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The Battle of Camden, Part I

The principal battle grounds of the first four years of the War for Independence, waged by the thirteen Colonies against the mother country, were located in the Northern States, following which period, in the latter part of 1779, predominance of military activities was transferred to the South, where it remained until hostilities between the United States and England were, in effect, terminated at Yorktown on the 19th day of October, 1781, by the surrender of Lord Cornwallis’s army to General Washington. The military history of the Revolutionary War during these latter years is to be found almost entirely in the campaigns, battles, and partisan warfare which occurred in Virginia, the two Carolinas, and Georgia.

The Province of Georgia was overrun by the British in 1779, and Savannah and Augusta fell into their hands. Early in September the French Comte d’Estaing, with 20 ships of the line and 11 frigates, having on board 6,000 soldiers, suddenly appeared of the southern coast. He had successfully battled the British admiral commanding in the West Indies and was now come to assist in driving the British troops from Georgia. A plan was soon arranged between D’Estaing and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, commanding the Southern Department, to besiege Savannah, but after protracted operations in the months of September and October the attempt met with ignominious failure. The French then sailed for the West Indies, and the American troops, under General Lincoln, returned to Charleston, S. C.

The departure of the French from the coast, after being repulsed at Savannah, left Sir Henry Clinton, who commanded the British Army in America from Nova Scotia to West Florida, at liberty to attempt the long-projected reduction of the Southern Provinces. At his headquarters in New York he planned with Vice Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot, commanding the British Fleet in American waters, to lead an amphibious expedition against Charleston, with the intent of occupying both the Carolinas, thereby giving support to the Tories in the South and popularizing the Crown cause. The importance of this move was considerably augmented by the fact that Virginia tobacco, exported from the Chesapeake, contributed largely to the financial resources of the Americans, and the appearance of a hostile fleet in southern waters would curtail this traffic very materially. The expedition sailed from New York on the 26th day of December, 1779. The land forces consisted of about 8,500 men, well supplied with artillery, military stores, and provisions. The command of the King’s troops left at New York devolved upon the Hessian general, Baron von Knyphausen.

“There was little that could be done, either by Washington or Congress, to sustain the South in the struggle about to be precipitated upon its territory…”

During the winter of 1779-80 the Continental Army was quartered in the jerseys and upon the Hudson River. Washington’s headquarters was at Morristown, about 25 miles west of the town of New York. The seat of government was at Philadelphia, sufficiently near to Washington’s headquarters for his friends in Congress to lean heavily upon him and his enemies to harass him with their nefarious machinations to effect his downfall. There was little that could be done, either by Washington or Congress, to sustain the South in the struggle about to be precipitated upon its territory, for the all-important concern of each was for the maintenance and preservation of the Army which protected the Northern States. Events transpiring south of the Chesapeake merely presented collateral issues, to which only limited thought and assistance could be given by the Central Government; the salvation of the Southern States was left largely to themselves for accomplishment.

England was complete mistress of the Atlantic seaboard, her fleet holding the harbors of Halifax, Penobscot, New York, and Savannah. The army left by Clinton in the North was more than a match for the 10,000 American troops under arms during these winter months. Until the draft of militia joined in the late spring of 1780, and its numbers were known, no plan of campaign for the following summer could be decided upon. Washington wrote to the President of Congress on the 3d day of April:

There never has been a stage of the war in which the dissatisfaction has been so general or alarming.

Congress was becoming more futile every day, losing its strength to the voracious demands of the States. Much of the Army was starved, unclothed, and unpaid, these matters being now provided for, in theory at least, by the several States. Little less than its dissolution would have long since occurred had it not been for a spirit of patriotic virtue, seconded by the unremitting pains which had been taken to compose and reconcile both officers and men to their situation. There was one hope that enabled Washington to preserve his calm equanimity during this period of gloom; it was that La Fayette would soon return from France with ships, men, and money in sufficient quantity to turn the tide of events in favor of the Revolutionary cause. Such was the condition of affairs in the sadly harassed infant Nation when Washington heard from General Lincoln that his army was besieged in Charleston and that both it and the city were doomed.

The Commander in Chief at once determined to aid the South with such Continental troops as might be spared, despite the fact that every man under arms was needed in the North, where we run a serious risk in this quarter, from the facility with which the enemy, by the help of their fleet, can unite their force at any point where they find us weak. Washington realized, furthermore, that reenforcements in all probability would arrive too late to be of any service in raising the siege of Charleston; nevertheless they might “assist to arrest the

progress of the enemy and save the Carolinas.” There was every reason to believe that should the British succeed in capturing Charleston the Southern States would become the principal theater of war.

On the 2d of April Washington informed the President of Congress that the Maryland line and the Delaware regiment, which acted with the Maryland line, a total force of about 2,000 men, would be put under marching orders immediately if Congress acquiesced in his views as to the propriety of taking such action. The expedition was to be led by Major General Baron de Kalb, who commanded the Maryland division. Anticipating that Congress would assent to his plans, Washington, on the 4th of April, ordered De Kalb to proceed immediately to Philadelphia and there learn from Congress whether or not the troops were to move. If so, he was directed to make all necessary arrangements with the Board of War, the Quartermaster General, and the Commissary to transport, equip, and ration his command.

