Battle of Hobkirk's Hill, 25 April 1781

Part of the Revolutionary campaign in South Carolina in 1781 designed to capture the British outposts that gave them control of the state. An American force of 1,500 men under Major-General Nathanael Greene camped on Hobkirk's Hill near Camden (South Carolina), a key British base and site of a British victory in the previous year. However, Greene found that the British position in Camden was too strong for an assault, and his forces too small to maintain a siege. Greene then decided to provoke the British into attacking his position. The British garrison, under Lord Francis Rawdon, only numbered 900, but Rawdon was an ambitious officer who had been in America since 1775, and despite being outnumbered, he decided to launch a surprise attack on the American camp.

The American position ran along Hobkirk's Hill from east to west. On the east end of the ridge Greene placed two regiments of Maryland Continentals supported by North Carolina militia on the east end, and two regiments of Virginia Continentals on the west end. He also had some cavalry under William Washington. Rawdon advanced in a very narrow formation, with three regiments in the line and three following in reserve. This gave him a much narrower front than the Americans, and he was hoping that he could surprise the Americans and defeat their left wing first.

This hope was soon destroyed when the British surprised the American pickets, who were able to warn the main force. Greene was able to get his men into place and decide on a plan of his own. Seeing the narrow British front he decided to send his outermost two regiments to outflank the British, while Washington and the cavalry were to circle round and complete the encirclement.

This plan offered the hope of destroying Rawdon's command, but Rawdon was up to the challenge. Seeing the American actions he called his reserves into the line, extending it and protecting it from being outflanked. Worse was to come. Part of the 1st Maryland regiment in the centre of the American line broke under fire. The commander of the regiment, Colonel John Gunby, ordered the rest of the regiment back to reform. While he succeeded in that, but the movement to the rear unnerved the Virginian regiment to their right. The panic spread after the commander of the other Maryland regiment was killed.

The British attacked the hole in the American line, and Greene's army came close to disintegrating. However, the remaining Virginian regiment remained intact, and Greene was able to restore some order during the retreat. This combined with the eventual arrival of Washington and his cavalry to prevent Rawdon giving chase.

Despite this victory, Rawdon was still outnumbered, and was now convinced that the population had risen against his. He was forced to abandon Camden and retreat to Charleston, reversing the verdict of the battle. The reception his men received on their march to Charleston helped to reinforce his impression of local hostility. Greene settled down to besiege Fort Ninety-Six, soon to be the sole remaining British stronghold in the interior of South Carolina. The British inability to replace their losses had once again lost them the benefits of a victory in battle.

1781: The Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War, Robert L. Tonsetic. Starts with the American cause at a low ebb over the winter of 1780-1 and traces its revival and triumph during 1781, the year that saw the failure of the British southern strategy and the dramatic surrender of Cornwallis's army at Yorktown, the defeat that effectively ended any chance of British success. [read full review]
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War for America Black, Jeremy, War For America: The Fight for Independence 1775-1783. Provides a clear narrative of the war, taken year by year, with good chapters on some of the later years that are often skipped over. Also contains a good selection of quotes from participents in the conflict.
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The Glorious Cause Middlekauff, Robert, The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution 1763-1789. A very well researched book that is especially strong on the events that led up to the Revolution, which take up the first third of the book. Unlike many similar books it also covers the years immediately after the war and up to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
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See Also
Books on the American War of Independence
Subject Index: American War of Independence

How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (21 May 2003), Battle of Hobkirk's Hill, 25 April 1781, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_hobkirk.html

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