The Southern Revolution:
The Battle of Camden

by J. M. Pressley
First published: July 25, 2008

In the summer of 1780, Horatio Gates took command of Continental forces in the southern colonies. It proved to be a costly choice. The Battle of Camden decimated both an army and a reputation.


The British forces in the colonies were on a roll for the first half of 1780. Clinton's forces had captured Charleston at the end of a month-long siege, and the loss of the city and its defenders had the Continental army reeling. Following the defeat of the British at Saratoga, Congress appointed the self-aggrandizing Major General Horatio Gates as commander of the Southern Department. He inherited an army that in his own words was, "an army without strength, a military chest without money, a department apparently deficient in public spirit...." (Lancaster, 286).

Nevertheless, Gates aspired to the same kind of conveniently quick victory that earned him the nickname —The Hero of Saratoga.— His target was a British outpost at the strategic crossroads of Camden in South Carolina. On June 25, he took command of Baron de Kalb's force, numbering 1,400 Delaware and Maryland troops, which had been originally sent south to reinforce General Lincoln at Charleston. Gates then proceeded to waste no time in making mistakes.

To begin with, Gates made his approach to Camden—ignoring the opinions of his subordinate officers—on a direct approach that led through barren swampland rather than take a more roundabout westward route. Although his force was augmented by North Carolina and Virginia militia in early August, his army lacked battle experience and suffered from rampant hunger and dysentery.

Still, Gates felt confident that Camden, with its 700-man force, would be an ideal target. Little did he know that Cornwallis had caught wind of his movements. The British general moved with his army to reinforce Camden, which now boasted two brigades numbering around 2,100 troops. Gates also underestimated his own numbers, thinking he commanded nearly 7,000 men; it was closer to 3,000. Informed of this, Gates responded that 3,000 men would suffice and pressed on, plotting a night march designed as a surprise attack.

The Battle

As fortune would have it, Gates was given a last chance to reconsider his position. The Continental vanguard encountered British forces around 2:00 a.m. on August 16. Cornwallis and Gates had unwittingly plotted troop movements that literally caused them to stumble across one another in the night. After a light skirmish, both sides broke off the engagement. Gates once more went against the prevailing wisdom of his officers, taking the view that it was too late for his army to withdraw. He deployed his troops and waited for the morning.

The two armies met at dawn. For many of the Continental militiamen, this would be their first test under fire—and for the majority, it was to be their last. The left flank and center of Gates's force withered under the first British volley, which was followed by a bayonet charge. Panic led to a wholesale collapse; most of the militia fled without even firing a shot. Gates fled the field with them.

Only the right flank, led by de Kalb, held its ground. The seasoned Delaware and Maryland regulars put up a fierce fight. But they were now 600 fighting against the full might of the British army. The regiments rallied until de Kalb was mortally wounded. Finally, a cavalry charge to their rear broke their resistance. The British had won Camden in a rout. It was the worst defeat in the field that the rebel army would suffer during the Revolution. The patriots lost nearly 2,000 men as casualties or prisoners; Cornwallis suffered casualties of 68 dead and 256 wounded.

In early September, stragglers eventually reached Hillsborough, North Carolina, where they met Horatio Gates. The humiliated general had reached the town, over 150 miles away, mere days after fleeing the battle. Gates would later say that he had sped to Hillsborough to secure it as a base and begin rebuilding his shattered army. Fortunately for the patriot cause, Gates would not be given another chance.


Camden proved a blow from which Gates couldn't salvage his reputation. His tactical mistakes were compounded by cowardice, leading to even more trouble for the Continental army in the south. All totaled, the patriots were decimated with the loss of 2,000 troops, their artillery, and the army's baggage train. The defeat removed Gates from field command and nearly earned him a formal court martial. It also left the south wide open for Lord Cornwallis.

The only good news for the patriots was that the dismissal of Gates paved the way for Washington to appoint General Nathanael Greene as commander of the southern theater. Despite inheriting an army that mustered less than 700 men—and those suffering from a lack of supplies and morale—Greene would prove both a daring tactician and prudent leader.


Lancaster, Bruce. The American Revolution (American Heritage Library). New York, NY: American Heritage Pub. Co., 1971.

Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Savas, Theodore P. and J. David Dameron. Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution. New York, NY: Savas Beatie LLC, 2006.