainder of the militia of that district, was to guard the frontier, which would require careful attention, as there were many disaffected and many constantly in arms.

On the 9th of August two expresses reached Cornwallis from Camden, wherein Rawdon informed him that General Gates was advancing toward Lynches Creek with his whole army, supposed to amount to 6,000 men, exclusive of a detachment of 1,000 men under Colonel Sumter. It was thought that the latter, following his attack on the posts at Rocky Mount and Hanging Rock, was trying to get around to the left of the British Army and cut off its communications with the Congarees and Charleston. The disaffected country between the Peedee and Black Rivers was reported as having actually revolted, and as a result of these menaces Rawdon was contracting his post and preparing to assemble his force at Camden. A hurried message had been sent to Lieutenant Colonel Cruger to forward to Camden, without loss of time, the four companies of light infantry stationed at Ninety Six.

On the evening of the 10th of August Lord Cornwallis, with a small escort, set out from Charleston and hastened to Camden. The journey of 140 miles was completed in three days, Cornwallis crossing the Wateree Ferry at Camden the night of the 13th. On this same day the four companies of light infantry arrived from Ninety Six. The British at this time knew that the American Army had marched up Little Lynches Creek to Hanging Rock Creek, thence to Rugeley’s, where it arrived on the 13th, and that later in the day it advanced its light Infantry across Granneys Quarter Creek, on the road to Camden.

Gum Swamp, 7¼ Miles North of Camden. Picture taken from the highway bridge, looking east across the swamp. West of the bridge the swamp narrows to a stream 20 feet wide. The British Amy crossed Gum Swamp at a ford where the bridge now is. (March 16, 1929)

The situation which confronted Cornwallis was one that offered the British fewer advantages than disadvantages. He either had to retire or to attack. He could not afford to hold his position at Cam, den, as it was a bad one in which to be attacked. With Marion operating between the Peedee and Santee Rivers, and Sumter advancing down the right bank of the Wateree, supplies mug. have failed Cornwallis’s army in a few days. There would have been no difficulty in making good a retreat to Charleston with the troops that were able to march, but such action would necessitate leaving about 800 sick and a great quantity of stores at Camden. Furthermore, such a retrograde movement would result in the loss of the whole Province of South Carolina, except Charleston, and all of Georgia, except Savannah, besides forfeiting all pretensions to future confidence from the friends of the Crown in that part of America.

The strength which Cornwallis attributed to the American Army was about the same number that General Gates himself believed he had before being advised of the actual number by his deputy adjutant general. The British estimate was that the American Army consisted of about 5,000 men, exclusive of Colonel Sumter’s detachment and exclusive also of a corps of Virginia Militia of 1,200 or 1,500 men, who were expected to join the main body at any hour. Cornwallis’s own corps, which was never very numerous, was now reduced by sickness and other casualties to about 1,600 regulars and provincials and 600 militia and North Carolina refugees, the total being 2,179. However, the greater part of his troops being of excellent quality and having left Charleston sufficiently garrisoned and provided for a siege, and seeing little to lose by a defeat and much to gain by a victory, Cornwallis resolved to attack the Americans at the first opportunity.

After consulting with some intelligent people, who were well acquainted with the ground on which the Americans were camped at Rugeley’s, Cornwallis determined to march at 10 o’clock on the night of the 15th of August and attack at daybreak, directing his

Sanders Creek, 5½ Miles North of Camden. The picture shows the old roadbed, now built up as a dam. The present highway is 80 yards west of the road shown. The hill in the left background is the position north of Sanders Creek which General Gates expected to occupy. (March 16, 1929)

principal force against the Continentals, who, he believed, were badly posted close to Lieutenant Colonel Rugeley’s house. The town, magazine, hospital, and prisoners were committed to the care of Major McArthur, with a small body of provincials and militia and the weakest convalescents of the army, together with a detachment of the Sixty-third Regiment, which arrived in the course of the night.

At 10 o’clock the King’s troops moved from their ground and formed in order of march on the road to Clermont. By a most remarkable coincidence this was the exact hour that the American Army began its march. Lieutenant Colonel Webster commanded the front division of the Army. His advance guard consisted of 20 of the Legion cavalry and as many mounted infantry, supported by the four companies of light infantry which had come from Ninety Six, and followed by the Twenty-third and Thirty-third Regiments of foot. The center of the column of march was formed by Lord Rawdon’s division, which consisted of the Volunteers of Ireland, the Legion infantry, Hamilton’s corps, and Colonel Bryan’s refugees. The two battalions of the Seventy-first Regiment, which composed the reserve, followed the second division. Four pieces of cannon marched with the two divisions and two with the reserve. A few wagons preceded the dragoons of the Legion, who composed the rear guard. After a march of 5 miles Sanders Creek was reached about midnight. A short halt was made, the column closed up, and with profound silence the British continued on their way.

“Slowly and quietly through the warm night the two armies approached each other. Each commander believed he was about to gain a decided advantage over his opponent.”

Slowly and quietly through the warm night the two armies approached each other. Each commander believed he was about to gain a decided advantage over his opponent. Cornwallis expected to make a surprise attack upon the American camp at Rugeley’s at dawn. The head of Gates’s column, which moved more slowly than did the British, was nearing the ford over Gum Swamp, and just beyond lay the position covering Sanders Creek, which it was the American commander’s intention to occupy. Mounted scouts patrolled the dark road ahead of the two armies, expecting to find