General de Kalb arrived in Philadelphia on the 8th day of April and learned that Congress had adopted Washington’s recommendations concerning the expedition and was making the necessary preparations for it. The troops, to the number of 1,400, broke camp at Morristown on the 16th of April and after several days’ march reached Philadelphia, where the force was divided, the artillery, ammunition, and baggage proceeding south by land and the Infantry marching to the head of Elk River, where it embarked on the 3d of May. The Board of War fixed upon Richmond as the place of rendezvous for the whole. De Kalb was detained in Philadelphia by the Board of War until the 13th of May to complete his affairs, and on that day he set out to join his command. Two days were spent at Annapolis waiting for funds, for the Maryland troops, to be paid by the State of Maryland, and on the 22d of

May Richmond was reached. There it was found that Governor Jefferson had removed the rendezvous of the troops to Petersburg, 27 miles farther south.

The troops now under De Kalb’s command were the Maryland and Delaware Continentals and a Virginia regiment of 12 pieces of artillery, which had previously departed from Petersburg on its march south. He was promised further reenforcements of militia from Virginia and North Carolina— but such is the dilatory manner in which all things are done here, that I can not depend upon them, much less wait for them, he wrote to friends. De Kalb could not proceed farther on his march, however, until supplied with wagons by the State of Virginia, and it was not until the 1st of June that he was able to dispatch the first of the three brigades into winch he had divided his command. The second brigade was started on the 6th of the month, on which day Major Jamison arrived from Georgetown, S. C., with the information that Charleston had capitulated on the 12th of the preceding month.

Orders were at once dispatched to the first brigade and the regiment of Artillery, which on the 6th of June crossed into North Carolina, to halt where they were until De Kalb could join them with the second brigade, at which time he would consider what steps to take, determine whether or not a junction could be effected with Governor Rutledge, of South Carolina, and the troops under his command, and weigh the prospects of obtaining additional militia from Virginia and North Carolina. Fearful that the strength of the British troops in South Carolina was far superior to his own numbers, De Kalb determined to hold his command on the defensive until reenforced, and on the 6th of June, before leaving Petersburg, wrote the Board of War to that effect, adding that he would expect— further orders and directions either from your Board, Congress, or the Commander in Chief.

Although Charleston had capitulated and its garrison made prisoners, the British had not yet gained any considerable foothold elsewhere in the Province, and it was presumed that the presence of a body of regular troops would do much to sustain the fortitude of the militia. The State of Virginia now awoke to its own interests sufficiently to make increased efforts to facilitate the movement of De Kalb’s force, but on the whole the assistance rendered was so meager that his advance was very slow. It was not until the 20th of June that he reached Goshen, 15 miles inside the border of North Carolina. At Hillsboro the troops were retted a few days; then they continued on to the settlement which is now Greensboro and on the 6th of July reached Wilcox’s iron works on Deep River, where they were again brought to a halt for want of provisions.

The difficulties attendant upon the march, lack of food, limited transportation, long stretches of barren and unsettled country, the pestilential voraciousness of insects, violence of thunderstorms, the indifference of the inhabitants to the Revolutionary cause, all these things were strange to De Kalb, who was accustomed to warfare only in Europe, and he feared that he might be compelled to retreat, for want of provisions, without striking a blow. In writing to a friend regarding the difference between warfare in Europe and in the southern part of the United States De Kalb said that Europeans did not know what warfare was, that they “know not what it is to contend against obstacles.”

The State of North Carolina had made no provision for the troops of the Union; it was solely occupied with its own militia, which could be maintained only with difficulty, as the Tory sympathizers outnumbered those who were loyal to the Revolutionary cause. De Kalb’s applications and protestations to the governor produced but little effect. It was necessary to send small detachments throughout the surrounding country to collect provisions from the inhabitants, who at this season of the year had but little to spare. In this dilemma the troops remained several days; but the resources failing in the vicinity of the camp, it became necessary to

draw supplies from a greater distance or march to where there was greater plenty. The former was impracticable, as the means of transportation were not in De Kalb’s power, so the alternative of marching to where there was a greater plenty was decided upon. A small magazine of supplies was gathered together at Coxe’s mill, on Deep River, where the troops arrived on the 19th day of July and encamped near Buffalo Ford.

In the new camp it was soon found that shortage of supplies still continued. There was scarcely sufficient grain even for the immediate subsistence of the troops, and the only meat ration that could be procured was lean beef, driven daily out of the woods and cane, brakes, where the cattle had wintered. Inaction, bad fare, and the difficulty of preserving discipline when there was no apprehension of danger were circumvented only by the activity of the officers and the enthusiasm of the entire command to hasten the time when they would encounter the foe.

The situation in which this expeditionary force found itself was brought to the attention of Congress by De Kalb, and he repeatedly remonstrated to the Governor of the State of North Carolina because of his delay in furnishing aid. Promises were made that a plentiful supply of provisions would be provided and that the Continentals would be joined by a considerable force of militia, under Maj. Gen. Richard Caswell, of North Carolina. It was in vain that De Kalb called repeatedly upon Caswell to join his command, and it was equally fruitless to expect much longer to find subsistence for his soldiers in a country where marauding parties of militia swept all before them. He was therefore undecided whether to march his force to join the militia, with the hope of finding that General Caswell’s complaint of a want of provisions for himself was fictitious or to move up the country and gain the fertile banks of the Yadkin. Before any decision was made, however, the approach of Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates to take command of the expeditionary force was announced by the arrival of his aide-de-camp, Major Armstrong.